Newton isn’t exactly a portrait of economic stagnation. The suburb is one of the wealthiest communities in Massachusetts, and it boasts some of the highest home values in Greater Boston. But on Newton’s southwestern edge, the leafy Wells Avenue office park was left behind. And a plan to develop the park has run head-on into a common roadblock: ingrained local opposition to the use of housing as an economic development engine.
The battle over building hundreds of new homes in the office park looks like a typical housing fight. But in reality, it’s a fight about competing for growth in the modern economy.
With its woodsy environs and perch overlooking the Charles River, the office park was once one of the region’s top corporate addresses. But the corporations that power Greater Boston’s economy today are far different than the ones that flocked to Wells Avenue from the 1960s to the 1980s. Younger workers and innovative companies now drive the region; they’ve embraced dense, walkable environments, and largely abandoned the kind of sprawling solitude that was once the chief selling point of suburban office parks.
The Wells Avenue park hasn’t seen any new office construction in decades, and the offices that are there rent for less today than they did a decade ago, in real dollars. The logical solution is to shed the vibe of a fading 1960s-vintage corporate park, and create an environment that’s attractive to younger workers.
Boston-based developer Cabot, Cabot & Forbes made such a move last spring, proposing to demolish a sports club in the office park and replace it with 334 apartments, 6,000 square feet of startup-friendly coworking space, and a cafe. The proposal came under Chapter 40B, the state affordable housing law that allows developers to bypass local zoning in communities that haven’t met a minimum affordable housing stock threshold.
Chapter 40B developments are often lightning rods for controversy, because they cut against longstanding municipal development controls. And in Newton, local boards have dug in against the Wells Avenue housing proposal, with the board of aldermen and the local zoning board both moving in opposition. The aldermen oppose waiving decades-old deed restrictions that prohibit housing construction in the park.
Wells Avenue is an odd 40B controversy on two fronts. For one, the site doesn’t have the sorts of residential abutters who normally rise up in opposition to 40B projects. And the move to build housing in the Wells Avenue park is as much about what suburbs will look like in the future as it is about building necessary affordable housing.
Cabot, Cabot & Forbes played a huge role in shaping the development pattern that now dominates the Boston suburbs. The firm saw the potential of Route 128 earlier than most other developers, and in the 1960s it lined the highway’s off-ramps with commercial and industrial parks. These commercial parks accelerated the flow of residents and businesses from Boston to the suburbs, and they helped establish a development formula that still dominates most of the country.
But a massive generational shift away from suburban subdivisions and back toward urban living has left the owners of these legacy parks scrambling to adapt. In Marlboro, Burlington, and Medford, landlords are infusing new life into tired suburban parks by building new housing, hotel rooms, and retail space alongside old-line commercial space. In Needham and Cambridge, Cabot, Cabot & Forbes has spearheaded large-scale housing developments in the types of office and industrial subdivisions the firm pioneered a half-century ago.
This push to retrofit outdated corporate parks and make them more urban recognizes the changing dynamics driving the Massachusetts economy. Housing now plays an outsized role in attracting the employees who work in the state’s innovation economy. And according to a recent report by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, states that are aggressively building new housing, like Florida, Texas, and Colorado, are swiping innovation economy workers from Massachusetts at a rapid clip. This exodus of talent doesn’t have to continue. But it will, if cities and towns don’t rethink housing.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.