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Newton referendum could have broader implications on development

Ballot question on massive Needham Street project could also be a vote on the entire city’s future

Northland Investment Corp. wants to build 800 apartments across several buildings and 180,000 square feet of offices in an old mill complex, along with shops, restaurants, and parks.
Northland Investment Corp. wants to build 800 apartments across several buildings and 180,000 square feet of offices in an old mill complex, along with shops, restaurants, and parks.Northland Investment Corp.

Is the city of Newton open for business?

It’s a question that inevitably will weigh on Garden City residents as they head to the polls on March 3. Most Massachusetts voters will have presidential primaries on their minds that day. Newton voters? They will also be voting on zoning for a massive 23-acre project, proposed for busy Needham Street.

The size of Northland Investment Corp.’s 1.1-million-square-foot proposal makes it a big deal on its own: 800 apartments across several buildings and 180,000 square feet of offices in an old mill complex, along with shops, restaurants, and parks.

But there are broader implications to the vote.

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Northland supporters point to the potential chilling effect: What message will a no vote send if a prominent developer can win a hard-fought approval from the City Council only to lose at the ballot box?

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and Newton-Needham Regional Chamber president Greg Reibman rallied the troops on Thursday morning at the mostly vacant Marshalls plaza, a key piece of the Northland project. (Even Marshalls has left, for a spot across the street.) Supporters discussed how Newton badly needs rental apartments, particularly those for middle-class workers, like the 140 income-restricted units in Northland’s plans. But they also fretted about the ripple effects, should the voters go against them.

Fuller cited an essentially glowing report card that bond ratings agency Moody’s gave the city on Feb. 7. Rather than focus on the positive, she pointed to the warning signs contained therein: a limited ability to raise taxes, looming long-term pension liabilities. We had better lean into having the right kind of commercial tax base here, Fuller told the crowd, or we’ll face a big problem.

Opponents of the Northland project can thank a quirk of Newton’s city charter that allowed them to gather signatures from just 5 percent of registered voters to challenge the recent City Council vote on this project and force the referendum. (The typical threshold is 10 percent.) In Newton, the threat of a referendum first emerged last year, at the other big project in town: It prompted a compromise between neighbors and developer Robert Korff over his proposal at the Riverside MBTA terminal. No such truce is in the works for Northland.

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This kind of weapon — land-use by referendum — is rarely wielded in Massachusetts. Naturally, people in the development community are concerned. Tamara Small, chief executive of real estate trade group NAIOP Massachusetts, said she worries other communities might soon face similar conflagrations, even though they have a tougher requirement to get such issues on the local ballot. And Small sees a no vote translating into a black mark for Newton. Whatever happens on March 3, she said, developers will be paying attention.

Ted Tye, managing partner at Newton-based National Development, also sees a no vote as a dangerous precedent for economic development in the city; getting a two-thirds majority of the 24-member City Council for land-use permits, he said, is already tricky enough.

Northland opponents aren’t buying this argument. In fact, they point to the opposite potential impact: If Northland wins, the critics say, it will become that much tougher for citizens to have a say in future projects.

RightSize Newton board member Leon Schwartz said it’s crazy to argue that developers would shun the well-to-do city, given its proximity to Boston, if voters reject Northland. His biggest beef is the way such an outsized development would swamp congested local streets with traffic and an overburdened school system with a big influx of students.

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City Councilor Emily Norton, a Northland critic who was outnumbered in the council vote, said two big apartment projects in her home village, Newtonville, underscore the city’s desirability to developers. Norton said she voted against Northland because of how “over the top” it is, given its car dependence. (It’s roughly one mile away from the nearest train station, Newton Highlands, on the Green Line.) She preferred an earlier proposal in which Northland offered to subsidize shuttles that would bring commuters into Boston and Cambridge; that idea has since morphed into free shuttles to the Newton Highlands T stop.

Reibman remains optimistic about his chances come March 3. He should be. Leaders of both sides say they think the heavy turnout for the presidential primary should work in Northland’s favor.

But Reibman said he’s not taking anything for granted. This is the largest privately owned parcel up for grabs in the city. There are other development opportunities along Needham Street or Wells Avenue. Then there’s the fate of the Washington Street thoroughfare that runs along the Mass. Pike. City officials plan to rezone much of the stretch to allow for taller buildings. Korff is accumulating properties along that stretch, like a champion Monopoly player. But attracting other developers to the scene could be tough, Reibman said, if voters reject Northland.

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Reibman doesn’t agree on much with the RightSize folks. But they seem to agree on this: The March 3 vote, regardless of the outcome, won’t just be a referendum on the Northland project. It could become a referendum on Newton’s future.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.