When dawn breaks on Tuesday, March 3, the nation’s attention will be on presidential primaries in Massachusetts and more than a dozen other states, the outcomes of which could set the stage for a grueling general election season this year.
Meanwhile, in Newton, eyes will be on the village of Upper Falls and the outcome of a debate perhaps no less grueling: a ballot vote that will decide the future of the city’s largest mixed-use development.
Northland Investment Corp.’s plans for 22 acres at the corner of Needham and Oak streets -- with hundreds of apartments and thousands of square feet for business use -- has sparked a local and very heated debate among residents.
Backers praise the project for offering affordable housing and commercial opportunities that will increase the city’s tax base. Critics argue the development is too large and will only unleash more vehicles on local streets that, at times, are already jammed with traffic.
Like any campaign ahead of a crucial election, groups on both sides have mounted a get-out-the-vote effort -- knocking on doors, speaking with voters, handing out flyers, and sending mailers to sway opinions before March 3.
Allison Sharma, chairwoman of Yes for Newton’s Future, which supports Northland, said her group has seen “an incredibly positive response” to the project.
“We believe that this project reflects Newton’s values -- not just increasing affordable housing but creating more open space for everyone in Newton and taking climate change and sustainability seriously,” Sharma said in a statement.
Martina Jackson, co-chairwoman of the ballot question Committee for Responsible Development, which opposes Northland’s plan, said the stakes are high for Upper Falls as well as the rest of the city.
“If Northland and the referendum passes, community groups can forget about having any voice or any say in future development,” Jackson said in a phone interview.
In December, a pair of 17-7 City Council votes approved Northland’s project, which features 800 apartments, including 123 affordable units and 20 units designated as workforce housing. The plan also calls for 10 acres of open space, 180,000 square feet of office space and 115,000 square feet of retail and community space.
To help get approval, the developer agreed to amenities such as a shuttle service, a traffic management plan, green space, plus money for local projects including school improvements.
Technically, voters on March 3 will be asked whether they approve the City Council’s decision to change zoning for the property to allow the development to move forward. A ‘yes’ vote is a green light for the project; a 'no’ vote would effectively block the plan approved by the council.
If approved, demolition at the site would begin later this year, with construction starting in early 2021, according to a Northland spokeswoman.
Early voting for the March 3 ballot will be held at Newton City Hall on Monday, Feb. 24 through Thursday, Feb. 27 from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., according to the clerk’s office. It will also be held Friday, Feb. 28 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Peter Standish, Northland’s senior vice president, said in a statement that the development is a national model of affordable housing, sustainability, transit demand management, historic preservation, open space, master planning, and amenities that will significantly benefit the Newton community.
“We look forward to a strong voter turnout on March 3rd , and we are excited to make the Northland Newton project a reality,” Standish said.
Immediately after the City Council approved Northland’s plan in December, opponents launched a referendum effort to place the issue on the ballot. The City Clerk’s office certified thousands of signatures of voters who supported bringing the project before voters.
Several local groups -- including RightSize Newton, Neighbors for a Better Newtonville, and Committee for Responsible Development -- are organizing opposition to the project.
Randy Block, the president of RightSize Newton, said his group has a message for residents: “Vote no.”
“It’s too dense, the buildings are too tall, and the traffic on Needham Street is already a parking lot at peak hours,” Block said. “Why would we want to make things worse?”
The Northland project’s impact will be felt beyond Upper Falls, said Fred Arnstein, president of Neighbors for a Better Newtonville. His neighborhood is home to a pair of recent mixed-use developments, and the city is considering zoning changes for denser projects along Washington Street.
“There’s a lot of development planned for our area and it will be influenced by whatever precedent is set by Northland,” Arnstein said.
The project’s supporters include Mayor Ruthanne Fuller; her predecessors Setti Warren and David Cohen; more than a dozen current and former city councilors; plus local housing, environmental, and business advocates.
Nancy Zollers,a member of the local affordable housing group Engine 6, said amenities negotiated by city councilors, combined with the inclusion of affordable housing, make it a “quality project” for the city.
“Our young people, who are leaving Newton in droves, will be attracted to this, and the city will get the vibrancy of young people and families back with this project,” Zollers said in a phone interview.
City Council President Susan Albright, who supports Northland, said the city needs affordable housing, including for seniors who are downsizing their homes. She’s concerned whether developers would negotiate with the council in the future, if that work could be overturned by a referendum vote.
“The housing crisis will continue to escalate with the cost of housing skyrocketing because people are refusing to allow new housing to be built,” Albright said in an e-mail. “I see a ‘no’ vote as a disaster waiting to happen."
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.