Needham officials are watching Amazon warehouses proliferate throughout Greater Boston’s suburbs, and they worry one of their town’s most prominent sites could be next.
That has provided added motivation to rezone 15 acres on Highland Avenue overlooking the town’s main Route 128 ramps — land occupied by the Muzi Ford and Chevrolet dealerships and the WCVB-TV studio.
Although the owners of the properties have not yet sought to redevelop them, Needham officials tried to rezone the area once before, in 2019, to accommodate broader uses and larger buildings. But proponents failed to secure the necessary two-thirds majority at Town Meeting.
Now they’re back at it, with a somewhat scaled-back proposal. And this time supporters point to another motivation: keeping a warehouse for Amazon or another e-commerce company, a use allowed under current rules, from opening on this prime spot. Rumors of Amazon’s potential interest have started to circulate.
“That’s really the gateway to Needham,” said Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber. “You want something aspirational to appear in that spot, not a big warehouse with trucks coming in at all hours of the day . . . A warehouse doesn’t bring great jobs to the region. It doesn’t bring economic vitality.”
Select Board member Marianne Cooley said town officials began to look at rezoning the business district between Gould Street, which runs alongside the properties, and Route 128 seven years ago, in part to give the area a more modern look and feel, and spur an economic boost for the town and its tax revenues. It was to be their next focal point after a successful rezoning of the Needham Crossing business park on the other side of the highway, to allow for taller buildings there. Eventually, they proposed a slew of new uses for the Muzi and WCVB properties in 2019. But opponents raised concerns about traffic and development density.
This time around, Cooley said, town officials have tried to allay the concerns by making several changes. The 2019 proposal could have accommodated as much as nearly 1.2 million square feet of development, she said, while the proposal going before Town Meeting in May would cap it at roughly 870,000 square feet, with maximum building heights of four stories. Up to 240 residential units would be allowed by special permit this time around, after many people expressed an interest in seeing housing built at the site.
But those changes still might not be enough.
The town’s Finance Committee last week voted against supporting the rezoning. Two new Select Board members, both elected Tuesday, have also expressed concerns, which indicates the five-member board could have a split vote when it meets April 27. Marcus Nelson has said he is opposed, and prefers that any rezoning there be done on a smaller scale. Lakshmi Balachandra, the other newly elected member, said she’s keeping an open mind but is leaning against it because she would like to see the rezoning do more to address community needs, such as requiring housing or a community center. Concerns about an Amazon warehouse, she said, should not be a driving factor. “You can’t do this out of fear,” she said.
The Finance Committee and Select Board would be only recommendations, though. Voters at the annual Town Meeting, which begins May 3, would decide the rezoning’s fate.
The Town Meeting warrant submitted by the Planning Board lists various uses that would be allowed as of right or by special permit: labs, shops, restaurants, offices, athletic facilities, to name a few. The list also mentions a light rail station, allowed by special permit. (The area abuts an unused railroad right of way.) Deliberately not included: warehouses.
But opponents remain skeptical that Amazon is a real threat. They continue to push back at the scale and size of what is envisioned for the dealership land. At a recent Planning Board hearing, several critics said the site shouldn’t be rezoned until a developer publicly expresses an interest in it.
“Until a real developer with real funding comes along, we’re all just pie in the sky about what might be built,” neighbor Ben Daniels said. “Why are we rushing, and why are we believing what we’re hearing?”
It remains unclear if Muzi family members plan to put the property up for sale, although speculation increased after patriarch Fred Muzi died in 2018. A representative for the dealership didn’t return a call or e-mail seeking comment.
The other property owner, WCVB parent company Hearst, has no plans to leave, station president Kyle Grimes said.
An Amazon spokeswoman, Katelyn Richardson, said the company would not comment on speculation about its development plans. Amazon, she said, is constantly exploring new locations and weighs a variety of factors when deciding where to develop sites to best serve its customers.
Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said situations like the one in Needham are popping up all over the country. Warehouses were once tucked away in industrial parks but are increasingly showing up in high-traffic locations near highway ramps, to expedite deliveries.
Draisen’s organization released a report in February analyzing the rise of e-commerce warehouses in the region, and the impact on traffic. The report lists 20 Amazon facilities in operation in Greater Boston — with 10 opened in 2020 alone — and 14 more in the pipeline.
“It’s the growth in demand for very fast delivery, next-day delivery, that is really driving a lot of this,” Draisen said. “I think as a society we have to ask ourselves, do we really want to sacrifice good land use all over our region just to get our packages a day earlier? That’s really the situation that we’re facing.”