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Development community watches as Newton referendum could upend Northland project

Northland Investment Corp. plans to build a development with housing, retail, and commercial space on 22 acres in Newton Upper Falls. About 10 acres of the property would be open space.Northland Investment Group

NEWTON — Deja vu, anyone?

Just about two months after Newton’s voters cast their ballots in a local election that focused on development, voters could be asked to weigh in on the issue again — this time, by a referendum effort opposed to a large mixed-use project in Upper Falls.

Northland Investment Corp. spent more than a year negotiating with city officials on its plan to build a development with housing, retail, and commercial space, packaged with millions of dollars for local projects and a plan for addressing traffic issues at the property.

But an ongoing voter referendum effort, organized by RightSize Newton and other local groups critical of the plan, seeks to block Northland’s project, arguing it is too large and that councilors did not secure sufficient benefits to offset potential impacts of the development.


Randy Block, president of RightSize Newton, said he wants to see “a true negotiation” between the developer and the neighborhood.

Among residents opposed to the current Northland project is Martina Jackson, who said she wants the city and developer to work with residents to create a smaller project.

“The City Council should be listening to the people and doing something that reflects the fact we are, after all, a democracy, and that people should have input into projects,” said Jackson, a cochairwoman of the Committee for Responsible Development, a ballot question group that supports the referendum.

In a statement Wednesday, Northland said it was grateful for the support it had received, and was excited to make its project a reality.

“We look forward to demonstrating to voters that the Northland Newton Development is a national model of affordable housing, sustainability, transit demand management, historic preservation, open space, master planning, and amenities, that will significantly benefit the Newton community,” the statement said.

The region’s development community is also paying close attention to whether a citizen-led referendum can derail a municipally approved project, according to Greg Vasil, chief executive officer and president of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.


“People will have great pause about doing business in Newton,” Vasil said. “To spend the time and money a developer does, [only] to be submarined by a local citizens group, that is too much of a risk.”

Northland’s approved project includes 800 apartments, with 123 affordable units and 20 units designated as workforce housing. It also would have 180,000 square feet of office space and 115,000 square feet of retail and community space.

The project would consist of 14 buildings erected on 22 acres at the intersection of Needham and Oak Streets; 10 acres of the property would be left as open space, according to the developer.

Local advocates for affordable housing, environmental protection, and business favor Northland’s project, as does Mayor Ruthanne Fuller.

Fuller has said the project also includes money for a school project and other improvements, a plan to manage traffic, and shuttle service to a nearby MBTA station.

“I am proud that Newton has a very stringent process for examining new large developments, projects like Northland and Riverside go through a rigorous process with our City Council,” Fuller said. “If projects face a referendum, I think some developers might choose to think twice about coming forward here in Newton.”

RightSize Newton collected enough signatures from city voters last month to launch the referendum, shortly after Northland’s project was approved in a pair of 17-7 City Council votes — one for a special permit, and the other on needed zoning changes.


The referendum required the City Council to either rescind its zoning vote or set a special election date so voters could decide the issue.

During a meeting Wednesday night, city councilors voted 22-0 against rescinding the board’s previous decision.

The council did not schedule a date for the special election Wednesday, however. In a parliamentary move, Ward 2 Councilor Emily Norton and a group of her colleagues effectively tabled the measure until the City Council’s next meeting on Jan. 21.

President Susan Albright has said her goal is to move quickly enough to schedule the special election with the March 3 presidential primary.

But Norton, who voted against Northland’s project in December, warned in an interview Tuesday against rushing a discussion that should be more deliberate.

“When you start upending a process to achieve your personal, political goal, whatever it might be, that is a slippery slope,” Norton said. “You chip away at the fairness of our process.”

Norton said she favors sending the referendum matter through a process that includes review by City Council subcommittees — which City Clerk David Olson has said could take up to four weeks.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Albright said there is still enough time for councilors to decide whether to schedule the Northland election for March 3.

“We will discuss this back in the council at our regular meeting on Jan. 21, and we will vote on it, and the clerk will still be able to get this done in time for a March 3 vote, if that is what we decide,” Albright told her colleagues.


Fuller has said that Northland could return with a development under the state’s Chapter 40B affordable housing law. In Newton, a project under that law could have up to 646 units, but would not necessarily include additional money and a traffic plan the city had negotiated, according to the mayor.

With the future of Northland’s development uncertain, the prospect that an approved project could grind to a halt after securing local approval “turns responsible government on its head,” said Vasil, of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. “[This] is going to make it absolutely untenable and probably virtually impossible to get any kind of business done,” he said.

Block, with RightSize Newton, said Northland should have gone beyond what is required with the city’s permitting process.

“It’s fine that they followed the rules, but maybe they have to do more than just follow the rules. Maybe they have to be smarter about how they work with a city,” Block said. “That would be taking more time working with neighborhood groups, and not trying to short circuit that.”

Jackson and Block said they hope to duplicate the work of residents who pushed back against a proposed mixed-use development at the Riverside MBTA station. In that case, residents negotiated with Mark Development to propose a scaled-back project.


“Our goal is really to have an opportunity to reach some sort of adjustment with the City Council and the developers, much like the Riverside project, where there was negotiation,” Jackson said. “I think people felt that they had been heard.”

But Northland did go through a process with residents on its project, said Tamara C. Small, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, The Commercial Real Estate Development Association.

“We have been watching this very closely, and we are very disappointed, obviously, to see what happened after more than a year of negotiations and a really in-depth community process,” Small said.

Small said she fears that if the referendum in Newton succeeds, it could encourage greater opposition to development in other communities.

The region needs more housing, and “the only way that can happen is if the towns make the decision to allow for these projects to move forward,” Small said. “If these projects are continually blocked at the local level, then that goal will never be achieved.”

Officials have talked about steps to address the region’s housing shortage. Governor Charlie Baker has pushed for changes that would lower the threshold for approval of development projects in cities and towns. And in 2018, a group of municipal leaders, including Fuller, signed onto a pledge to boost housing construction in the region.

In Newton, the debate over Northland continues to foster a bitter imbroglio over development, including separate complaints made to the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

Last week, RightSize Newton filed a complaint with the state agency claiming Fuller violated campaign finance laws by when she wrote in a city e-mail newsletter that she supported the Northland project.

Fuller’s office has said she will cooperate fully with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, the agency which received the complaint.

That complaint followed one made against RightSize, after the group didn’t comply with the campaign finance law when it began raising money for City Council candidates in the city’s fall municipal election. The group did so without first organizing as a political committee, according to a Dec. 27 letter from Michael J. Sullivan, the agency’s director.

The lack of compliance was due to a “misunderstanding of the campaign finance law,” Sullivan said.

Last month, RightSize formed the Newton Votes 2019 Independent Expenditure PAC to collect donations, according to the agency.

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