Claire Belanger

Developers, neighbors promote dueling zoning proposals for Riverside in Newton

Claire Belanger
Developers, neighbors promote dueling zoning proposals for Riverside in Newton

Via Boston Globe by John Hilliard, 6/6/19

NEWTON — As developers seek new zoning to help build a mixed-use project with hundreds of new residential units at the MBTA’s Riverside station, a neighborhood group is pushing back with proposed zoning changes that would rein in the development’s size.

On Tuesday, both sides presented their dueling zoning proposals for the property to city officials during a public hearing at Newton City Hall.

The proposal by Mark Development and Normandy Real Estate Partners would convert the station’s parking lot and the adjacent Hotel Indigo into housing, office, and retail space, with two towers standing over Route 128, on about 14 acres of land along Grove Street.

City officials have for years eyed making better use of the property’s parking lot, and development at Riverside is “one of the most significant opportunities” in Newton, according to a May 31 memo from city planning officials.

But the proposal has been criticized by members of the Newton Lower Falls Improvement Association’s Riverside Committee, who criticize the project’s size and potential traffic and noise impacts in the area.

“I say from the bottom of my heart we are not opposed to development at Riverside,” Elizabeth Mirabile, a member of the group, told councilors Tuesday. “But it must be done right.”

The group, also known as RightSize Riverside, is proposing zoning it said is designed to protect Newton Lower Falls, Auburndale, and Grove Street from adverse effects, including traffic, noise and “potential significant alteration of the existing character of these areas,” according to a May 31 memo filed with the city.

The goal is to achieve a “safe, comfortable and healthy environment for its residents and one that will be a community,” the group said.

Developers seek zoning changes of their own. Their proposed zoning would permit their larger project proposal, including provisions that would allow more residential units and increase the permissible height for buildings.

Even with zoning changes, they would still need a special permit to develop the property, according to the city planning memo.

Stephen Buchbinder, an attorney for the developers, said their proposed zoning changes were consistent with city plans and Department of Planning and Development recommendations.

“We believe they ultimately provide the flexibility required for development at this site to succeed,” Buchbinder told councilors.

The proposed Riverside development would include 524 market-rate rental apartments, 49 market-rate condos, 94 affordable apartments, and eight affordable condos, according to project filings.

Alongside the 675 housing units, there would be about 611,000 square feet of office space, about 64,000 square feet of retail space.

The complex itself would consist of 10 buildings, including two towers along Route 128 — a 14-story office building and an 18-story tower with 194-key hotel and nine stories of residential units.

The development also would involve investments in roadway improvements, including direct access from the highway offramp, to address traffic.

The City Council previously approved a smaller Riverside development in 2013, but it was never built.

The current Riverside proposal had to be larger to fund site improvements, Mark Development’s Robert Korff has said.

Current zoning for Riverside allows for a 580,000-square foot development including 290 residential units, according to the memo. The proposed Riverside development would be about 1.5 million square feet, according to its special permit application.

The neighborhood group’s zoning proposal would call for more open space as part of a development and allow up to a 650,000-square-foot project. It would also allow up to 415 residential units.

The group calls on Newton to not refer to a project at Riverside as “Transit Oriented Development” in zoning rules. “Located at the terminus of the Green Line D Branch, with long travel times to most major centers of employment, and with only one MBTA bus line stopping [at] Riverside only a handful of times per day, transit at Riverside is weak,” the group said in its memo.

The group also seeks requirements that studies be conducted on how the development will affect traffic, noise, wind, as well as its visual impact in the area.

Tuesday’s public hearing conducted by city councilors revealed a divide between some city officials and the neighborhood group.

Randall Block, the chairman of the Lower Falls Improvement Association’s Riverside Committee, accused the city’s Planning Department of bias in favor of the proposed Riverside project.

“It gives me no pleasure to say this, but I believe the Planning Department and the mayor owe you the City Council, and the public, an apology for the deceptive work they have done so far,” Block told councilors.

In a statement to the Globe Wednesday, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller praised the work by the city’s planning and development staff.

“I care deeply about our department providing the City Council with clear and accurate information and clearly delineated advice, backed by professional best practices and a deep understanding of Newton and our residents’ views and values,” Fuller said. “I am proud of our Planning and Development Department for doing just this on the Riverside zoning proposals.”

Doris Ann Sweet, an Auburndale resident, said in an interview that she supported the developers’ proposal for Riverside. The city needs more affordable housing, she said, and the way these units will be built is through projects like this one.

Arguing for a smaller project will mean fewer affordable units will be built, she said.

“We’re not doing our kids any service by saying, ‘Everything has to be a single-family home on a lot,’” she said.

Warren Abramson of Newtonville praised the Riverside development proposal as an opportunity to build more affordable housing, and offer a mixed use project that is designed to be accessible to people living with disabilities.

“It’s designed to be a very walkable project. So somebody in a wheelchair... is not going to have a problem getting around that area,” said Abramson, who serves on the city’s Commission on Disability.

Sara Brodsky Sieman of Lower Falls said she could see some benefits from the project, including more affordable housing. But she objected to the scale and criticized its “outrageous and exaggerated” size.

“It will be a terrible mess for Newton Lower Falls and for Auburndale,” she said. “I’ve lived here 20 years, and would hate to see the neighborhood sacrificed for money.”

Toward the end of Tuesday’s hearing, Kerry Reitz of Lower Falls took just seconds to share his concerns about the project with councilors.

“One word: Traffic,” Reitz said.

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