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Riverside developers bring proposed life science buildings, other changes to Newton city councilors

Developers will seek changes for a mixed-use residential, retail, and business project at the MBTA's Riverside station that was approved by Newton's City Council last year.
Developers will seek changes for a mixed-use residential, retail, and business project at the MBTA's Riverside station that was approved by Newton's City Council last year.MARK DEVELOPMENT

In Newton, after years of hearings and debate, talk of redeveloping the MBTA Riverside station could start feeling a bit like “Groundhog Day.”

The City Council is being asked to decide -- for the third time in less than a decade -- the future of the MBTA’s Riverside station in Newton Lower Falls.

Mark Development and Normandy Real Estate Partners are seeking changes to their roughly 1 million-square-foot project that would swap out a hotel and office tower for a pair of life sciences buildings, reduce the footprint of housing and retail space, and make other alterations.

The current iteration of the development, which was approved by the City Council in October, includes hundreds of rental apartments, plus commercial and retail space, and public open space.


The proposed alterations wouldn’t affect the scope of the project, which still comprises 10 buildings on 13 acres, and includes the current MBTA parking lot and nearby site of the Hotel Indigo. Mark Development is partnering with Alexandria Real Estate Equities to offer the two life sciences buildings at Riverside.

Damien Chaviano, principal of Mark Development, said during a public hearing April 13 that the changes were driven in part by the pandemic’s impact on commercial real estate, particularly hospitality uses, due to the decline in business travel. Riverside developers also had feedback from capital markets that there was concern about the long-term viability of a hospitality use at the site, he said.

Around the time the project was approved by the City Council last year, Mark Development was working with Alexandria to replace the office tower with a lab sciences building, Chaviano said. Developers turned to Alexandria to resolve the issue with the hotel building.

“The pandemic forced us to think differently, we had to pivot here, as I said, to find a solution for [the hotel use] so we could get a shovel in the ground,” Chaviano said. “We feel fortunate that Alexandria stepped up to convert that building into lab life science.”


During the public hearing, proponents said the project would be a better use for the station’s massive parking lot and, with the proposed changes, would be a source of more than $800,000 in annual tax revenue to the city. The proposed changes would also reduce peak morning and afternoon traffic at the site, developers said.

”I think this project is important for Newton, it’s important for advocates for housing,” resident Nancy Zollers told city councilors.

But critics continued to raise concerns about traffic and other potential impacts on the neighborhood from the Riverside development, and called for more affordable housing to be included in the project.

Resident Randy Block said the city has very little experience approving developments like the Riverside plan, and urged caution.

“As we decide to build more dense neighborhoods with buildings taller than the usual two or three stories that dominate Newton, we must be more careful about our review process,” Block said during the hearing.

City councilors are now considering changes at Riverside that would reduce the number of rental apartments to 550, from 582. There would be 1.2 acres of public open space, down from 1.5 acres. Parking would increase from 2,032 spaces to 2,171 spaces. Retail space would also be reduced, from about 39,000 square feet to about 22,000.


The approved project included 44 apartments available for households earning 50 percent of the area median income for Newton, which is 119,000 for a family of four in fiscal 2020. Chaviano said the changes in housing would reduce that total to 41 units.

There approved project included 43 apartments for households earning 80 percent of the area median income, and that total would drop by one unit, to 42.

The number of apartments available to households earning 110 percent of the area median income would grow, from 15 units to 28 units, he said.

Lynn Weissberg said she supported the project, but wanted more units available to households earning 50 percent and 80 percent of the area median income.

“Those are the levels of affordability that are in greatest demand, no one can argue with that,” Weissberg said.

A 124-foot-tall life sciences building would replace the hotel, and stand about 70 feet taller than the hotel building. An office tower, which would have stood 169 feet, would be replaced with a second life sciences building, that would stand 143 feet tall. Reductions in residential and retail square footage, and elimination of the hotel, would be absorbed by the life sciences uses.

With the proposed changes in place, Riverside could also become part of a projected life sciences cluster stretching across Route 128.

The new Riverside proposal would tie into a regional surge in life sciences, proponents have said. Across the border in Weston, Town Meeting in May is expected to decide on a proposed zoning change by Greatland Realty Partners to allow labs at the former Liberty Mutual campus.


And in Newton, just across the MBTA tracks from the transit station, Alexandria received City Council approval last month to convert a portion of Riverside Center on Grove Street to lab use.

Talk of redeveloping Riverside stretches back years. Newton’s City Council, as the Board of Aldermen, approved a mixed-use project at the transit station in 2013 proposed by Normandy Real Estate Partners. But developers said that project ultimately wasn’t financially feasible and never moved ahead.

In 2018, Normandy and Mark Development together brought forward a mixed-use development that would include the site of the current Hotel Indigo. Lengthy negotiations with neighbors eventually scaled that proposal down, and the project was ultimately approved unanimously by the 24-member City Council last year.

The latest changes had the support of several residents who spoke during the April 13 hearing, including Doris Ann Sweet, who said she wanted more affordable units, and praised the overall development.

“This is going to really be important to the healthy economic future of our city,” Sweet said.

Some residents, such as Peter Harrington, cautioned city councilors to weigh the city’s interests as they consider the proposed changes for Riverside.

“[The developer is] now looking to the city of Newton to help him out,” Harrington said. “If we do help him out, we should make sure we get more than a smile and a handshake.”

City councilors are expected to continue their review of the revised proposal April 27.


Jon Chesto of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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