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Newton mayor scraps plans for MassChallenge to use city building

Mayor Setti Warren has scrapped plans to give the start-up accelerator MassChallenge rent-free space in a city-owned Newton Centre building after hearing from several members of the Board of Aldermen that they opposed the plan.

Warren sent a short, two-sentence email to aldermen late Friday afternoon alerting them of his decision, and saying his administration “will be working to identify alternative sites.”

MassChallenge founder and CEO John Harthorne said Monday he is disappointed plans for the historic former public library building at 1294 Centre Street fell through, but is hopeful another location in the city can be located.

“We remain excited about the opportunity to work with the mayor and move to Newton,” he said. “That building was great, but I think there are other buildings that could work, so we’ll have to wait and see.”

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MassChallenge, a nonprofit organization based in Boston in its sixth year of operation, has had 617 companies go through its program, with 85 percent of them still active. Many have remained in Massachusetts creating hundreds of jobs.

The Newton Centre location was to have been used as space where alumni of the one-year program would spend an additional year growing their companies.

The building’s proximity to public transportation, its location in a village center, and access to resources and mentors in Newton are all things Harthorne said MassChallenge is looking for in a new site.

“But we’re pretty location agnostic, we don’t want to put our start-ups out in a desert, but we’re just trying to find a space that will benefit them,” he said, adding that they will also be considering locations in other communities.

Warren was not available for comment on Monday.

Last week he spoke with the Globe about his plan, and said this investment in economic development would put the city on the map as a location for start-up firms to move in the future.

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“I believe strongly that the innovation economy is going to be critical in expanding the city’s tax base short-term and long-term,” Warren said. “This gives Newton the opportunity for economic growth and access to the new economy.”

But several aldermen, including the three from Newton Centre, raised questions about the process, the building’s suitability, and whether this use was really in the entire community’s best interest.

“I have to say, it was very, very good news to hear on Friday afternoon,” Newton Centre Alderman Richard B. Blazar said on Monday.

“Obviously I am very pleased that the mayor did the right thing,” he said.

Speaking last week before Warren’s decision, Alderman at Large Gregory Schwartz, also of Newton Centre, asked whether any other nonprofit had been approached before MassChallenge was selected as a rent-free tenant for the property.

“No one’s been knocking down the door, but has anyone been looking for people who might like rent-free space in Newton Centre?” he asked. “I’d like to see a more public process.”

“I think to his credit, he saw an opportunity and acted on it,” he said. “But I was a little put back that he included us so late in the process. By the time we found out about it, there seemed to already be an understanding that this would happen without our input.

Aldermen also questioned whether the building’s current condition is safe for tenants.

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The mayor’s original plan had called for a five-year lease, and $500,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to pay for roof and other structural repairs to the building before MassChallenge moved in.

After speaking with aldermen, however, the mayor said he decided to shorten the lease’s length to three years, allowing MassChallenge to move in for a shorter term without necessitating the repairs.

In a memo to aldermen earlier this month, Public Building Commissioner Josh Morse said that while the roof and masonry “are beyond their useful life,” it does not mean they have failed, or “that the building cannot, or should not, be used.”

“I want to be clear that while there are capital needs at 1294 Centre St., there are also capital needs at the other branch libraries, DPW buildings, schools, etc. The fact that a building has components or systems that are due to be replaced does not mean that it can no longer be used,” he wrote.

And Harthorne called the former library, “a beautiful space,” and said he has been inside the building and that it could have worked for his organization without the major repairs some aldermen believed to be necessary.

But the building’s condition was a major sticking point for several aldermen, including Alderman at Large Victoria L. Danberg, who lives in Newton Centre.

She cited a 2012 report by the Newton Centre Joint Advisory Planning Group that detailed $1.6 million in repairs needed at the building, describing a leaky roof, walls, foundation, and windows, an outdated electrical system, and failing plumbing.

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“While MassChallenge has indicated an ability to work in spartan conditions, the building’s condition, with leaking windows and roof, cracked sills, bare wood and systems beyond their useful life, makes it a liability to the City and arguably unconscionable to rent to anyone in its present condition,” she said.

Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce President Greg Reibman called Friday’s decision “discouraging,” but said he would continue to work with the mayor to find a suitable city location for MassChallenge.

He said the plan had wide support from Newton Centre merchants, as well as other groups.

In addition, two online petitions in support of the Newton Centre plan, started by the chamber and Friends of the Newton Centre Branch Library, had nearly 200 signatures before Friday’s decision.

“It’s disappointing, but we’re optimistic that we’ll find a home for MassChallenge in Newton,” Reibman said.

Karen Masterson, co-owner of Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton Centre, had been an enthusiastic supporter of the MassChallenge plan.

“I think it’s too bad, it was a really exciting opportunity for Newton Centre,” she said Monday.

“But Newton Centre is a fantastic place to have a business, so hopefully someone else else will come along and see that space and something else exciting will come in,” she said.


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