It looks like developer Robert Korff has finally found the right size for Riverside.
This should be a no-brainer: turning the vast parking lot at the Newton end of the D Line into a transit-friendly development. But Korff’s ambitions to build up to 1.5 million square feet there ran into considerable resistance in the adjacent neighborhoods of Lower Falls and Auburndale. “Right Size Riverside” signs popped up along their tree-lined streets. Korff, who leads Mark Development in Wellesley, has tweaked his plans before — to no avail.
This time, though, Korff finally has a formula that the neighborhood apparently can live with, if not embrace: just over 1 million square feet, with a promise that at least 60 percent will be housing. (That pencils out to about 600 apartments, including some 100 affordable units.) Korff and the Newton Lower Falls Improvement Association reached the deal in time for a City Council hearing on Monday night to discuss the project’s zoning changes.
Building big in the Boston suburbs can be a brutal, bruising process, not for the faint of heart. Solving this riddle is crucial to accommodating the region’s growing population, particularly in places along transit lines. The Riverside brouhaha exemplifies just how tough it can be. The MBTA long has been eager to put this huge, 935-space parking lot to a better use; the millions in lease payments from the development will help the perpetually cash-starved transit agency, while commuters could park in a new garage.
The T came close once before. Normandy Real Estate Partners had its own compromise six years ago, to build nearly 600,000 square feet there. Korff says Normandy’s plan ended up not being financially feasible at that size. Korff aimed higher, by buying the three-acre Hotel Indigo property next door to add it to the 12-acre T site, to help him reach critical mass. Normandy, he says, is interested in staying as an equity partner.
Korff says he can make this new version pencil out, particularly with the T agreeing to take 1.5 acres out of the mix to shave his real estate costs. Building heights have been scaled back, too. No more 18-story hotel/condo tower, as once envisioned. (The tallest structure would be a 150-foot office building, 10 or 11 stories tall.)
Both sides felt increasing pressure to make a deal. Randy Block, of the Lower Falls group, says they were eager for the City Council to take a zoning vote before its makeup changes in January, postelections. Korff also says he is weary of the ongoing costs to keep the development alive, and wants to get work underway while the economy is still strong. Is he brave enough to suggest a possible construction start date? Yes: late 2020.
Korff’s previous filing this summer called for 1.2 million square feet, with 45 percent devoted to housing. Still too big overall for the neighbors, and not enough apartments. The new plan, filed with the city on Friday, clears the 60-percent threshold for residential.
That was a big selling point for Block’s group. He says his membership, by and large, wants more housing in the city. And he suspects the traffic would be much less intense, particularly at rush hour, than a project with more offices. (The office and retail spaces have been scaled back from the last iteration, while the site will still feature a 150-room hotel to replace the Indigo.)
Korff needs a two-thirds vote at the 24-member City Council, the typical standard for zoning changes. Block says he’s been assured the project will go through if a compromise could be reached.
The Riverside saga has mirrored a broader housing debate on Beacon Hill. Governor Charlie Baker wants to make it easier for residential projects to pass at the local level, by reducing the two-thirds majority requirement for zoning changes to a simple majority. Baker has support in the Legislature, but his bill remains stuck in committee. Some lawmakers think it goes too far. Others, not far enough.
From Korff’s perspective, the “Housing Choice” bill would be a valuable tool to get construction going in reluctant suburbs. Block remains opposed, saying the two-thirds threshold gives people important leverage to help determine the fate of their neighborhoods.
For now, though, they seem to be on the same page with regard to Riverside’s fate. Neither side sounds particularly happy with what they gave up to get there. But that’s why they call it a compromise.