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Newton may buy part of Walker Center property for affordable housing, extra school space

The Walker Center in Newton.
The Walker Center in Newton.Globe photo

Newton has reached a $2.45 million deal with an Auburndale religious conference center to turn a portion of the property into affordable housing and provide additional land for the neighboring Williams Elementary School, according to the city.

The city’s purchase would involve about 40 percent of the roughly 2-acre property at the intersection of Grove and Hancock streets, and includes a large area of open space that is adjacent to the Williams School and its ball field, according to city officials.

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller announced the agreement with the Walker Center for Ecumenical Exchange in a statement late last month.

“The affordable housing will be next to an elementary school and playground, in walking distance to three forms of mass transit, and nestled into a residential neighborhood,” Fuller said.

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The purchase would be funded from Newton’s allocation of pandemic relief money provided through the federal American Rescue Plan Act, according to Fuller.

The City Council’s Programs and Services Committee and the Zoning and Planning Committee have approved the purchase, according to city spokesman Samuel Nighman. “We expect it to go to the full council for their approval on Monday night,” Nighman said.

The agreement covers a section of Walker Center land containing four buildings that total 7,400 square feet, according to Fuller. The city has not released specific plans for the property, but it would move to preserve the four buildings for housing, Fuller said.

City officials said the additional land would give the city flexibility for future renovations at Williams and expansion of the existing playground. It also would be within an existing neighborhood, according to Jonathan Yeo, Newton’s chief operating officer.

“The addition of affordable housing as a part of this acquisition is a significant benefit, especially given that the homes are family-sized units,” Yeo said in a separate statement.

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Originally founded in 1868, the center permanently closed its doors earlier this year and put the property on the market.

Fuller said the Walker Center is working on the future of the remaining property, and expects to create a residential project that “preserves the existing buildings and likely requires a special permit from the City Council in order to proceed.”

The remainder of the site includes the center’s main building, two additional buildings, and the parking lot, according to Yeo.

Representatives for the Walker Center could not be reached for comment.

Yeo said the process to create housing on the city’s portion of the Walker Center would be similar to how it approached a similar effort at the West Newton armory.

In 2019, Fuller announced she intended to purchase the armory from the state to convert the property into affordable housing. The state offered it for $1 on the condition it be reused for affordable housing.

The City Council’s Real Property Reuse Committee and a special review panel both supported turning the armory into affordable housing. In October, the city bought the armory from the state for $1.

The city is now considering seven proposals from developers to transform the armory property, according to Fuller. A city evaluation committee is expected to make a decision and recommend a project to Fuller before the end of the year.

The median income level in Newton was $119,000 for a family of four in fiscal 2020, according to the city. Units in the armory proposals would be for residents whose earnings range from 30 percent to 60 percent of that median income.

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John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.