Instead of a forum educating voters about opposing positions on the upcoming Northland ballot question, attendees at an event hosted by the League of Women Voters of Newton last week heard from just one side of the issue.
Two days before the Committee for Responsible Development and Yes for Newton’s Future were scheduled to make their respective cases about the March 3 vote, the Committee for Responsible Development — the “no” side — withdrew from the event. The ballot question committee said in a statement that the League-sponsored forum as planned would be “patently biased, unbalanced and unfair.”
Yes for Newton’s Future, the ballot question committee in support of the development, presented its viewpoint to the audience of roughly 50 people at the Durant-Kenrick House on Feb. 13.
The Committee for Responsible Development, which also rejected the League’s replacement moderator, did not attend. Original moderator Marcia Johnson, president of the League, was replaced by Stephen Grody, a League member.
David Oliver attended the Feb. 13 meeting to gain information ahead of the Northland vote.
“That was really disappointing to me,” said Oliver regarding the Committee for Responsible Development’s decision not to participate in the forum. “I might vote against them just for that very reason.”
City Councilor Deborah Crossley, councilor at large from Ward 5, spoke on behalf of the pro-Northland side as a neighbor and endorser of the development. Crossley then answered questions provided anonymously from the audience.
The Northland development would cover 22.7 acres at Needham and Oak streets, and have 800 apartment units of which 140 would be deed-restricted affordable housing, 10 acres of open green space, 115,000 square feet of retail space, and 180,000 square feet of office space, according to the Northland Investment Corporation.
The project is “delivering affordable housing at a level we haven’t seen in Newton for many, many years,” said Crossley. The development would be the largest single introduction of affordable units in Newton, according to Northland.
Crossley addressed traffic and transportation, primary concerns from the public. The anticipated increase in population at the proposed site has raised questions about how the development will manage the added traffic to the already congested Needham Street.
“I live there. I know how challenging it is,” said Crossley about the traffic on Needham Street.
Questions centered around the development’s impact on traffic with its accompanying residential and commercial vehicles as well as how Needham Street will function during project construction. The developers have responded to neighborhood comments with plans to create a space to enhance the community, not cause more challenges, Crossley said.
The development plan includes a mobility hub for transportation access as well as improved bike lanes and a public shuttle to the Newton Highlands Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) station expected to run every 10 minutes, 16 hours a day, seven days a week, according to the information presented at the meeting. There will be underground parking and residents will be incentivized to own one car per apartment unit.
Subsidized MBTA passes will be extended to Northland occupants, and residents who own more than one car will be charged for the additional parking spots to encourage this standard.
Audience members asked about the effect the development will have on Newton public schools.
“The truth is, our enrollments are declining, the Countryside school in particular,” said Crossley. She noted that Countryside Elementary School is currently using 19 of its 20 classrooms and is predicting that number will decline to 18 in the next school year. There is room available in the Newton school system for the estimated 148 students who will live in the Northland development, according to the information presented Thursday.
The buildings would mostly consist of smaller units, such as studios and one-bedroom apartments targeted toward young professionals with fewer multi-bedroom units for families, according to Northland. The limited availability of multi-bedroom accommodations for families is expected to help lessen the development’s impact on the Newton public schools.
“For a healthy community in Newton, we need to have more diverse income levels represented; we need to have families and single people,” said Newtonville resident Sue Parsons after the forum. “A project like Northland supports those goals.”
Attendees asked more questions about the Northland development than time allowed, and the League said additional questions and answers would be uploaded to its website.
The Committee for Responsible Development said the event could not be considered a “fair and open forum for debate,” according to the released statement announcing its withdrawal from participation.
“There are details that you have to have time and good faith on both sides to work out, and I don’t think there was good faith on their side,” said Randall Block, president of the RightSize Newton board, the organization behind the “no” campaign. “They wanted to hold a forum tilted heavily in favor of their position.”
The Committee for Responsible Development was concerned the information gathered and presented by the League would not reflect all data equally, instead choosing to focus on the most positive aspects and diminish the opposition’s logical, plausible concerns, Block said.
Newton residents will go to the polls to determine the outcome of the proposed Northland development on Super Tuesday.
The ballot question specifically addresses zoning: If the zoning measure changes from Mixed Use 1 District (MU1) to Business 4 District (BU4), the construction of the Northland project will begin as described in the special permit approved by the City Council in December 2019. If the question passes, the first wave of residents in the first 400 units are expected to move into the new buildings in three years.
Gwyneth Burns can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.