Newton City Council may vote soon on Northland proposal

Northland Investment Corp. wants to build a mixed-use development in Newton that would include 14 buildings and be built on about 22.6 acres at the corner of Needham and Oak streets.
Northland Investment Corp. wants to build a mixed-use development in Newton that would include 14 buildings and be built on about 22.6 acres at the corner of Needham and Oak streets. Northland Investment Group

Newton’s City Council could vote Monday on Northland Investment Corp.’s proposed mixed-use development in Upper Falls — a project that has been touted for its inclusion of new housing and commercial space, but also criticized for its size and potential impacts on nearby neighborhoods.

The proposal, which has been under review for more than a year by councilors, has the support of Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and local civic groups like the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber. They have said it will bring more affordable housing, room for more local businesses, and in an environmentally sustainable development.

The plan includes shuttle service to the Newton Highlands MBTA stop and $1.5 million for upgrades at the Countryside Elementary School, Fuller said in an interview. It also comes with a transportation plan to help reduce traffic in the area.


“Bottom line, I think this development is right-sized and surrounded with a transportation plan that makes this work for people who live nearby and for people who will come here to live and work and play,” Fuller said.

But critics said the size of the project, coupled with its potential impact on local traffics and city services, is too large for the area.

Leon Schwartz, a Newton Highlands resident and member of RightSize Newton, a community organization critical of Northland’s plan, said the developer has not done enough to create a project that neighbors can support.

“For [councilors] to get to this point without meaningfully addressing traffic, the financial impact, is ridiculous,” Schwartz said. “The message from us to city councilors is you can get a better deal here, and you should.”

To move forward, councilors must approve a special permit and zoning changes. Northland seeks to create 800 apartments, including 123 affordable rental units, as well as 180,000 square feet of office space and 115,000 square feet of retail and community space.


The affordable units are for residents earning from 50 percent to 80 percent of the area’s median income. According to the city, the area median income for a single person in Newton and surrounding communities is $79,310.

An additional 20 units are designated workforce housing for residents earning from 80 percent to 110 percent of the area’s median income.

The entire project includes 14 buildings on more than 22 acres at the intersection of Needham and Oak streets.

Northland said in a statement to the Globe that it has made major refinements to the project, including reducing its scale, moving parking underground, and traffic improvements for the area. The project also features 10 acres of open space.

The project is the result of more than three years of community outreach, more than 300 meetings, and the city’s public hearing process, it said.

“We met with the Upper Falls and Newton Highlands Area Councils on multiple occasions and held many community meetings in our pop-up development space in the historic mill,” Northland said. “In short, we have engaged with anyone and everyone who wished to meet with us to provide feedback on” the development.

Northland also owns about 14 acres across Needham Street from the project site.

The developer said in its statement: “We have no current plans for the properties Northland owns on the east side of Needham Street other than welcoming Marshalls into the former TJ Maxx location.”

Among those calling on councilors to support the project is Green Newton, a local environmental group. In a Nov. 17 statement, the group said the proposal would allow the city to become a “green” building leader.


“There are only a few sites left in Newton on which developers can make a significant contribution to reducing per capita energy use and transforming the building stock to reduce greenhouse gas impacts,” the statement said. “The Northland site is one of them.”

Greg Reibman, the regional chamber’s president, sent out an e-mail Nov. 25 calling on those who live or work in Newton to contact city councilors to voice support for Northland’s project.

“You don’t need to be a Newton resident to be heard: If you own, work or do business in Newton, your voice should matter,” Reibman said. “Let’s not allow this opportunity to expand our region’s economic vitality pass.”

Marc Laredo, the City Council’s president, said councilors have studied the project in depth, and he expects each member will use their best judgment to make a decision.

If no vote is taken Monday, Laredo said he will hold a special meeting of the City Council Dec. 11 to ensure a vote is taken before the council’s term ends and the new one begins in January.

“I think we have put in a lot of effort into this project, and it is ready to be voted on by the council,” Laredo said.

In some ways, Northland’s proposal parallels a separate mixed-use project being considered at the parking lot of the Riverside MBTA station.


But last month, Riverside’s developers reached a compromise with neighbors that scaled back the project’s size. A similar accord has not been reached between Northland and its neighbors.

Randy Block, who is active in the Riverside neighborhood effort and is a founder of RightSize Newton, said there isn’t a process in place in Newton that incentivizes developers and neighborhood groups to work together.

“It’s a real flaw in how we do all this, and we should come up with a different process,” Block said. “I hope that is something the new City Council will take seriously.”

Even if the council approves Northland’s special permit and zoning Monday, it may not be the end. RightSize would seek a voter referendum to reverse the decision, according to Block and Schwartz.

The group would have to gather about 3,200 signatures from Newton voters petitioning the City Council to rescind its approval of the Northland zoning changes, according to David Olson, Newton’s city clerk.

If city councilors decline to reverse their decision, the voter referendum petition would go to the next scheduled city election in November 2021, he said. Councilors could also choose to set a special election for the voter referendum within 120 days.

If the council approves Northland’s zoning Dec. 2 and signatures for a petition are submitted, the earliest a special election could be held is March 24, 2020, Olson said.

Schwartz said if voters were to reject zoning for Northland, it would mean the developer would have to seek a compromise with neighbors.


“I don’t expect Northland to come groveling at the feet of neighbors,” Schwartz said. “I expect some sort of effort to make this project amendable to neighbors, to understand what the concerns are, and do something about it.”

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