NEWTON - "I don't need studies, or visioning statements, or a big Kumbaya to tell me that I don't want to see 90 units of housing on 2.4 acres in an area that's a traffic nightmare already. I'm not buying it. It's not a good thing for Newton Centre."
"I think looking at this proposal is thrilling. This community desperately needs small housing, and it takes a lot of guts to start coming up with new processes and ways to look at old problems. We're so fortunate to have businesspeople with this kind of passion and drive, and this proposal is a great first step."
These two statements, the first made by Alderman Lenny Gentile and the second by Alderman Deb Crossley, show the disparity of opinion voiced at last night's lengthy and lively meeting of the Real Property Reuse Committee at Newton City Hall. As a capacity crowd looked on, a revised plan for the triangle of land between Lyman, Willow, and Centre Streets in Newton Centre was presented by attorney Jason Rosenberg, salon owner Nino Micozzi, and architect Anatol Zuckerman that would stitch together land parcels owned by the City of Newton, Dellaria Salon, and the MWRA to build a new mixed-use complex that would include a new fire station and fire department headquarters.
The Committee eventually voted to have the city's Planning Department complete a project feasability report on the proposal, which would include a cost benefit analysis and cross-reference the proposal with the city's Comprehensive Plan. Representatives from the Economic Development Commission offered to help with the report. The vote was 5-1, with Gentile opposing.
"The vote tonight will not reflect our feelings on the specifics of this plan," Committee chair Victoria Danberg said before the vote was taken. "What we're looking to accomplish is to request the report, so we have a basis on which to have community meetings where residents can voice their thoughts on what to do with this land."
A development at the so-called Fireman's Triangle is a windmill business leaders in the community have been tilting at for the last three years. When the idea was first advanced, 114 units of housing in a 5-story unit were suggested. After residents raised concerns about traffic and shadows, the plan was modified to only be 3 stories tall, with between 88 and 92 1- and 2-bedroom units, 14 of which would be affordable housing. The plan also contains space for a small grocery market, a modified Dellaria's Salon, more commercial units, and 308 parking spaces. In total, over 24,000 square feet of new construction would be completed, at an estimated cost of $73 million and with an estimated $1 million in property tax revenue for the city.
"We've made significant changes to our original proposal, incorporating things residents suggested such as enlarged landscape buffers," Rosenberg said. "We've also done sun and shadow studies, making sure we won't be putting shadow on current residences, and are offering more parking spaces to the city than what the law requires."
The fire station and fire department headquarters would be part of the entire complex. Though there is a pre-existing plan for renovating all of the city's fire stations, that plan does not extend to the department headquarters, which would have space for a cafeteria and an emergency operations center. To build the complex, developers first need to coordinate acquisition of the land where the current station and headquarters are; that would mean declaring it surplus and offering it out for bid.
"This puts us in an awkward position, because the land isn't really surplus; we're using it for a fire station and a fire department headquarters," Alderman Lisle Baker said. "We need to consider if mixing all these uses in one complex is even a thing that makes sense to do, and make sure we're not just accepting a plan because we are getting a fire station and headquarters out of it."
Nor were Baker's the only concerns. Alderman Charlie Shapiro raised concerns about traffic on the already heavily-used roads, as well as overcrowding at Mason Rice Elementary School.
"They're stuffed to the gills as it is," Shapiro said.
Rosenberg (cq) said that a number of solutions for the traffic question had been advanced, such as increased signaling and changes in traffic flow, and that he hoped the issues could be resolved as the process moved forward.
"There are many more steps after this committee's vote before we can actually see movement on a plan like this," Rosenberg (cq) said. "That's what the lengthy municipal vetting process is for."
Sarah Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.