A developer wants to level a gym in a prominent Route 128 office park in Newton and build in its place hundreds of apartments for young tech and innovation economy workers, complete with a café and co-working space for aspiring entrepreneurs as well as dozens of below-market rental units.
The Cabot, Cabot & Forbes proposal for a 334-unit apartment complex in the Wells Avenue Office Park would take shape in the middle of the newly created “N2 Innovation Corridor’’ initiative in Newton and neighboring Needham, an area that local business leaders and public officials say they want to fill with high-tech and other cutting-edge companies.
The development would include a Workbar location, which would provide co-working space for start-ups, entrepreneurs, and growing companies, as well as 81 apartments earmarked as affordable housing for moderate- and low-income families.
But the Boston developer’s proposal has sparked concern among Newton officials, who are questioning whether the corporate park is the right place for a housing development.
CC&F has filed for approval under the state’s Chapter 40B affordable housing law, which provides a streamlined permitting process in which local officials can weigh in but generally can’t block a project from being approved if the community does not meet the state’s threshold for affordable housing.
Rent for the market-rate apartments would range from $1,800 to $4,200 a month, while the affordable units would start at about $1,000.
“By adding mixed-use development near employment, we create a better ‘live-work-play’ environment which today’s employers and employees demand,” said John Sullivan, senior project manager for CC&F, in an announcement on the project. “Young professionals, tech-savvy workers, and others in the growth industries working within central Route 128 communities and Greater Boston are searching for this type of space.”
But Newton officials have their doubts.
“Honestly, the big one is the appropriateness of the land use in our business park, particularly given the business park’s location distant from public transportation services,” said James Freas, the city’s chief planner for long-range planning.
City planning officials are drafting a recommendation on the project, with a hearing set before the Zoning Board of Appeals on June 24, Freas said.
A major hurdle for the project, according to Freas, will involve persuading the Board of Aldermen to approve a zoning variance allowing residential construction in the office park. In this case, that would trump the 40B process, he said.
“The aldermen would have to vote,” he said. “It will go to the Land Use Committee, then to the full board.”
CC&F says it is working with Newton officials on the exact course of approvals for the project, but declined to comment on whether the Board of Aldermen would have the final say.
Newton officials are concerned about the number of schoolchildren the new development might bring to the city, even with the emphasis on young professionals. Some families will squeeze into smaller apartments in order to enroll their children in the school system, Freas said.
The site ‘makes sense for housing that can help set a stage for a walk-able, competitive, 21st-century environment for people to live, work, learn, and play.’
And there are also concerns about adding to the volume of traffic in the area, which is already high, he said.
Overall, the shift from a commercial to a residential use is a significant issue, given the city has a finite amount of land available for business uses, Freas said.
The Boston-based development company says it is aware of the city’s concerns and is working to help allay them.
“CC&F believes this is a particularly appropriate site because it makes sense for housing that can help set a stage for a walkable, competitive, 21st-century environment for people to live, work, learn, and play,” Sullivan said. “A mix use will result in rising property values and a fiscal benefit to Newton.”
CC&F would team up with the 128 Business Council to provide shuttles to the nearest Green Line stop, about a 10-minute ride, Sullivan said. There would also be a transportation center at the complex to provide information on nearby bus and trolley routes.
The apartment project — named 135 Wells Ave. — would have a lighter footprint on the Newton school system than another nearby development of comparable size, Avalon at Newton Highlands, according to Sullivan.
And in terms of traffic, the proposed apartment building would replace a Boston Sports Club, which generates “significant traffic during peak hours,” the company noted in an announcement. CC&F is also proposing to spend $500,000 to make improvements to the intersection of Wells Avenue and Nahanton Street.
The apartment development, and its amenities, would help fill a need for new housing aimed at young professionals, Sullivan said.
“This is an opportunity to create housing close to employment where this type of project is lacking and in high demand,” Sullivan said.
The Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce is supporting CC&F’s proposal, saying it “aligns with our vision” for the N2 Innovation Corridor.
“We realize there may need to be some tweaks to the project and we want to be sure the traffic mitigation measures Cabot, Cabot & Forbes are offering to fund will address access concerns along Wells Ave. and on adjoining streets,” the chamber said in a statement on the project. “But we believe having workforce housing at this location is essential for the success of the corridor, and hope this project happens.”Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at sbvanvoorhis@ hotmail.com.