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Jan 13, 2020

Newton Must Maximize Turnout in Northland Referendum

Banker & Tradesman
January 12, 2020

It’s a sad reality that an anti-development group in Newton has forced a city-wide referendum on a well-vetted project. The only democratic way forward is for city leaders to ensure the largest number of people take part.

Northland Investment Corp. worked diligently with city staff and neighborhood groups for three years to craft a valuable plan for a 23-acre site that features a large, 19th century mill building and the vacant former home of Clarks shoe company. The project will bring 800 units of much-needed housing, 140 of them affordable, and dramatically increase the land’s taxable value – but its public benefits go far beyond this. The project will also make $10 million in contributions to the city for new parks, utility infrastructure, road upgrades and school upgrades.

Most importantly, Northland is stepping in where Newton and the MBTA have been unwilling or unable to deal with traffic on the congested Needham Street corridor by building a free, seven-days-a-week bus shuttle to the Newton Highlands Green Line station, attempting to lure as many people as possible out of their cars and onto transit.

RightSize Newton, the anti-development group that chose to force this referendum after the Newton City Council OK’d the project in December, claims it wants to force Northland to “compromise” by shrinking the project, as Mark Development did in a modest way with its Riverside project a few months ago. Those claims gloss over Northland’s concession to cut the project in half, to 1.1 million square feet, over the course of the 18-month approval process.

Now, RightSize Newton is pushing the City Council to abandon council President Susan Albright’s proposal to hold the referendum on the same day as the state presidential primary on March 3. Negotiations with Northland need more time, they claim. More believably, they realize the higher the turnout for a referendum, the less likely they are to win.

The most recent city elections showed a significant number of city residents support pro-housing, pro-development policies. But it’s a well-known and well-studied fact that only fired-up opponents are incentivized to show up to one-off meetings and votes about specific projects. It’s clear RightSize Newton’s efforts are nothing but the latest in a decades-long pattern of attempts by well-heeled residents to choke off any new construction in the city.
These efforts have hurt the entire region. Newton is one of the biggest cities in Greater Boston by land area, and one of the most desirable. Building more housing there, where high demand already exists, will be a help in moderating out-of-control home prices that many say threaten the state’s prosperity. But if voters shoot down Northland’s project after the enormous amount of effort and money the developer has already invested, it could cool building in Newton for the years.

With equities like this at stake, it’s vital the referendum is scheduled in conjunction with a large, attention-grabbing national issue to ensure maximum turnout, to keep a minority from dictating the majority’s future.

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