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Newton neighbors protest proposed apartment project

Plans to build 150 studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments on nearly 3 acres off Rowe Street in Newton’s Auburndale and West Newton sections have residents calling foul, saying the project would exacerbate already dangerous traffic issues in the area.

The neighbors, who have written more than 80 letters to the city opposing the project, also question whether housing should be built on land zoned for commercial use, say drainage is an issue in the area, and dispute developer Dinosaur Rowe LLC’s assertion that the site is a perfect location for tenants to walk to public transportation and stores.

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Despite the local opposition, the city has little say in the project’s details or even its approval, officials say, because it is being proposed under the state’s Chapter 40B law, which allows developers to work around local zoning regulations in certain communities if roughly 25 percent of their project’s housing units are set aside for income-eligible households.

Chapter 40B is applicable in communities where less than 10 percent of the housing stock is considered affordable. Newton falls in that category, with 7.5 percent of its housing meeting the state’s definition, according to figures from the city’s Planning Department.

“The underlying zone becomes irrelevant,” James Freas, acting director of planning in Newton, said of Chapter 40B projects.

In essence, the law allows developers to build more units than allowed under local zoning bylaws in exchange for adding to a community’s stock of affordable housing.

In this case, the Dinosaur Capital Partners project calls for building 150 apartments on land zoned for commercial use, which allows offices, retail stores, services, or restaurants, or commercial use with one story of housing above.

‘This is a unique site. It’s close to transit, close to shopping, adjacent but not in the middle of a neighborhood.’

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Under the city’s zoning bylaw, housing could only be built on the site if the developer obtains a special permit, with a two-thirds majority vote, from the 24-member Board of Aldermen.

The zoning law would allow aldermen to grant a permit for a slightly larger building than what is being proposed, but with just 103 units, 16 of which would have to be affordable instead of the proposed 150 with 30 affordable units.

Because the developers are going through the state’s 40B law, with its application being considered by the state’s oversight agency, the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, the local zoning could be superseded to allow the greater number of units than the city would typically allow.

“The city’s role is very limited in its ability to deny these types of developments,” Freas said.

The developers are proposing the 30 units be rented at below-market rates to households earning less than 50 percent of the area’s median income.

For example, a 462-square-foot studio apartment in the four-story development would rent at a market rate of $1,900 a month, or a subsidized rent of $729, according to figures provided by the developer in its application letter to the state housing agency.

A 636-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment would rent at a market rate of $2,450 a month, and a subsidized rent of $851. A 940-square-foot, two-bedroom would rent at $3,225 a month, and a subsidized rent of $972, and a 1,272-square-foot, three-bedroom unit would rent at a market rate of $3,900 a month, and a subsidized rate of $1,094, Dinosaur’s filing said.

“Philosophically we feel we can’t let the door close behind us,” said Scott Oran, a managing director at Dinosaur Capital who lives in Newton, speaking to an overflow crowd at a morning meeting at City Hall recently.

“This is a unique site. It’s close to transit, close to shopping, adjacent but not in the middle of a neighborhood. For these reasons we think it’s a good spot,” he said. “It will require compromise, compromise on our part, and on the part of the neighbors.”

As of last week, there had been no discussion on what those compromises might entail.

Dinosaur Capital is also working with the city on a plan to develop a parking lot on Austin Street in Newtonville into a mixed-use housing and retail complex.

In addition to residents of the Rowe Street area, the city’s Planning Department has also opposed the size and location of the Auburndale proposal in an 11-page letter to the state housing partnership.

“The city values its limited commercially zoned real estate, and is concerned about lost opportunity with the conversion of this site from commercial to residential use,” said the letter, signed by Candace Havens, then the Planning and Development Department’s director.

Havens, who retired from her position this month, also wrote that should the development proceed, the city would like to see fewer units and a mix of commercial space on the ground floor to complement what is already in the neighborhood.

If the plans pass the Massachusetts Housing Partnership’s site review, the proposal would move before the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, which would have little leverage to stop the plans, according to Freas.

One factor would be whether the project is considered a safety hazard for neighbors or residents, he said. Neighbor opposition, he added, is not a factor that can be considered.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@ gmail.com.
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