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Proposed Zoning Change Draws Concern from Riverside Neighbors

More than 70 people showed up to a Zoning and Planning Committee public hearing Thursday night for the proposed zoning changes that would start the process for the project.

Once again, potential development on the Riverside MBTA site brought out a large Newton crowd last night as residents stood up to voice their concerns about the proposed mixed-use project.

More than 20 people stood up to speak during a public hearing for an amendment that would change the zoning at the Riverside site to make way for the 9.33-acre development. 

Developer BH Normandy has proposed a mixed-use project for the MBTA station site off Grove Street that includes more than 200,000 square feet of office space, roughly 20,000 square feet of retail, a large garage, and 290 housing units (about 320,000 square feet).

The zoning amendment, which was before the Zoning and Planning Committee last night, would create what is called a "Mixed-Use 3/Transit Oriented District" that would allow the development of the mixed-use (retail, residential, business and transit) site.

 and after some negotiations and community feedback, the size of the site has been reduced from an original proposal of 1.5 million square feet. 

Director of Planning and Development Candace Havens noted last night that the zoning change, if passed, would be the first of many steps before a final project proposal is before the city. 

"There is a lot more work before we get to a point where we're reviewing a specific project for the site," Havens said.

For more details and explanation from the Planning and Development Dept., check out the .pdf above.

Traffic, size still a concern

Similar to previous community meetings held on the project, last night's common concern focused on traffic. The increased traffic on Grove Street and surrounding area will be detrimental to the villages and quality of life near the development, residents say.

"So many commuters often speed down Auburn Street...these conditions will become more problematic," said Washburn Avenue resident Lynn Slobodin. 

Riverside Station Neighborhood Coalition Co-Chair Bill Renke commented that the current project size will produce 5,000 new (vehicle) trips a day. Those vehicles will travel down scenic Grove Street and adversely affect the nearby highway. 

"Although I am satisfied with the majority of the proposed amendment, the massive size of the buildings were never part of that vision," Renke said.

Both Renke and neighbors from the nearby apartment complex at 416 Grove St. requested the aldermen consider working toward a smaller site that would have less impact on traffic and the already crowded Newton Public Schools.

"I have been advocating for a project approximately 30 percent smaller," Renke said. "I understand that a zoning district with less density is not before us tonight...I implore you to not approve a district with more."

Route 128 ramps

Many residents, including Lafayette Road resident John McElduff, underlined the need for a Route 128 ramp (in both directions) that leads directly into the proposed Riverside development if the project is approved. Without those ramps, McElduff said, "Grove Street will fail." 

McElduff's comments were met with a loud round of applause from the crowd and shouts of "build the ramp." 

Attorney and former alderman Paul Snyder also advocated for a direct access ramp, arguing that it is a "matter of fairness" for the surrounding community that has had to deal with large-scale development and the closing of a neighborhood school. 

Ward 4 Alderman-at-Large Amy Sangiolo agreed with the residents about the ramp and noted that the Zoning and Planning Committee proposed a "tier 2" item that would be considered if the zoning changes passed. The second item would give the developer more room to build on the condition that direct access was provided to Route 128.

Zoning amendment too specific

Part of last night's discussion also included a debate of whether the proposed zoning amendment is too restrictive, as the item specifies the size of each type of building.

"I'm concerned the limits are too specific and too rigid around the square footage for each portion of the project," said Ward 3 Alderman-at-Large Ted Hess-Mahan, who added that he would not support the zoning amendment "as written."

An amendment with more flexible terms, Hess-Mahan said, would allow the city and developer to work together to improve and adjust the project throughout the application and permit process. Hess-Mahan noted that after the zoning piece, the project then goes through the Land Use Committee to apply for special permits. 

"Think carefully about how you set out zoning and the task you’re going to place on the Land Use Committee if you tie our hands and ask for any sort of conditions for this project," Hess-Mahan said.

The Newton League of Women Voters agreed, saying that the amendment was an example of "spot zoning" and something that would "set a dangerous precedent for large-scale projects in Newton." 

"In the case of Riverside, the proposed zoning ordinance cannot be commonly used throughout the city," said LWV Co-President Anne Borg. "This is not good policy and does not clarify situation for development of future Newton sites."

Ward 4 Alderman-at-Large Lenny Gentile argued that one reason for the specifics in the zoning ordinance is to prevent a potential 40B (affordable housing) project on the site. With the zoning parameters, the city will be able to benefit from a multi-use development that includes retail, business and residential space.

The Zoning and Planning Committee will continue to discuss the proposed Riverside zoning at a working session on Monday, March 26. The meeting will be held at 7:45 p.m. in City Hall room 202. 

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