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Newtonville development wins City Council approval

A rendering of the Washington Place project proposed in Newtonville.
A rendering of the Washington Place project proposed in Newtonville.MARK DEVELOPMENT

NEWTON — A residential and retail development for Newtonville won City Council approval Monday, following a year of contentious debate that pitted housing advocates against residents who said the project was too big for their neighborhood.

Developer Robert Korff’s Washington Place will replace buildings at the corner of Washington and Walnut streets with a combination of market-rate and affordable housing, plus commercial space, in three four- and five-story buildings.

Supporters said the development would help provide more housing options in Newton and spur economic growth.

“It will bring more people into our community, diversity of people into our community,” said Kathy Laufer, who has lived in the city 47 years. “It’s going to bring people who are going to shop in our businesses.”

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Plans call for 160 housing units, including 24 affordable apartments for households earning an average of 65 percent of the area’s median income and 16 units restricted to households earning between 80 and 120 percent of the area’s median income.

There would also be 344 parking spaces, about 43,000 square feet of retail space, plus community space.

The developer would also provide $700,000 for city improvements.

The complex would replace eight buildings that have housed several businesses, including Karoun Restaurant, Boston Ballet School, and Newtonville Camera.

Monday’s hearing in the City Hall council chambers was packed with people who voiced their opinions. Opponents flashed yellow “VOTE NO” placards, while supporters had “NEWTON NEEDS WP” signs.

“There is very little modern, market-rate, affordable . . . housing that is available for people in Newton, [either] for aging people to downsize or for younger people to move in,” said Rob Gifford, a supporter of the project who lives in Newton Centre. “And I think having that kind of a use close to mass transit and close to a village center is a great use.”

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But the Washington Place proposal faced pushback from some who said it would be too large and dense.

According to a June 5 memo by city officials, Korff is in talks with a group of neighbors of the development site, and if they agree not to appeal the project, Korff will pursue a smaller 140-unit Washington Place.

Attorney Dennis A. Murphy, who represents about a dozen neighbors on Foster Street and Lowell Avenue, said Tuesday that negotiations were ongoing, but he declined to discuss specifics. “We are hopeful the developer will honor the commitments he made to neighbors throughout the process,” Murphy said.

Korff could not be reached for comment.

If a smaller Washington Place were built, the developer would still provide $700,000 for improvements, but would offer 21 affordable units and 14 middle-income units. Most of the project would also be reduced to no more than four stories in height, according to project plans. The City Council’s decision on Monday included permission for the smaller project.

Ellen Serino, a Newtonville resident since 1987, said she opposed the larger development due to its size and called it “unfair” to neighbors.

“It’s disrespectful to the character of the neighborhood; it’s too busy,” Serino said, adding she was unsure whether she’d back a smaller development.

Gail Gordon, who has lived in Newtonville for 40 years, said she could support the smaller version if it were limited to four stories. But she is concerned that development will lead to more traffic and overpopulation in the area.

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“I’ve seen the density in Waltham, in Watertown. We’re not Waltham, we’re not Watertown. We’re the little village of Newtonville,” Gordon said.

The project was approved about a week after developers of a separate residential and retail project on nearby Austin Street announced they’ll be able to move forward after settling a court case filed by neighbors.

Lois Levin , who supported both projects, said the city needs to work with developers to spur more housing.

“There’s a lot of hostility [toward] the developers that is quite irrational,” Levin said.

In separate votes with identical outcomes, one for a zoning change and another for the project’s special permit, city councilors voted 16 to 7 to support each measure. Ward 3 Councilor Barbara Brousal-Glaser was absent from the votes.

Councilors Susan Albright and Jacob D. Auchincloss, whose Ward 2 includes Washington Place, backed the development.

Albright said the city needs economic development to broaden the tax base beyond residential taxpayers, and that adding housing will also help businesses in the village itself.

“People are the life’s blood of these shops, and creating a critical mass of people in walkable distance is all good for them,” Albright said.

Korff scaled back his plans for the development since it was proposed last June, from 171 units to 160, among other changes, before withdrawing the plan in February.

Enough abutters had protested the project that a zoning change would have required approval of 18 of the 24-member City Council.

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In the spring, Korff filed a revised proposal that reduced the number of abutters to the proposed zoning change, which had the effect of lowering the required council vote to 16 members.

Ward 2 Councilor Emily Norton opposed the project and was concerned that the refiled proposal wouldn’t require the 18 votes for the zoning change.

“This would set a precedent that would really open up a huge loophole for every project in the future to able to drive a truck through,” Norton said.

The project was also opposed by councilors Lisle Baker, Amy Mah Sangiolo, Brian Yates, Leonard Gentile, and Richard Blazar.

“I have a real problem with saying this is a great development. If it was a great development, believe me, I’m the first one here to vote for it,” Blazar said.


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