West

Critics say Austin Street project still too big for Newtonville

NEWTON — Eight months after promising to listen to residents and move forward with something “everyone can by proud of” at the city-owned Austin Street parking lot in Newtonville, developers unveiled a plan for a four-story, 80-unit project that critics said was little changed from the initial proposal.

Austin Street Partners presented their plan for a mixed-use development — with apartments, a restaurant, and three shops — at a public forum held Wednesday night by the League of Women Voters Newton.

“There has been misunderstanding, misinformation, and disinformation about the project,” said Scott Oran, a partner at Dinosaur Capital Partners LLC, which joined with Cambridge-based Oaktree Development LLC to form the Austin Street Partners team. “Now is our opportunity to reintroduce the project and gather feedback.”

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But in interviews after the presentation, several residents said the new proposal reflects little or no input from those concerned that the project is too big for the village center.

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“What we heard back in the spring was that they hadn’t decided on a plan, but this is virtually the same plan” initially submitted to the city, said Susan Reisler, who with her husband, Peter Bruce, lives three blocks from the site.

“We like the idea of some affordable housing, but this is just too big,” said Newtonville resident Maryann White. “We’re very disappointed that the developers’ ‘must haves’ are not the same ‘must haves’ that I’ve been hearing from the neighborhood.”

When Mayor Setti Warren chose Austin Street Partners in May, he said his decision was based on their experience and financial backing, and not the conceptual plans they had submitted. At that time, Warren and Oran said there were no specific plans on the table, and the developers would gather input from residents before creating a design proposal.

The plan that Oran presented Wednesday night calls for 80 apartments — a mix of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units — of which 25 percent would be set aside as affordable housing .

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Underground parking would be available for residents, and much of the Austin Street lot would be upgraded and left essentially intact, with 100 parking spaces after the work is done, Oran said.

In addition, he said, the developers would pay for a part-time parking attendant at the lot, and a “village manager” to promote Newtonville.

He said they are in talks with Shaw’s to use spaces at the supermarket’s lot across the street during construction.

The project will now move through the special permit process, which requires two-thirds support from the Board of Aldermen, or 16 of its 24 members, for approval.

Alderwomen Susan Albright and Marcia Johnson, who represent Newtonville and have supported the concept of a mixed-use development at Austin Street, acknowledged after Wednesday’s meeting that the process has put them in a politically awkward position.

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“We don’t know what will come out of the sausage maker,” Johnson said about the negotiations that will take place between the developers, city planning officials, and their board.

“Who knows what give and take will now happen. If at the end of the day we get a good project, then that’s what matters,” Albright said.

Alderwoman Emily Norton, the third Newtonville representative on the board, has opposed a large development on the site from the start.

“We were told the mayor would be choosing a developer and not a development, and that the developer would be starting from a ‘blank slate.’ But now we see the developer is proposing the exact same project. So I still think it’s too big and out of scale for the village,” Norton said.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.