A developer is pitching a housing and retail complex at the site of The Barn Family Shoe Store in West Newton, less than a mile from another mixed-use project his firm is building, Washington Place.
The proposal would bring 243 apartments and about 12,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space to the corner of Dunstan and Washington streets. The site encompasses a group of properties that includes The Barn.
Sixty-one of the housing units would be affordable, according to Robert Korff, who announced the project in a July 30 letter to city councilors. The development would consist of a pair of five-story buildings, and a third six-story building, on roughly 2¾ acres of land.
“As someone who cares enormously about the City, I want to create a development on this site which is not only a high quality project, but one that meets Newton’s stated goals,” Korff said in his letter.
In an interview, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller praised the inclusion of affordable housing and said some aspects of the proposal are promising.
But city officials still have many questions to resolve about the project, including whether the heights of buildings would be in keeping with zoning and whether local businesses will be able to afford the rents at the development, she said.
The proposal would replace the Barn’s current location, but the business, which opened in 1948, is in discussions to relocate to Washington Place, according to store spokeswoman Kelly Hynes McDermott.
“It’s an institution; I think people are really excited that the Barn is still going to be a neighbor and serving the community,” she said.
Korff’s latest proposal comes as the city continues its work creating new rules for development along the stretch of Washington Street between West Newton and Newton Corner. The most recent draft of that work was released late last month.
“We care deeply that this redevelopment [is] in concert with our guiding principles for Washington Street, as set out in the draft Washington Street vision plan,” Fuller said.
Korff has also called for improvements for pedestrians and bicyclists, plus more amenities along Washington Street, while his Mark Development has been moving to acquire properties in the area.
In his letter, Korff said the proposed housing development is “consistent, for the most part” with the zoning proposals for the area, and that Mark Development believes its proposed project will offer an improved streetscape experience and support the larger goals of the Washington Street visioning work.
But Korff won’t hold off for the city’s visioning effort to be completed. Korff’s proposal was submitted under the state’s affordable housing law, Chapter 40B, which allows developers to seek waivers from local zoning to build affordable units.
Mark Development assembled the properties for the proposed Dunstan Street project in 2017, and has been waiting to see how the city’s Washington Street vision plan would play out, Korff said in his letter.
“We agree with the majority of the recommendations set forth in the Vision Plan and its related zoning proposals,” Korff said. “At the same time, we note that neither the Vision Plan nor the accompanying zoning proposals have been adopted by the City Council as yet, and we foresee that at least several more months of review and debate remain prior to enactment, with no certainty as to the final result.”
Because of the Chapter 40B process, the project will be reviewed by Newton’s Zoning Board of Appeals, rather than the City Council, which approved the special permit application for the mixed-use Washington Place project now under construction in Newtonville at the intersection of Washington and Walnut streets.
The ZBA process is expected to begin in the fall and take about six to 12 months, Fuller said. Less than 10 percent of the city’s housing stock meets state affordability rules, allowing developers to pursue projects under the state law, she said.
“I always prefer projects to come in through the City Council’s special permit process so that we can have as a community more input into the project,” Fuller said. “Nonetheless, I’m supportive of having the 40B process in the Commonwealth, and until Newton has met the 40B requirements, developers have that option to move forward with 40B projects.”
The Dunstan Street project is located in the city’s Ward 3, which has contested races this fall for its local city councilor seat, as well as two at-large positions.
Current Ward 3 Councilor Barbara Brousal-Glaser is not running for reelection. Two candidates — Carolina Ventura and Julia Malakie — are running to replace her.
Ventura said she is still learning about Korff’s proposed development, but in general, she said communities like Newton have a role to play increasing the amount of affordable housing available.
“It’s in our best interests and in our children’s best interests to make Newton [more] accessible and affordable,” Ventura said.
In an e-mail, Malakie said much of the “Cheesecake Block” between Washington and Watertown streets is within 200 feet of Cheesecake Brook, a perennial stream.
“The city should insist that any proposal, whether 40B or special permit or by right, first go before Conservation Commission to determine what portion is actually buildable under the Wetlands Protection Act,” Malakie said.
She said she would also prefer to see the 25 percent affordable units that would be achieved under Chapter 40B to the 15 percent affordable under the city’s inclusionary zoning regulations.
In the at-large race, incumbents Andrea Kelley and James Cote face challenger Pamela Wright.
Wright said she supported the concept of having one quarter of the units be affordable in the proposal, but is concerned about how Korff is moving ahead.
“I would like to see what his plans are,” Wright said. “It’s unfortunate that Mr. Korff needs to use 40B to bypass Newton’s zoning laws. I would appreciate it if he would respect our zoning laws, and work within the system.”
Kelley said much of the city’s current affordable housing is the result of development under Chapter 40B, but is concerned that Korff’s proposal will go through the state process instead of through the City Council.
“We really can’t say it will be the same best product possible without the process of public input. I hope it will be, I believe [Korff] means that promise,” Kelley said. “There’s no guarantees without the requirement of public input to refine the project in the best direction. Residents are rightly concerned about the loss of local control that almost always helps shape a better project.”
Cote noted that alongside Korff’s work along Washington Street, Korff is also part of the team behind a separate proposed mixed-use project at the MBTA’s Riverside station. With those other projects in play, common sense would indicate Korff has an interest in working with the city in West Newton, Cote said.
“The developer really has to do a good project here because politically he has a lot at stake in the rest of the city, and it’s incumbent upon him to do a good project and work well” with city boards, Cote said. “I think that helps us.”
John Hilliard can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.