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Northland adds workforce housing to Newton development

To mitigate traffic, Northland has now proposed a shuttle service that would connect to the Newton Highlands T stop.
To mitigate traffic, Northland has now proposed a shuttle service that would connect to the Newton Highlands T stop.(Northland Investment Group)

NEWTON — Northland Investment Corp. has pledged to add workforce housing and public amenities to its proposed mixed-use development in Upper Falls, but critics say the company’s efforts to ease traffic still fall short.

Northland’s proposal would create a 14-building development on roughly 22 acres at the corner of Needham and Oak streets with 800 apartments, 180,000 square feet of office space, and 115,000 square feet of retail and community space.

While supporters hail the plan for creating housing and businesses in a walkable neighborhood, critics such as the neighborhood group Rightsize Newton worry the project will make traffic in the area worse.

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“We are still deeply concerned about the size of the proposed development,” said Rightsize Newton’s Julie Irish, who addressed city councilors during a public hearing Tuesday at City Hall. “The only thing that can mitigate these concerns is scaling down the project to a manageable size on the site.”

Marcia Johnson of Livable Newton, a local group that supports Northland’s proposal, said the project will increase and diversify the city’s housing stock, create new recreational open space, and boost commercial tax revenue.

“All of this will help make Newton a better city for all its residents,” Johnson told city councilors.

Northland also could serve as an option for seniors looking for a home in Newton, said resident Allison Sharma.

“We need a lot of different [housing] options, and places like Northland are a great option,” Sharma told councilors Tuesday.

The company’s move to include workforce housing was outlined in a June 11 letter from Lawrence Gottesdiener, Northland’s chairman and chief executive, to Councilor at Large Gregory Schwartz, chairman of the city’s Land Use Committee.

Earlier this year, Northland announced it was reducing the total number of proposed units from 822 to 800, but retained 123 affordable rental units as part of the development.

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At the time, those affordable units were split in two groups — 61 units would be aimed at residents earning 50 percent of the area median income. The remaining 62 units would target residents earning 80 percent of the area median income, according to project filings.

Now, under Northland’s revised proposal, the number of affordable units would be slightly reduced to 120 units, and include units ranging from 50 percent to 80 percent of the area’s median income.

An additional 20 units would be designated workforce housing, and would be aimed at residents earning from 80 percent to 110 percent of the area’s median income.

The area median income for a single person in Newton and surrounding communities is $79,310, according to the city. A two-person household could earn up to $90,640.

Northland is proposing to build more affordable housing than has been created in Newton in more than a decade.

Since 2003, 70 housing units have been built in Newton that are affordable to residents earning 80 percent or below the area median income, according to Amanda Berman, the city’s director of housing and community development.

An additional 14 workforce units also were built during that period, aiming at residents earning 81 percent to 120 percent of area median income.

Northland also has pledged money for improvements in the area: It will cover the roughly $10 million to $12 million cost of placing 1.5 miles of utility lines underground, and remove 77 poles from parts of Needham, Oak, and Christina streets, along with Tower Road, according to Gottesdiener’s letter.

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Northland also would provide the land for a city-operated skating rink and splash park, plus fund up to $1 million for site improvements. The development also would have 9 acres of open space spread out in seven parks on the site.

The development “offers, for the first time, the neighborhoods of Upper Falls, Newton Highlands, Oak Hill, and Founders Park convenient pedestrian and bicycle access to restaurants, retail services, grocers, jobs, green spaces, dog parks, [health] facilities, doctors, and community amenities. This is the vision for [the development] and the newly walkable and bikeable Needham Street corridor,” Gottesdiener wrote.

Northland also has offered measures to control the vehicle traffic generated by the project, including a recently proposed shuttle service that would connect the development with the Newton Highlands MBTA stop. The shuttle would run 16 hours a day, seven days a week, according to Gottesdiener.

The shuttle proposal replaces an earlier version that would have run shuttles to Boston, Cambridge, and other locations in Newton.

Two city councilors — Jake Auchincloss and Andreae Downs — have recommended reducing the number of parking spots from 1,450 to 1,050, plus called for eliminating access to the development from Oak Street. They were later joined by colleagues Josh Krintzman, Alison Leary, and Brenda Noel.

Gottesdiener has declined to make those changes. The amount of parking is needed to meet expected demand and address concerns that construction lenders will not finance a project with less parking, he said in his letter to Schwartz. Oak Street access is necessary for successful traffic management, he said.

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During Tuesday’s hearing, Waban resident Isabelle Albeck said she wants to see a Northland project that does a better job balancing open space with housing and retail.

“We do need commercial retail buildings because it’s a better tax base,” she said in an interview. “But if it becomes so huge and so crowded, it will be awful.”

Diane DeLorie, an Oak Street resident, said in an interview that she’s concerned what building a development like Northland will mean for the city’s future.

“Newton will become like any other big city: It will lose all the character,” DeLorie said. “The aesthetics, the community, will be gone. And once it happens, there’s no going back.”


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.