Riverside and Newton’s draft zoning plans for Washington Street reveal “visioning” for what it really is

Recently, the Newton Tab published an article about the massive new development proposed for the MBTA Riverside T stop. The Tab article, titled “Crowd offers feedback about Newton’s Riverside site,” quoted Mayor Ruthanne Fuller describing the visioning process for Riverside:

“‘This process, in part, is trying to figure out what is the right size,’ said Fuller.”

I have news for Mayor Fuller: The “right size” of the Riverside development is already known.

The last time local residents were asked for input to right-size development at Riverside, discussions took more than five years. The resulting agreement, finalized in 2013, determined that the right size for Riverside was 580,000 square feet, including nearly 300 hundred new housing units.

It’s not local residents who want to go through this process all over again. It’s being driven by developer Robert Korff and his business partner BH Normandy (who negotiated the 2013 agreement). Instead of the agreed-upon 580,000 square feet, they are demanding 1.5 million square feet, including two 200+ foot tall towers, and many hundreds of additional units of luxury housing. They stand to add hundreds of millions of dollars in additional value to their project, while residents of Auburndale, Newton Lower Falls, Waban, West Newton, and other parts of Newton are saddled with massive costs related to traffic, schools, infrastructure, planning, and more.

And despite the mayor’s insistence that she is listening to local residents, the evidence that we see in the actions and policies of her administration is that while we may be heard, the preferences of Newton Voters are largely ignored.

For example, the Newtonville Area Council’s recent survey of Newton residents found that only 12% were receptive to buildings five or more storeys tall along Washington Street. Of those who expressed an opinion about the number of housing units, 86% supported 500 or less.

Similar opinions were articulated during the long “Hello Washington Street” visioning process. The following comments were left by citizens on one of the “pop-up” centers in West Newton to collect feedback about Washington Street:

Hello Washington Street Visioning Process pop up center Newton

The comments include:

“Too tall”
“Too big”
“Bad shadows”
“Big buildings ugly”
“Too urban”
“Air rights over pike”
“This doesn’t look like a suburb. Where are the trees?”
“No trees. Towers destroy neighborhood feel”
“Too tall. Too many people for the space. Too many cars. Overshadows existing homes. Overcrowding of the school system.”
“Seniors have few school age children and many no longer drive.”
“This is bogus. So unappealing I;m sure it’s only offered to make the other scenarios look better by comparison. West Newton resident.”
“No. This is not Boston. We do not have to agree to make Korff rich.”
“Never. We don’t wan’t Manhattan. “
“Have you been to Manhattan?”
“I love Manhattan and Tokyo.”
“No high rises in Newton!”
“Be careful. You will drive away all of the [] who make Newton a magnet.”
“No one who wants to make Newton a magnet can afford to live here now.”
“Underground parking is good. But these cars will still be driving around the city.”
“Way too tall. Big shadows on small houses.”
“Large number of affordable units”
“Build this over the pike”
“What about the existing residents who cannot unfortunately [] this monstrosity”
“Boston? MGH?”

Now that the second draft of the vision and zoning plans for Washington Street have been published, it’s clear that there is a huge gap in what residents asked for and what we will be getting. Huge tracts of land from West Newton Square to the Armory/Trader Joes, parts of Newtonville on either side of the Pike, the lots where Marty’s and Whole Foods now stand, and the commercial parcels diagonally opposite Our Lady’s church in the Lake, will fall under the new “Village Gateway” (W-VY), “Station Area Central” (W-SC), and “Station Area Commercial” (W-SM) zoning designations:

draft washington Street zoning map feb 2019

According to the draft, the maximum height by right for all of these designations will be 5 stories. If developers successfully apply for special permits at any of those sites (a requirement to maximize the value of their investments) they will be able to place gigantic buildings between 6 and 10 stories tall.

This represents thousands of new units of housing (most of it market rate/luxury), and millions of new square feet of office and lab space. That’s not what residents asked for, but that’s what we’ll be getting if city councilors approve the plans for Washington Street. Similar zoning designations will likely be applied in other neighborhoods all over the city — a handout to developers worth billions of dollars, and a nightmare of traffic, massive infrastructure and school costs, and lost quality of life for the residents of Newton for decades to come.

Nobody cares about preserving an MBTA parking lot (or, for that matter, run-down commercial properties along Washington Street). But when it comes to replacing what’s there now, the people of Newton are tired of negotiating deals that are later ripped up because developers insist on getting more, and participating in acts of political theater in which their opinions are solicited and subsequently ignored. Any new vision for Riverside should align with what we asked for — and the city, the MBTA, and developers agreed to — six years ago.

If you are a Newton resident, please contact ALL Newton City councilors TODAY and let them know what you think about the Riverside development. Even if you don’t live in Auburndale or Newton Lower Falls, your taxes will end up paying for developers’ profits through increased road, school, infrastructure, and other costs. The developers’ tactics to rip up a signed agreement also sets a precedent for similar tricks in the future all over Newton, including Washington Street, Newton Upper Falls, Newtonville, and elsewhere.

Riverside MBTA developers Robert Korff and BH Normandy negotiating in bad faith?

Developer Robert Korff and his company Mark Development couldn’t have asked for a more helpful boost from the Newton Tab in the article titled, “Some concerned over short timeframe of Riverside visioning process,” published online on December 28.

In addition to publishing verbatim developer Korff’s Riverside PR spin points, the Tab failed to question some extremely dubious claims. “The Riverside development could be the economic engine for the city of Newton, but it’s going to require the density that we’re proposing,” he told the paper.

Economic engine of the city? What he’s proposing sounds more like a profit engine for Korff, with no additional benefits for Newton — in fact, it comes with significant costs, as I will shortly explain. And why were there no questions about his intention to rip up a signed deal he and his partners already have to develop the parking lot area at the Riverside MBTA station?

Let’s be clear about what’s happening here, since the Newton Tab wasn’t. In 2013, Korff’s business partner BH Normandy was granted approval to build a 580,000 square foot development at Riverside that includes more than two hundred new housing units. This deal came after six years of negotiations and lobbying with neighbors, local politicians, and city planning officials.

Now developer Korff and partner Normandy want to rip up the 2013 agreement, and force through approval for a far larger development that’s 1.5 million square feet in size, contains two 200+ foot tall towers with mostly “market rate”/luxury housing, and is only reachable by Grove Street, a narrow road connecting Auburndale and Newton Lower Falls.

Why are the developers trying to ram its new proposal through now? It apparently relates to the fact that Newton city council elections are taking place in November 2019, which would require them to start the application and lobbying processes all over again — possibly with a new slate of councilors voted into office based on their stances on the waves of oversized luxury development taking place in Auburndale, West Newton, Newtonville, Newton Upper Falls, and other parts of the city.

Developer Korff is orchestrating a PR campaign in the pages of local media, in “fireside chats” with neighbors, and PR street teams going door-to-door in Auburndale and Lower Falls that aims to grant himself and his business partners hundreds of millions of dollars in additional property rights. We don’t know what the exact figure will be, as this is surely a starting point that will be ‘reluctantly’ scaled back to something that still grants him a huge payout. He’s done it before — check out his tactics with the Orr block in Newtonville, which included using the threat of 40B and having the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce criticize skeptical councilors and community groups on his behalf.

His new plans for the MBTA Riverside development represent an aggressive land grab that would come at the expense of Newton residents, who would be forced to shoulder massive costs relating to schools, traffic, infrastructure, and parking. Meanwhile, there’s nothing in developer Korff’s PR points about affordable housing, housing for seniors, or housing for middle class families, as shown in the flyer his PR team dropped off at my house last month (see below).

The impact would be especially hard on residents of Newton Lower Falls and Auburndale, who thought the Riverside deal was settled five years ago but have since learned the negotiation was merely a preamble to yet more aggressive demands from developers. No one cares about preserving an MBTA parking lot, but there’s already a signed deal that developers, residents, and politicians agreed to. Developer Korff’s attempt to renege on it should be shot down not only on principle, but also to avoid setting a precedent for other real estate deals signed by Korff and other developers throughout Newton.

If you are a Newton resident, please contact all three of your ward councilors TODAY and let them know what you think about the Riverside development. Even if you don’t live in Auburndale or Newton Lower Falls, your taxes will end up paying for developers’ profits through increased road, school, infrastructure, and other costs. The developers’ tactics to rip up a signed agreement also sets a precedent for similar tricks in the future all over Newton, including Washington Street, Newton Upper Falls, Newtonville, and elsewhere.

The misleading flyer handed out by MBTA Riverside developers. The actual size of the proposed development is 1.5 million square feet, not 547,000 square feet. The “new neighborhood” phrase suggests this is intended as a luxury enclave, distinct from the existing village structure of Newton.

Robert Korff Mark Development RIverside MBTA parking lot development flyerflyer 121818 SMALL

 

Newton Mayor Setti Warren’s dangerous Planning Department report

The following ~725-word essay about a Planning Department report sponsored by the office of Newton Mayor Setti Warren was originally submitted to the Newton Tab as an op-ed column. The Tab asked that it be shortened to a 400-word letter, which appeared in the printed paper earlier this week. Here is the original column. You are welcome to leave comments below.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren Planning Department ReportLast month, the city released the “Management and Organizational Analysis” of Newton’s Planning Department. The report was commissioned by the Mayor’s Office and co-authored by Sasaki Associates, the same consultancy that helped organize a housing strategy workshop last November that had residents and developers placing LEGO blocks on a map to indicate where they preferred high-density housing to be built. The LEGO exercise was rightly called out as a fait accompli and dismissed by many councilors and residents. Similarly, I would like to call out the new Planning Department report as a flawed document whose recommendations threaten to undermine our elected representatives while giving Mayor Warren’s administration—and its successors—unfettered control over special permits and related processes.

The Planning Department report purports to provide a “clear and honest” accounting of the problems facing the department. While it presents a list of legitimate concerns (e.g., a lack of documented processes, project management inefficiencies, high turnover, no long-term IT plan, etc.) it proceeds to assign much of the blame to a group of stakeholders who happen to represent Newton’s citizens—the City Council. The report basically throws Councilors under the bus, blaming them for being too numerous, taking up too much staff time, and generally getting in the way of the special permitting process.

The report states, “The City should strongly consider removing the special permit granting authority from the City Council and placing it with an independent, less political body comprised of knowledgeable professionals, citizens, and business owners.” Practically speaking, this would mean that if a special permit were required for a large condo development or a new commercial project that exceeds the zoning limits of the parcel, our elected representatives would have no say in the matter. Instead, the approval would be up to city staff as well as unelected appointees who represent the interests of commercial developers, not citizens.

This and other oversight recommendations in the report are dangerous and unwarranted. I think many others will agree. The recommendations, if implemented, remove an important channel for residents and their elected representatives to influence specific proposals. As citizens and taxpayers, we have a right to be heard, which includes appealing to our councilors to ask hard questions and request changes that the Mayor, developers, and other parties would rather ignore. You may like the mayor’s development plans, or you may object to them, but regardless more citizen input is needed to guide development going forward, not less. Elected representatives play a critical role in bringing neighborhood concerns in front of the staff responsible for implementing housing policies.

The Planning Department report also points to a problem with a “lack of leadership.”  However, the report confines the leadership problems to the department. It goes no higher than that. It fails to mention the Mayor even once, despite the fact he has led the city government since January 2010 and could have addressed legitimate concerns with the Planning Department’s organization, turnover, technology, and processes years ago.

So, why is this report coming out now, instead of during Mayor Warren’s first term? In my opinion, it’s because the Mayor needs to overcome local opposition to his new development vision, and he needs to do it soon. As reported in the Tab, the Mayor and developers hope to build thousands of new housing units across the city and transform the villages into small urban centers. We have seen the responses in the pages of this paper, in letters from residents who say they won’t be able to afford “market rate” apartments and condos in the new developments, as well as those who object to the scale of the giant buildings and the impact of large-scale development upon Newtonville, Newton Center, West Newton, Oak Hill, Auburndale, and other neighborhoods. This strong grassroots opposition suggests that developers won’t be able to build thousands of units of new housing and commercial space unless Mayor Warren and his administration are given free rein over zoning, permitting, and other development approvals. Removing elected councilors from the picture is crucial to achieving the Mayor’s goals.

In summary, I believe the new Planning Department report was created to justify changes that would reduce the power of councilors and make it easier for the current Mayor—and future mayors—to force their strategic visions for development upon the citizens of Newton with limited oversight. It’s unfair, unwarranted, and undemocratic.