What’s the future of Newton’s Washington Street corridor?
Newton’s new mayor is launching an effort to chart a course for economic development along a stretch of Washington Street that has long been home to supermarkets, car dealerships, small businesses, and older homes.
“It’s important that we take charge of Newton’s future, that we decide what the Washington Street corridor should look like going forward,” said Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, who took office in January.
Fuller has proposed a $500,000 study of the 2½-mile stretch of Washington Street along the Massachusetts Turnpike between West Newton and Newton Corner.
She said the proactive effort would let the city control what kind of growth takes place in the area, instead of letting it be shaped project by project.
The goal is to replace replacing decades-old zoning rules with regulations that meet today’s needs.
The effort comes as a local developer is staking claims on what some predict could be the city’s next hot spot for growth.
Robert Korff won City Council approval last year for his 160-unit Washington Place development, at the intersection of Washington and Walnut Streets. And he has recently purchased the Santander Bank building in West Newton Square, with plans to do a partial demolition, preserve the facade, and put in a building that will serve as his firm’s corporate offices.
“We think it will make a nice, positive statement architecturally for the square,” he said. “And also, we’d like to send a message to the city, to the community, that we’re committed here for decades to come.”
Fuller’s proposal calls for creating a zoning plan that addresses land use, economic development, transportation, fiscal matters, and other issues. The work is expected to take about 13 months, she said, and will include meetings with residents and business owners.
The measure is before the City Council’s Finance and Zoning and Planning committees, and would need to be approved by a City Council vote.
“All of us in the city of Newton want a thriving, vibrant Washington [Street] corridor that is of the right scale for the residential neighbors who immediately abut it, and works whether you’re trying to go down the corridor on foot, on a bicycle, or in a car,” Fuller said.
Emily Norton, a Ward 2 city councilor, criticized the proposed corridor study, pointing to work already done by city and volunteer groups to determine what kind of development residents want to see along Washington Street.
She said she is concerned that Korff’s business influence might sway the study.
“We need to be very careful to ensure that the public good is what drives the process, not this developer’s private interests,” said Norton, who also sits on the Finance Committee. “There’s extraordinary pressure to conform to what developers want.”
Among the volunteer groups is the Newtonville Area Council, which will hold a series of charrettes about what development in the area should look like. The next one is scheduled for Feb. 15 at the Senior Center at 345 Walnut St. at 7 p.m.
Colleen Minaker, a member of the group who has lived in Newtonville since 1979, said she is concerned that city councilors are favoring developers over residents.
“The City Council has got to work more closely with the community and the developer to bring about [projects] that everyone can live with,” Minaker. said “Instead of taking a middle ground and representing the residents and the developer, they go full development.”
Questions have also been raised about the cost and bidding process for the proposed $500,000 study. The city’s Planning Department recommended Boston-based Principle Group, which completed a similar effort looking at Somerville’s Union Square.
“I’m not convinced that a) the money is warranted, and b) that this [proposal] should be identifying this particular company to do all the work,” said Leonard Gentile, a city councilor-at-large for Ward 4 and chairman of the Finance Committee.
Gentile and Norton both said they opposed the Washington Place development because they believed it was too dense for the location.
Greg Reibman, president of the Newton Needham Regional Chamber, said the corridor study would give the city an opportunity to turn Washington Street into a more accessible and friendly area for people.
Korff is a large stakeholder in development in that part of Newton and should play a role in designing the future of Washington Street, Reibman said.
“Newton is lucky to have a local guy who wants to invest in the area,” Reibman said.
“He has surrounded himself with a really smart team . . . and has the willingness to listen to feedback and offer compromises.”
Korff, a Newton resident whose office is in Wellesley, commissioned his own study on Washington Street development last year. He said wants to coordinate with the city on what the future in the area could look like.
“We’re of the firm belief that the city needs to control this effort. It’s the city that needs to be taking the lead here. We just want to be a participant,” Korff said. “We just need to know what the expectations are, the realistic expectations of the city.”