Developer’s Riverside plan triggers debate in Newton
NEWTON — As developers propose transforming the MBTA’s Riverside Station parking lot and nearby Hotel Indigo into a mixed-use complex along Route 128, the city is launching its own planning effort to determine what should be built on the property.
The city-driven review, expected to take three or four months, will involve residents, planning and development officials, and other stakeholders to create a “vision” for the parking lot and hotel.
“I am excited to begin a visioning process so the community can set the development priorities for this site, which is so important to the people of Newton Lower Falls, Auburndale, and the city as a whole,” Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said in a statement.
Last fall, Mark Development and Normandy Real Estate Partners publicly presented their proposal for constructing a residential, office, and retail complex in the parking lot that would add hundreds of homes and two towers along the highway. The proposal would incorporate the neighboring hotel property.
Their proposal also includes new highway access and other traffic improvements to the station, they said.
What’s proposed is more than double the size of a previous plan for Riverside that was granted a special permit by the city in 2013. That project stalled, and Robert Korff, the chief executive of Mark Development, has said the project had to be larger to fund site improvements.
Earlier this month, a committee was formed to pick a consultant for the city’s Riverside planning effort. It includes three City Hall officials, two members representing Auburndale and Newton Lower Falls, and Ward 4 Councilor at Large Joshua Krintzman.
Krintzman said he expects the full City Council to approve the Riverside planning effort during its next meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 22, at 7:45 p.m. at Newton City Hall.
He said he is concerned with the proposed project’s size and potential traffic impacts.
“I want to make sure what is done there works for the city and works for the surrounding communities,” Krintzman said.
On Monday night, a few dozen residents were packed into a small meeting room at City Hall for a joint meeting of the City Council’s Zoning & Planning and Finance committees while the boards discussed the planning effort.
Residents didn’t have an opportunity to speak during the session. Philip Wallas, a resident who represents Auburndale on the selection committee, said in an interview that he is concerned about the density of the proposed Riverside project.
“It’s a city of neighborhoods, and we don’t want neighborhoods to be damaged by a development there,” Wallas said. “Perhaps there could be a new neighborhood [at Riverside]. But it needs to be a neighborhood, not a new city dropped in.”
Lower Falls resident Liz Mirabile said neighbors don’t oppose redeveloping Riverside but are concerned that the proposed mixed-use project would generate heavier traffic and cause “tremendous gridlock” in the area.
Mirabile is part of the Lower Falls Improvement Association, a neighborhood group, and serves on a committee devoted to Riverside issues. Neighbors would be more comfortable with a smaller project at Riverside that was limited to housing and retail space, she said.
“We are genuinely concerned, not only for our neighborhood but for the region, because we worry if this project is overdeveloped that it would be bad for the entire region,” Mirabile said.
The city has also launched public planning efforts for other parts of Newton where development is taking place, including Washington Street and Needham Street.
Korff is building the mixed-use Washington Place project in Newtonville, while Northland Investment Corp. proposes a mixed-use development near the Needham town line that would add hundreds of residential units and retail and office space.
Developers haven’t applied for a special permit for the proposed Riverside project.
Korff said in an interview Monday night that he looks forward to engaging with the community to try to find a consensus.
“I think part of the exercise really needs to take a look at economics, because I think this will come down to a choice of us proposing what it would take to get a development,” Korff said. “And if it’s something our city government or our City Council does not think is for the betterment of the city overall, they can deny it. We can live with that. All we want to do is present an opportunity.
“To the extent that this vision study can . . . help the community understand our obstacles, and help me understand their desires, that’s beneficial. That can’t hurt.”
The cost of the Riverside planning effort is not expected to exceed $100,000 and will be borne by Mark Development, said Ellen Ishkanian, a city spokeswoman.