The 2-mile stretch of Newton’s Washington Street above the Mass. Pike hasn’t changed much over the past several decades: It remains almost frozen in time, a parade of local businesses and two-deckers that harken back to when the city still had a substantial working class.
Amid this hodgepodge of older one- and two-story buildings, Robert Korff sees a golden opportunity for a modern version of the Garden City.
Korff and his Wellesley firm, Mark Development, began this month to demolish pieces of the old Orr block in Newtonville, where kids once practiced pirouettes at the Boston Ballet School and belly dancers entertained diners at the Karoun a few doors down. The old buildings will make way for a five-story, 140-unit apartment complex known as Washington Place, one of the most divisive recent developments in a city where even the smallest projects can pit neighbor against neighbor.
And Korff is just getting started. He is now looking to remake the entire two-mile stretch that parallels the turnpike, one property at a time. He envisions a modern, more narrow boulevard lined with protected bike lanes, parks, and cafes — a corridor akin to Mass. Ave. in Cambridge where people might be more interested in strolling than in hurrying through.
“This is a chance to present a vision for enhancement to a community that, frankly, I consider my hometown,” said Korff, who has lived in Newton since 1995. “It’s a city I raised my children in and one which I care deeply about. I see a tremendous amount of opportunity here to do really good things, not just to develop buildings randomly.”
Korff built his fortune by developing standalone retail projects, such as Walgreens locations, across the Northeast. He has been selling many of those properties in recent years and pouring the proceeds into his grand vision for his hometown, knocking on doors along Washington Street looking to strike a deal. His investment in the area could total tens of millions of dollars.
At the east end of Washington Street, he is assembling up to 15 acres around the Whole Foods supermarket. Further west, behind the West Newton Armory, properties including the Barn Family Shoe Store could become home to as many as 450 housing units and 60,000 square feet of shops. (If a development there is approved, the Barn is expected to stay open, though it may relocate nearby.)
And in West Newton Square, Korff wants to renovate the prominent Santander Bank building, where he expects to move his Mark Development offices. Aside from Washington Place, this is the only project for which Korff has submitted formal plans to city officials.
Across the street from the bank building, another prime property is in play: the city’s police headquarters. The new mayor, Ruthanne Fuller, just told city councilors she will explore a possible deal with a developer to swap or sell off the complex and build a new station elsewhere. Fuller didn’t mention any specific developers in her April 12 note to councilors; a spokeswoman for Korff declined to comment when asked if he’s interested in the opportunity.
Korff’s ambitions for the city don’t end in West Newton Square. He has a bigger project in mind, on the vast MBTA parking lot at the Green Line’s Riverside terminal on the city’s western edge. Korff has taken over the project as lead developer and envisions as much as 1.5 million square feet of housing, offices, shops, and hotel rooms — more than double what was previously planned.
Along the way, Korff has courted controversy: Critics said the Washington Place project is too large and out of place for Newtonville. They fear similar projects could swamp the area with traffic and overburden the schools, while eliminating many of the affordable apartments in the older buildings along the corridor.
City Councilor Emily Norton, a Newtonville resident, unsuccessfully tried to stop Washington Place when the project came before the council. She said she is worried city officials are so eager for private development that they will give Korff too much leeway beyond what’s allowed under current zoning.
“It’s too much power in the hands of one private interest,” Norton said. “I think we have to push back and make sure whatever we approve is good for the taxpayers of Newton — and not just for his private profits.”
Korff becomes the latest Boston-area developer trying to reshape an entire neighborhood. Gerald Chan has bought up much of Harvard Square, for example, and Steve Samuels has transformed Boylston Street in the Fenway.
In part because of Korff’s efforts, Fuller wants to take a long look at this section of Washington Street — an unofficial dividing line between the more dense, urban neighborhoods on the city’s north side and the enclaves to the south that feature many grand homes. At her recommendation, the City Council just awarded a $500,000, no-bid contract to the Principle Group to do a master study of the corridor.
Fuller said this report, which will take more than a year to complete, isn’t just about Korff’s ambitions but will also reflect the kind of development and zoning changes that residents want to see.
“We will have to get input from lots of landowners in the process, not just one who is making a lot of purchases at the moment,” Fuller said.
Although he says he’ll be guided by the report, Korff already has a pretty good idea of how Washington Street should look. He hired Brookline-based urban planner Jeff Speck, and they sketched a much narrower version of Washington Street where it fronts along the turnpike: its four lanes reduced to two main traffic lanes and one central turning lane.
The changes would make the street more conducive to walking, capitalize on the two commuter rail stops along this stretch, and open up space for a bike lane and the patio seating for the cafes that Korff would like to see dotting the thoroughfare. His vision for the street could take at least 10 years to be fully realized.
“Washington Street is a corridor that needs to be reenergized,” said Newton-Needham Regional Chamber president Greg Reibman. “It’s not attractive and doesn’t show Newton’s best face. The street is wider than it needs to be. It’s a mishmash of old, kind of unattractive, not historically significant buildings.”
But Fred Goldstein worries about what Newton will lose, as many of the north side’s classic two-deckers and other affordable apartment options get torn down in the name of progress. Finding middle-class housing in the city, he said, will become that much harder.
Goldstein, a telecom consultant, was forced to move his old offices from the Orr block after Korff took over. But he didn’t escape Korff’s growing empire for long: He learned earlier this year that Mark Development is acquiring his new building, at 815 Washington St., too. The letter he just received from Mark reassured tenants that there are no plans to develop the property — no immediate plans, that is.