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Riverside T development in Newton draws 200 concerned residents

Posted by Your Town  June 10, 2011 07:44 AM

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A crowd of about 200 concerned residents packed the auditorium at the Williams Elementary school in Newton on Thursday night, to listen and question the latest plan from a Boston developer to transform the MBTA’s Riverside Station property into a large mixed-use development site.

The proposed development of the property would include two office buildings, 295 apartments, retail space, a new commuter building and several parking garages.  In addition, two roundabouts and several other roadway improvements were proposed as a way to cope with the increased traffic that would come with the increased density.  

At the meeting, representatives from Boston-based Normandy Real Estate Partners laid out an update on its ambitious plans for the Riverside site, which had been scaled back after Newton residents previously voiced opposition to its scale.

ADD Inc architect Tamara Roy, said Normandy had listened to many concerns from the community and had responded to their concerns with a new design that was scaled down from what had previously been proposed

“We’ve heard requests to reduce the density, reduce the height of the project, reduce the number of parking spaces,” Roy said. “So we went back to the drawing board and looked to revise our scheme to be more responsive to some of those concepts.”

The new plan reduced the height of the proposed office buildings and added more residential units and retail space.  The total square footage of the project was decreased by 74,200, according to figures from Normandy.  

For over three hours, Roy, Normandy attorney Steve Buchbinder, and consultants Randy Hart and Richard Hollworth described the project in detail and took many questions and comments from the audience.  Many in the crowd were largely skeptical of the developers plan, with its effect on traffic a chief concern.

“I do not believe this is going to work,” said Silvana Sawaya, a 10-year Newton resident. “I think the roundabouts will probably smooth things out a little, but I think this is going to be just as crowded as my street on Route 16 now.”

Several people spoke out in favor of having a specific exit from I-95 to the site, which would lessen the impact on Grove Street and the surrounding neighborhood.  An idea the developers described as unlikely to gain approval from state and federal authorities.

After the meeting, ward alderman Jay Harney said he believed many people in attendance were still unconvinced by the developers' assurances that the proposed road improvements and roundabouts would mitigate the increased traffic that would inevitably come from the development.

“It seems like over all people still seem to think the scale and the density is too big. The traffic solutions that have been proposed...a lot of people are still skeptical,” Harney said. “All along we wanted some kind of direct access to the site.  Otherwise the spillover is going to have a real negative impact on the neighborhood.  We would still like to see the plans presented that include some kind of direct access to the site.”

Normandy spokeswoman Margaret Murphy said the meeting had been a success.

“I think the meeting has gone really well, we presented a lot of information and received a lot of good feedback and information from the residents,” she said.

Some residents at the meeting spoke optimistically about the updated development plans.

John Pears, a board member of Newton Villages, a nonprofit group which works to better village centers in Newton, said he believed the development could be a net positive for the area.  

“I think the way is sits now there’s a good mix of office, residential and retail.  I think its good they reduced the office and increased the residential  They’ve got the right mix, but it needs some tweaking on the site,” Pears said.

Although he said he still had concerns about the design of the project, Pears said he was not too concerned about the increased traffic the growth would bring.   

“They’ve put, in my opinion, a huge amount of time into the traffic thing.  I’m a big fan of, not rotaries, but roundabouts, they work very well.  I’ve watched them in London and in Holland and they just work fabulously, and pedestrians can use them very effectively as well,” Pears said.  “I think the volume of traffic will increase but the new design will even it all out.  It might not be better than it is now, but I don’t believe it will be worse.”

Murphy said in the coming weeks, Normandy would file a draft environmental impact report with the Commonwealth.  She declined to say if she was confident the development would eventually be built.  

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