Transit-oriented developments typically go up next to, well, transit stations. Not this one near the Newton-Needham line.
Northland Investment Corp. wants its 1.4-million-square-foot, mixed-use project on busy Needham Street to be a transit hub — even though its nearly 23-acre site is a mile away from the nearest T stop.
To pull it off, Northland would pay for shuttle buses to bring residents of the complex to nearby train stations, and even to Boston and Cambridge. The big twist: The public, not just tenants, would be able to hop on board.
Northland will likely need to prove to Newton city councilors that it can solve the site’s traffic challenges to win approval for the project — one that calls for 800-plus apartments, stores, restaurants, and offices, and more than 1,900 parking spaces.
And its unusual approach could also serve as an intriguing model for other developers eager to strike gold with properties in Greater Boston that aren’t on the T. Much of the prime land within Route 128 is spoken for already, thanks to the hot real estate market. Northland’s bus concept offers a potential solution, with a promise to rewrite the definition of “transit-oriented” while reducing suburbanites’ reliance on their cars.
Sure, other local developers have kicked in money for transit: New Balance’s Boston Landing commuter rail stop, for example, or the new Orange Line station at Assembly Row in Somerville. But these are one-time investments that increase the value of the adjacent developments while providing a public benefit. In other cases, companies join together to pay for office shuttles that allow the public to piggyback for a price, such as the 128 Business Council buses or the EZRide that connects North Station with Kendall Square.
What Northland is proposing is something different: a single developer subsidizing the operations of a new bus system.
Northland and the 128 Business Council presented four key routes to a Newton City Council committee earlier this month: buses to Cambridge, South Station and the Seaport, and the Needham Heights commuter rail terminal, as well as a shuttle that would circulate within the city. The system would draw from nearby Newton neighborhoods, as well as the Northland apartments.
The presentation covered everything from the vehicle interiors to precise pickup and drop-off times. But something important was missing: the cost. Northland isn’t sharing any estimates yet of what a typical commuter would be expected to pay.
The bus fare likely would be cheaper to the public than at another new privately financed transit option — the new ferry from North Station to the Seaport. The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority pooled funds from several Seaport businesses to launch a ferry between Lovejoy Wharf and Fan Pier this month. The boat provides a smoother, more reliable ride than the shuttle it is replacing. The public will be allowed on board starting in late February, but for $12 a trip during peak times.
In Newton, Northland may need to prove its buses will be affordable enough to be popular. City councilors will weigh the inevitable concerns about size and scale, particularly in light of Needham Street’s notorious traffic jams. They have other questions, too. Rick Lipof, for example, wonders if the buses will be frequent enough — the Cambridge and Boston shuttles would run only once an hour in the itinerary provided to the council. And Andreae Downs worries about the system’s permanence: Can a privately funded bus service catch on if there’s no guarantee it will be here in the long run?
In the end, though, the council may need to make a leap of faith. The most fundamental question that Northland poses is this: Can enough people be persuaded to ditch their cars in the suburbs if given alternatives? Take all the surveys you want. That’s one question that probably can’t be accurately answered until it’s put to the test, in real life.Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.