The latest divide in the ongoing battle to add new housing in Greater Boston can be found along Grove Street in Newton.
On one side: a developer poised to build nearly 600 apartments, including more than 100 affordable units, in a well-to-do suburb in need of more rental housing. On the other: a private golf club with concerns about sunlight bouncing off the new buildings and burning the grass.
Developer Robert Korff has spent more than two years trying to obtain permission for a 1-million-square foot project at the Riverside terminal of the D Line in Newton. He is on the verge of winning final approval for a special permit from a Newton City Council committee on Tuesday.
But he faces a new obstacle: the Woodland Golf Club, located across Grove Street from the Riverside location.
The golf club has raised several objections to the project, and Korff now worries that Woodland will sue to stop the 13-acre development unless his firm, Mark Development, addresses “speculative adverse impacts” with financial contributions and other measures.
“This kind of NIMBY approach is the reason why projects . . . simply can’t get done in Newton,” Korff wrote in a letter in September to the Newton councilor who chairs the council’s land-use committee.
The golf club cited numerous concerns in a letter its attorney, Lisa Mead, sent to the councilor, Richard Lipof, in June. Some are construction-related: noise and dust could disrupt the golf course operations, for example. Others are more long term: Mead expressed potential issues with shadows being cast from buildings on the Riverside property, as well as the possibility that sunlight could reflect off those buildings and burn the grass, or that wind tunnels could affect the experience of Woodland members. Mead also suggested a study to address whether new “visual buffering” is needed between the two properties.
No one would argue Riverside doesn’t deserve close scrutiny. It would be one of the largest developments the city has ever seen. The project would include more housing units than the entire nearby village of Lower Falls. Also planned: a 150-room hotel to replace the shuttered Indigo, a tower with 10 or 11 stories of labs or offices,, a 1,000-space garage for Green Line commuters, and some shops and restaurants. The cash-starved MBTA would get nearly $25 million for the use of the land.
This represents a scaled-back version of what Korff originally envisioned. He initially sought zoning for as much as 1.5 million square feet of development, including one tower as high as 18 stories. But neighbors, led by the Lower Falls Improvement Association, pushed back. Last year, Korff and the neighborhood group reached a compromise on the zoning, which spelled out the scale of what could be built at the site.
Korff, whose company is also developing several properties along Washington Street in Newton, had once hoped to start construction on the Riverside project by the end of this year. But before that can happen, he may need to deal with Woodland’s concerns first.
Woodland recently sent Mark Development a proposed draft settlement that seeks unspecified payments to resolve some of the golf club’s issues, according to a copy of the document obtained by the Globe.
In a brief e-mail, Mead asserted the golf club “supports the project and is negotiating with Mark to come up with mutually agreeable measures” to manage issues and impacts that will arise during 10 years of construction. She said her client would not comment further at this time.
Korff said in a statement that it’s disconcerting Woodland waited so long to raise its concerns. He said the mitigation requests will add “an untold amount of cost, delay and additional technical challenge to the project.” Korff said he is open to discussions about impacts, as evidenced by his firm’s approach with the Lower Falls Improvement Association. But discussions with Woodland to date, he said, have been “less than productive.”
MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said in an e-mail that the agency is disappointed “the golf club has chosen to challenge the project” particularly after Korff’s prior concessions.
Tom Callahan, executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, said it’s hard to believe the shadows from the Riverside project would be severe enough to affect the golf course. But he didn’t sound surprised by the concern: He said it’s almost inevitable that a housing project of any significant scope in Greater Boston will “get some NIMBY reaction.”
“They’re essentially variations on the same arguments: traffic, shadows, and who is going to move in,” Callahan said. “It’s unfortunate because it makes the timeline for getting housing built longer, and therefore the cost goes up, and it contributes to the slow pipeline we have of units coming online in a region that needs a lot of housing.”
Several large housing projects have been proposed in the past few years for Newton, all generating some level of controversy. Korff’s Mark Development recently opened the first phase of Trio, a 140-apartment complex in Newtonville that he scaled back to appease neighbors; he faces an appeal filed against a 234-unit complex planned for West Newton. Northland Investment Corp.'s 800-unit complex slated for the former Marshalls Plaza on Needham Street, the biggest of these projects, won support in a city referendum in March after weeks of bitter debate.
For the Riverside project, this represents round 2 at the City Council for Korff; he won the council’s approval for the new zoning last fall. Now, Korff needs the council’s approval for the special permit. These talks involve nitty gritty details: where a bike lane should go, for example, or how much traffic mitigation money should go to the city, and when.
Liz Mirabile, who leads the Riverside negotiations on behalf of the Lower Falls group, said such details matter for people who live nearby. In this case, some issues may need to be resolved by the full City Council, she said, such as her group’s request that most of the construction not start before the state fully signs off on a new exit ramp off Route 128.
The City Council is expected to take up the committee’s recommendation later this fall. Korff would need a two-thirds majority for the special permit, a hurdle for many local land-use decisions that Governor Charlie Baker is trying to change with legislation that would reduce the threshold to a simple majority. The fate of that bill is tied to negotiations in the Legislature over a much broader economic development package.