Less than a month ago, Newton was in the midst of a development boom. Voters approved the biggest mixed-use project in the city’s history, and more proposals were on the drawing board.
Then came the novel coronavirus, which brought society to a screeching halt with the threat of a recession during a public health crisis.
So now what?
Despite the crisis, the economy will eventually bounce back, and the need for housing remains, said John R. Mullin, an emeritus professor of regional planning at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“I think the demand in Boston is so high, that they’re going to weather this,” Mullin said of developers. “They may not fill it as fast as they want . . . but the fact remains that demand — I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Mullin has been following development in Newton, and doesn’t expect developers to walk away, even if a recovery takes awhile.
“These guys are in for the long haul," Mullin said. "It’s not going to come back with a bang in a week or two weeks. It will take time to get back up to snuff.”
On March 3, Newton voters approved zoning changes allowing Northland Investment Corp. to build a mixed-use development with hundreds of apartments and thousands of square feet of business space in Newton Upper Falls.
After the vote, a company spokeswoman said Northland expected to begin demolition at the site later this year, with construction beginning in early 2021.
A spokeswoman for Northland said no one was available for comment Wednesday.
Aside from Northland, a separate mixed-use project has been proposed for the MBTA’s Riverside station; smaller projects are also under consideration in Nonantum and West Newton proposed under the state’s affordable housing law.
Meanwhile, elected officials are considering rezoning proposals for Washington Street and the rest of the city to encourage denser housing near village centers and transit stops.
They are also conducting their business remotely online, including reviews of the Riverside project. Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber, said they should continue that work despite the coronavirus outbreak.
“We should absolutely move forward. The need for dense, multifamily housing close to jobs doesn’t go away,” Reibman said. “We need to jump-start our economy, and provide homes and jobs for people.”
At Riverside, there have been several proposals over the years to build on the station’s massive parking lot. The current version of the Riverside plan came after Mark Development and Normandy Real Estate Partners reached a compromise with Newton Lower Falls residents over the scope of the project last fall.
The plan is now under review by the City Council’s Land Use Committee, as councilors continue their business by holding meetings with video conferencing software.
Mark Development is also building Trio, the project in Newtonville formerly called Washington Place, and has also proposed Dunstan East in West Newton under the state’s affordable housing law. Northland, Riverside, and Trio include affordable units, as well.
Robert Korff, the founding principal and CEO of Mark Development, said the city has been outstanding in quickly and effectively transitioning public hearings and other work to a virtual setting.
“We are continuing to move forward with our permitting activities in a timely and thoughtful manner as a result,” Korff said in a statement. "As it relates to Trio, we have made a great deal of progress and expect to stay on track for a summer 2020 opening.”
Robert Silverman, a University at Buffalo professor, said developers in the United States generally would likely move ahead with projects if they had their funding in place, loans lined up, and approval secured by local officials.
“Developers that were already building things, they are probably going to try to continue working on those projects,” Silverman said.
In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker has called for most of the state’s residents to remain at home to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. But he hasn’t halted construction across the state, deeming workers essential for creating new housing. (Boston and some other communities individually have required builders to pause during the outbreak.)
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and members of the City Council have been working for months on a rezoning plan that would allow denser housing along Washington Street between West Newton and Newton Corner. A parallel initiative to rezone the rest of the city is also being considered.
Asked how the coronavirus outbreak might affect development issues, a spokeswoman for Fuller said the mayor is currently working on more immediate challenges.
“Mayor Fuller is focused on the here and now, managing this rapidly evolving COVID-19 health crisis. These are important questions, and she looks forward to addressing them in the coming days and weeks,” said Ellen Ishkanian, Newton’s director of community communications.
One lasting impact of the coronavirus crisis could be to highlight the importance of affordable housing for service workers — including grocery clerks, janitors, and delivery drivers — who have played a critical role in keeping the country running during the pandemic.
“The degree of respect that is coming to these people . . . there is going to be a much greater understanding of the important role they bring to our community," Mullin, of UMass Amherst, said, "and they should be able to get an affordable house or affordable apartment.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.