Signs of life along Route 9

Mall developers, city cite progress

By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / June 26, 2011

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After months of store closings and stagnation, the Chestnut Hill shopping corridor along Route 9 appears poised for a revival.

The owner of the Chestnut Hill Shopping Center unveiled plans last week to expand part of the complex and perhaps add a cineplex at the site of the shuttered Macy’s department store.

WS Development hopes to renovate the property along Hammond Pond with more stores and restaurants similar to the Cottage, which recently opened near Legal Sea Foods.

“There is tremendous restaurant interest in Chestnut Hill, and we are targeting some chef-driven restaurants,’’ said Dick Marks, a partner in the firm.

On the opposite side of Route 9, developers of the former Omni Foods Supermarkets site said they were close to a settlement with two other rival malls that would allow construction of a replacement supermarket, 100,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, a fitness club, and a medical office building.

Simon Property Group, which owns the Atrium Mall and the Mall at Chestnut Hill, had appealed Newton’s decision to approve a permit for Chestnut Hill Square, the name of the supermarket project, saying that the project would add traffic and hurt its two nearby businesses.

“We’ve come to an agreement, and we believe the appeal will be withdrawn,’’ said Douglass Karp, executive vice president for Newton-based New England Development, which is building Chestnut Hill Square.

Asked about that appeal, representatives of Simon e-mailed a statement: “We continue to stay focused on the development and implementation of our strategic plan for Atrium Mall and Mall at Chestnut Hill. We look forward to communicating more in the future,’’ wrote Ron Hanson, the company’s regional senior vice president for New England.

The Atrium Mall has seen several high-profile store closings in the last couple of years, including the exit of Williams-Sonoma, Abercrombie & Fitch, and, more recently, Borders Books and Music, which occupied about 10 percent of the mall’s square footage.

Across Route 9, the other Simon property, the Mall at Chestnut Hill, which is anchored by Bloomingdale’s, lost its Talbots store June 11. Tiffany & Co. will move from the Atrium into the women’s clothing store’s space.

Karp said his Chestnut Hill Square project is going “full tilt.’’ Workers were finishing up asbestos abatement last week and were preparing for demolition as soon as this week, he said.

Karp said they are in talks with a grocery store and could announce its tenant in the next month.

Meanwhile, Newton’s Board of Aldermen received detailed plans last week from WS Development, which is seeking a special permit to renovate and expand part of the Chestnut Hill Shopping Center.

Ward 3 Alderman at Large Ted Hess-Mahan, chairman of the board’s Land Use Committee, said he likes what he sees so far.

“It’s an exciting time in Newton,’’ he said. “We’re really looking forward to this development hopefully lifting the economy of the entire region.’’

The complex now houses about 20 tenants, including the Container Store and the recently expanded Star Market.

More restaurants might be coming in, as well as a new movie theater, according to Marks, who said he couldn’t reveal any details about specific tenants.

Marks described the existing AMC Theatre complex as “a very tired theater space,’’ and said his company has “been talking to upscale movie houses about building a state-of-the-art’’ complex.

A new theater could go into the former Macy’s space. Developers are looking for “conceptual approval’’ by aldermen for building and façade improvements at 55 Boylston St. (Route 9), Macy’s site until earlier this year.

The space could be reused for one large tenant or several smaller ones, said Marks, but the work being proposed is geared toward multiple tenants.

The proposal calls for demolishing a building with about 15,700 square feet of space at 33 Boylston St. and replacing it with one providing just over 64,000 square feet, spread over three stories instead of one.

The space slated for demolition is where the Century Bank and City Sports are located, according to Marks, and his company is in talks with both tenants to remain in the shopping center.

The new structure would be a home office for WS Development, which is based across the street. The company would occupy the new third floor. The new second floor could be home to either office or retail tenants, said Marks. And the first floor would be leased to the same type of tenants now in the shopping center.

Marks also highlighted plans to beautify the front of the center with new landscaping, sidewalks, and lighting.

“It’s a project that in certain respects has its back to Boylston Street, and we’re going to turn it into a project that has its back on no one,’’ he said.

The special permit application also seeks to win a one-third reduction in required parking spaces, which would mean a waiver of 590 parking spaces, according to a memo written by Newton’s Department of Planning and Development to the Board of Aldermen. However, parking would not be reduced from the current amount, according to the memo.

Ward 7 Alderwoman at Large Ruthanne Fuller, who lives in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood, said parking is a concern but she also sees “a lot of positives’’ with the proposal.

She said the city will have to make sure developers have a good parking management plan in place, which could include valet parking and a way to make sure employees either take public transportation or car pool.

“I think making the front of the buildings more pedestrian-friendly and visually interesting from Route 9 is great,’’ said Fuller. “I’m concerned still that we need more pedestrian and visual access to Hammond Pond and increased attention to the water quality in the pond.’’

Carla Benka, a member of the Chestnut Hill Neighborhood Association and a Brookline Town Meeting member, said she thinks the project will bring several improvements, particularly for pedestrians. But she also hopes there will be a little more attention paid to traffic and parking.

“Parking doesn’t bother me quite so much as just the amount of traffic that will be generated,’’ said Benka.

Newton hired McMahon Associates Inc. to conduct a transportation review of the proposal. McMahon determined that the project would not have “a large impact on vehicle operations on Route 9,’’ according to the planning memo.

Hess-Mahan said his Land Use Committee could vote on the matter July 19, when a working session is scheduled.

“It’s a pretty exciting project,’’ he said. “This is really going to add to the vitality of the area.’’

Lisa Kocian can be reached at

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