Good luck finding a more ideal spot for a big housing project, right on a T line, than the sea of parking spaces at Riverside Station in Newton.
At first glance, the Green Line terminal property seems like a no-brainer: an asphalt lake bounded by Route 128, train tracks, a golf course, and an office building.
Mark Development unsuccessfully tried to push a 1.5 million-square-foot complex through the Newton City Council in the past year. The sheer size of the project sparked an outcry among neighbors of the nearby Lower Falls and Auburndale villages, who rallied under the “RightSize Riverside” banner.
So Mark, a Wellesley firm led by Robert Korff, has had to modify his plan, which he will present to Newton councilors on Monday. It has been scaled back by some 20 percent but is still relatively big: 1.2 million square feet on 15 acres. The number of proposed housing units has been reduced to 526, from 675. There would also be a new hotel, to replace the Indigo next door, a sizable number of restaurants and shops, and more than a half-million square feet of office space.
Importantly, Mark dropped one of the two towers planned for the site, a maligned 18-story edifice, while keeping a 13-story building.
It’s unlikely Korff will get a much different reception from his neighbors, however. Critics say his current version of the Riverside project is still far too large, nearly twice the size of what a previous developer had proposed. And they see the potential for a bad precedent for future projects in the city.
The fight underscores the challenges of getting big projects built in Greater Boston — another tug-of-war between the crushing demand for additional housing and new growth to support the economy, and the concerns among neighbors about overcrowding and congestion on local roads.
The Newton fight has played out like similar development sagas in many other communities in the region. The developer tried negotiating with neighbors and their councilors this summer, without much luck. So Korff is taking his chances with the full council. He will need 16 out of 24 votes there, per the state’s two-thirds supermajority requirement for zoning-related changes.
This is the law that Governor Charlie Baker has been campaigning to change, to help solve the state’s housing shortage. Last week, the governor held yet another event to persuade the Legislature to lower that supermajority threshold to a simple majority. If not for the current threshold, Korff’s project would already have council approval, he argues. Baker and his aides say many other worthy projects have fallen by the wayside as a result.
Assuming Korff wins at the council, he’s likely to face another hurdle: Opponents have vowed to put the issue to a referendum, turning to a little-used charter bylaw that allows certain council decisions to be challenged through a city-wide vote.
Korff already has supporters and detractors in Newton, because of his controversial efforts to reshape a major swath of Washington Street. He has started building one apartment complex there, Washington Place in Newtonville, and plans to use the state’s Chapter 40B zoning law, which is designed to spur affordable housing, to get a bigger one started in nearby West Newton.
And he sounds as if he’s ready for battle over Riverside.
Much is at stake. The land deal could net as much as $30 million for the cash-starved Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority through a long-term lease, for a 12-acre portion of the MBTA’s land there. It could bring new apartments and offices to a city badly in need of them, plus $5 million in annual property taxes. This is one of the last blank-canvas properties along rapid transit in Greater Boston.
Korff seems determined to avoid what happened to his predecessor, Normandy Real Estate Partners. That developer once had designs for a much smaller project on the Riverside site. Normandy won over critics with a compromise: a nearly 600,000-square-foot, mixed-use complex. That was six years ago. That project, which did not include the three-acre Hotel Indigo site, turned out not to make financial sense at that size. (Normandy, however, remains a partner in the new Riverside proposal.)
Mark Development’s most significant antagonist on the council could be Lenny Gentile, an Auburndale resident who helped hammer out the original Normandy deal. He said he is frustrated his colleagues want to push through a special permit for Mark’s project, while concurrently making zoning changes at the site. To him, the zoning should be addressed first.
Then there’s the Newton Lower Falls Improvement Association. Randy Block, who leads the neighborhood group’s Riverside committee, said his organization will push for a referendum to challenge the council if it approves the proposed zoning in its current form. He said he’s particularly worried about the amount of commercial space — more than half of the project now — and the cars it would bring to nearby residential streets.
Korff has support in City Hall, but the two-thirds council vote is not a sure thing.
Councilor Jake Auchincloss said he’s going into the deliberations with an open mind. He wants assurances the project will create a walkable neighborhood, one that is well integrated with Auburndale and Lower Falls. He said he’s optimistic the result will make Newton proud. It would be a shame, he said, for the Riverside property to remain a parking lot.
Korff has followed the zoning debate on Beacon Hill closely. Maybe the region’s housing crisis could become the tipping point needed for change at the State House. Controversy, Korff said, it is sometimes necessary to draw attention to problems to make meaningful reforms happen.
For that reason, Korff said that part of him wanted this Riverside project to be controversial. Regardless of how it fares at the council, he has already succeeded in that regard.