I wrote the following op-ed with Councilors John Rice and Deb Crossley after the Dec. 6, 2019 council vote on the Northland Needham Street project:
We are the three Newton City Councilors representing Ward 5 including Newton Upper Falls. We are writing to explain why we voted for the Northland Newton Development and why we are opposed to the proposed referendum. We urge you NOT to sign the petitions being circulated.
We voted for the Northland development because we believe it is an excellent plan which will greatly enhance Newton Upper Falls. In our discussions with Needham Street neighbors over the last 10 years, we have found no one who thinks that 22 acres of paved property with abandoned industrial buildings is what best serves Newton here. Prior commercial development plans ignored and offered nothing to the neighborhood.
Newton Upper Falls and the neighborhood east of Needham Street participated in the 2018 Needham Street Vision Plan. This 9-month proactive community planning process involved city staff, consultants, neighbors, councilors and businesses negotiating a vision to transform Needham Street into a sustainable, park-studded 21st century mixed use area with vibrant residential and retail along with improved transit. The vison was not about Northland, but Northland waited for the conclusion of this process, and revised their plan significantly. to reflect this vision.
We voted for the Northland plan because it is consistent with the Vision and is a great example of proactive planning for the neighborhood’s economic and environmental health. First introduced in 2016, Northland’s plan was for 950 units of housing and a large commercial footprint as well as retaining and preserving the historic Saco Pettee Mill building. After over three years of discussion and evolution the approved plan comprises: 800 units of housing, Preservation of the Saco Pettee Mill 115,000 s.f. of retail / commercial space
How has the project changed? What compromises has Northland made? * Northland agreed to put almost all the parking underground, actually removing 27% of the building mass from the project; * Laneways” were added to break up and reduce the scale of several buildings, add plazas to improve streetscapes, and increase open space and access; * Northland agreed to limit parking to 1,600 spaces, limiting their market to tenants amenable to one car living, * Northland reduced retail from 237,000 to 115,000 square feet—only 40,000 sf more than what exists there today—eliminating significant peak hour traffic.
Throughout the process we have closely monitored everyone’s major concern - traffic. It is our view that the worst-case scenario is a development built under the existing zoning without mitigation of any kind, and that the best case scenario is a mixed use project where more trips are on foot, peak hour traffic is relatively low and traffic is actively managed. The traffic conditions we required in the Northland special permit are unique and innovative with strict compliance standards.
The Northland project stands on its merits, and we do not grant permits in exchange for concessions, but as Councilors we have focused on specific benefits offered to the City as part of the discussions including: * 140 permanently restricted affordable housing units * One “all age friendly” building * At least 3 buildings at “Passive House” high performance energy standards * Free electric shuttle service from Northland to the Newton Highlands T station for the public * $1.5 million annually to fund the project’s traffic management program * $5 million paid to the City to improve streets and transit off-site * $1.85 million for sewer infrastructure improvements in the neighborhood * $1.5 million toward Countryside School renovations * $1.0 million to build a public splash park
As your elected representatives, we know that you place your trust in our judgement to do what is best for our good city. We each take that responsibility seriously. We have scrutinized this project, and see it is an exciting opportunity for Newton Upper Falls and the city. If you are asked to sign a petition to revoke the City Council approval of the project we ask that you decline to sign the petition.