Newton Embraces Growth Spurt
Banker & Tradesman
July 26, 2020
By Jay Fitzgerald
The city of Newton wants developers to know that it’s open for business.
Some might argue that Newton has already had a soft opening of late, approving the massive Northland Newton, Residences on the Charles and Dunstan East mixed-use developments.
The city is reviewing Wellesley-based Mark Development’s proposed 1 million-square-foot Riverside project, a behemoth that will bring 582 apartments, 250,000 square feet of office/lab space, 38,000 square feet of retail space and a 150-room hotel to an MBTA-owned property at the terminus of the Green Line’s D branch.
Combined with the soon-to-open 140-unit Trio project, also by Mark Development, Newton is suddenly experiencing its largest commercial building boom in decades – all via mixed-use projects – and city officials say they would welcome more.
“It’s a high priority for us,” Barney Heath, director of planning and development, said of the city’s desire to increase its commercial tax base, partly as a way to relieve the property tax burden on residential homeowners.
For those who have tried to develop just about anything in Newton in recent decades, the newfound openness to development comes as a pleasant and welcome surprise considering its reputation for grueling permitting processes.
Commercial Growth Lags Neighbors
Indeed, a recent report conducted for the city by Camoin Assoc. found that, between 2008 and 2018, Newton saw no increase in the total value of its commercial properties as a percentage of overall property values in the city, remaining stagnant at 8.7 percent.
By comparison, nearby cities and towns, such as Waltham, Watertown, Wellesley, Needham, Brookline and Weston all saw increases, both big and small, in the total value of its commercial properties as a percentage of overall property values, according to the Camoin report.
As a result of that stagnation, Newton residential owners have paid the price, literally, in higher property taxes. And that partly explains why, last year, city officials approved an economic development plan that calls for expanding the commercial base via a more “efficient” and “predictable” review-and-approval process.
Robert Korff, chief executive of Mark Development, said Newton needed change. Until a few years ago, he said the development process in Newton, was, to put it diplomatically, “daunting” and “frustrating,” with drawn-out reviews often marked by bitter and long debates.
But Korff, whose mixed-use Trio project in Newtonville opens next month, said the times have slowly changed, and he praised Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and the current City Council for being more open to development in general.
Korff, whose firm is considered a sort of pioneer in the resurgence of new construction in Newton, is now following up its Trio project with the proposed Dunstan East and Riverside projects. At the current location of the Barn Family Shoe Store in West Newton, Dunstan East would include 234 apartment units, some of them affordable, and 8,000 square feet of retail space. The city’s Zoning Board of Appeals recently approved the project.
The ambitious Riverside project – with its huge office component, as well as nearly 600 apartments – remains under review by the Newton City Council which is the special permitting authority.
Newton voters approved the massive Northland Newton development at a March referendum, transforming a former shoe company property in Upper Falls into the future home of 800 apartments, 180,000 square feet of office space and 115,000 square feet of retail.
Major Project Could Begin in 2021
Peter Standish, senior vice president of development at Northland Investment Corp., agreed that getting development approvals in Newton has been historically difficult.
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t frustrating at times,” said Standish, whose Northland firm first proposed its Upper Falls project in 2016.
The Northland Newton project – which consists of 800 apartments, 180,000 square feet of office space and 115,000 square feet of retail space in 13 buildings centered around the old Saco-Pettee Mill – wasn’t approved until this past March, when voters in a much-watched city referendum OK’d the project along Needham Street.
Standish, whose firms hopes to start construction on the Northland project next year, said the prolonged review ultimately led to a “better product.”
Dan Krysiak, senior managing director at Newmark Knight Frank (NKF), said he understands why Newton in the past has been so tough on developers.
“It’s a balancing act,” he said of the competing interests of residents and businesses in the densely packed city. “They have a unique situation in Newton, where everything is so jammed together.”
But Krysiak agreed that, if Newton wants, it can indeed boost its commercial base, precisely because many office and lab tenants love its “live, work, play” mix of commercial, retail and residential neighborhoods.
According to NKF data, Newton currently has about 2.8 million square feet of Class A and B office space, with a vacancy rate of about 10.8 percent. Krysiak said he’s convinced new offices at Northland and Riverside will prove popular with future tenants.
Leeanne Rizzo, senior vice president and principal at Hunneman, agreed, noting Newton’s numerous restaurants and shops – as well as its convenient transportation access – are key pluses for the city. Besides its access to the Massachusetts Turnpike, Newton also has Green Line and commuter rail connections, perfect for potential transit-oriented developments.
“Newton is an attractive location,” Rizzo said, noting that Hines Global REIT recently sold the Riverside Center at 275 Grove St. for $235 million. The buyer is Alexandria Real Estate Equities, known for its extensive life-science properties in Kendall Square and elsewhere across the region.
City Pledges ‘Thorough’ Reviews
But Rizzo, like others, said there are worrying signs in the market about the desirability, and need, for office space in general, not just in Newton, due to the recent pandemic lockdown and subsequent remote-work habits acquired by employees. The question moving forward: Will corporations require as much office space in the future, now that they know that remote work is popular among employees while not necessarily harming productivity?
“It’s an interesting time,” Rizzo said. “The ‘old normal’ may not be the ‘new normal.’”
The city of Newton’s economic director, Devra Bailin, said she’s also concerned about the future of office buildings due to COVID-19.
“It’s a difficult time,” she said, noting that there may be a shift to more life science lab development if the market so dictates.
No matter what happens, Bailin, as well as the planning department’s Heath, say they hope and expect developers to show more interest in Newton, though they stress the city intends to maintain a “thorough” review process that leads to projects that maintain Newton’s suburban-urban ambience.
Mark Development’s Korff said he has more development plans in store for Newton, perhaps along the Washington Street corridor.
“There will be more coming forward,” he said. “It’s an exciting time for Newton.”
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