Newton’s Board of Aldermen is set to vote Monday night on a special permit for the Station at Riverside, a $350 million development that would bring 290 new apartments, a 10-story office building, retail space, and a community center to MBTA-owned land off Route 128.
“It’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest, project that we’ve ever had,” said Alderman Ted Hess-Mahan, chairman of the board’s Land Use Committee and a candidate for mayor. “Certainly the most complicated, from the perspective of all the logistical, practical, and legal issues that are involved.”
The board appeared close to voting on the project during a three-hour meeting Wednesday night, but hit an impasse over an amendment proposed by Alderman Leonard Gentile that a lawyer for developer BH Normandy said would “kill the deal.”
The MBTA first approached the city about developing the 11-acre site on Grove Street near Riverside Station in the 1980s, said Hess-Mahan, and the current project has been underway for about six years.
“I think it’s going to be a very pleasant addition to the neighborhood, compared to the sea of asphalt that’s there right now,” said Hess-Mahan, who is challenging Mayor Setti Warren in the Nov. 5 election.
In a brief presentation Wednesday night, the development team laid out its plans: an apartment building ranging from three to five stories in height, with 290 apartments, 44 of which would be set aside for income-eligible tenants; a building with five floors of parking and five more of offices; a two-story retail and community building with a basketball court; a new MBTA garage; a community garden; an off-leash dog park; and a playground and splash fountain.
The property now has the MBTA station, a maintenance building, and railroad tracks where trains are stored overnight and after accidents, all of which would remain, as well as a parking lot with about 1,000 spaces where the development would be built. The plans call for a 1,005-space MBTA garage, 571 parking spaces for the office building, and 483 spots for the residential complex.
The project calls for about $63 million in improvements to roadways and the MBTA station, and $6 million that the developer would put into a mitigation and neighborhood improvement fund. The project would bring in $3.5 million for the city in building permit fees.
Monday’s vote on a special permit would be the final major green light from the city, according to Hess-Mahan, but aldermen will have to vote on four other issues as well. The site must be rezoned for mixed-use transit-oriented development, and a portion of the adjacent Hotel Indigo property must be rezoned to allow drivers to get to Riverside from the access road off Route 128.
The board will also take up two additional applications for a special permit to make changes at the hotel, including adding a pool deck awning, moving a loading dock, waiving various parking requirements, and approving signage.
“I think most of the members of the board have had their questions answered to their satisfaction,” said Hess-Mahan. “We have to work out an amendment that is acceptable to the aldermen and the developer.”
The board seemed close to a vote Wednesday night until Gentile offered an amendment that would require the community center be built before the residential or office buildings could be occupied.
“Earlier today, I was asked what assurance do you have that the community center will ever be built, and that it will in fact be built in a timely manner, and I did not have an answer to that,” said Gentile. “This amendment is an attempt to make sure that the community center does in fact get built.”
But the developer’s lawyer, Stephen Buchbinder, said the change would be a huge problem, limiting the developer’s ability to finance the project.
“This is a condition that we absolutely cannot accept,” said Buchbinder. “This kills the deal for us.”
Buchbinder said the developer would be willing to put up $1.8 million in either cash or bond — the full projected cost of the community center — in two installments during construction, but Gentile questioned whether the figure was accurate.
Several other aldermen said the developer’s ability to finance the project was key, and the city should not jeopardize the project with an unworkable amendment.
“We all want this to go forward,” said Alderman Marc Laredo. “I am really concerned that we are now, at the eleventh hour, throwing in something that we haven’t had a chance to think through very carefully.”
But Gentile said he would “charter” any votes Wednesday night, a parliamentary procedure that delays a vote to the next board meeting, and the board voted to postpone voting until Monday. If the board does not pass the zoning amendments by Oct. 14, Hess-Mahan said, the city would have to re-advertise them, which could delay a vote by about a month.
Gentile said in an interview that he was surprised at the hard line taken by the developer, considering that the community center is such a small part of the project, but he had no intention of dropping the amendment Monday.
“It’s not my goal to kill the project,” he said. “However, we have an obligation as the Board of Aldermen to make sure that the board order that gets passed is not only fair to the developer, but to the neighborhood and the city. . . . My hope is that we will pass the amendment so that we get that protection in there, and the petitioner can go ahead and choose what they want to do.”
Aldermen on Wednesday also discussed concerns about idling vehicles in front of the hotel, the possibility that residents would be bothered by construction, tree removal and rock crushing, and whether neighborhood improvement funds should be used to pay for fire and safety equipment.
If the project moves forward, according to a tentative schedule Hess-Mahan provided, there will be public outreach concerning the MBTA garage. Construction on it is scheduled to start next year, with the rest of the project to begin in July 2015. The project could be completed by July 2017, the developer has said.