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Traffic, Access to Riverside Station Site Still a Key Concern Among Newton Aldermen

The Newton Land Use Committee voted Tuesday night in favor of closing the public hearing for the special permit application for the proposed Riverside Station mixed-use development, but some concerns remain about certain traffic route options.

Newton aldermen reiterated their concerns Tuesday night regarding potential access to/from the proposed Riverside mixed-use development, and whether the community's preferred traffic plan will have the support of MassDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Transportation and traffic was the focus of Tuesday night's Land Use Committee public hearing on the special permit application and zoning change for the proposed Riverside project. Tuesday was the third night of a hearing that started back in October.

The committee heard from various traffic planners as well as a representative from MassDOT, who discussed the proposed roadway changes that will be put in place if the mixed-use development moves forward. 

"The conceptual layout is a good layout. It incorporates roundabouts on Grove Street and inside the site," said Newton Director of Transportation William Paille. "Roundabouts slow down traffic and make it safer for vehicles and pedestrians."

Developer BH Normandy is currently seeking a special permit to build a mixed-use project for the Riverside MBTA Station site on Grove Street. The project would include a five-story, 331,000-square-foot residential building with 290 housing units as well as a 10-story, 225,000-square-foot office building, 20,000 square feet of retail space and 8,000 square feet of community space. 

The development would also include the construction of several roundabouts to help navigate traffic in and out of the site from Grove Street and Route 128. Primary access to the development would be located off the Route 128/I-95 "collector-distributor" or "C-D" road on the side of the site. 

According to VHB traffic planning consultant Randy Hart, who is working with developers BH Normandy, two feasible options are on the table for that primary access point off the C-D road; one option ("Option B-2") would allow two-way access in and out of the site (a right and left turn allowed) and the other ("Option A") would only allow just right turns in and out of the site.

In addition to the traffic planning and research done by the developer and VHB, the city also used a peer traffic reviewer from the firm Fay, Spofford and Thorndike (FST) to look at the different options and traffic impact for the proposed site. 

Gary Hebert, FST vice president, explained that his review of the site found that Option A, which does not allow the left turn in/out of the site, has better car, bike and pedestrian safety. Option B-2, which does allow the left turn, has better "traffic operation" and would significantly reduce the number of car trips on Grove Street.

Traffic on Grove Street has been a consistent concern from both aldermen and residents that live near the Riverside Station site. 

While the aldermen considered the tough decision between safety versus reduced traffic on Grove Street, MassDOT Highway Division Administrator Frank DePaola told the aldermen that MassDOT is prepared to support Option A, as they believe Option B-2 would not pass through the federal highway review. 

"What comes along with [Option B-2], is a potential for conflict or accidents that [Option A] does not present," DePaola said. "We feel Federal Highway will say Option A is what they will approve."

Ward 4 Alderman-at-Large Lenny Gentile expressed concern with the information DePaola presented. After MBTA and highway officials rejected the idea for direct access Riverside from Route 128, Gentile said Option B-2 was "important" to both the aldermen and people in the community.

"If you go forward with a recommendation of Option A and not work with the city on this B-2 option, I honestly believe your'e going to kill this project," Gentile said.

"[Option B-2] takes two-thirds of the cars off of Grove Street...about 1500 trips a day. That’s a lot of trips. We should do what we can to make sure that happens," Gentile added. 

Ward 4 Alderman Jay Harney also showed disappointment in the MassDOT information presented Tuesday. Harney said he was present for a meeting held Monday with Mayor Setti Warren and Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey, during which it was made clear how important Option B-2 was to the Newton community. 

"I came away form yesterday morning’s meeting convinced that the mayor had stood firm on what his constituents believed in, and the secretary was in agreement that they would take a hard look [at Option B-2]," Harney said.

Regardless of what option the aldermen prefer, DePaola reminded board members that the final decision on the traffic plan for the main entrance will come down to FHWA, as it involves the Route 128/I-95 C-D road.

"I have to caution that, Option A or Option B-2, both are modifications to a federal highway ramp [and] I cannot guarantee Federal Highway will approve either one of those," DePaola said.

Several aldermen also shared concern about the potential lengthy timeline with the FHWA decision process. However, DePaola said MassDOT should be able to get a some idea as to what option FHWA would approve -- called "determination of acceptability" -- within 90 days.

The Land Use Committee voted 6-1 Tuesday night to close the public hearing for the special permit application for the Riverside project, with Ald. Harney opposed. The committee unanimously voted in favor of keeping the hearing open for the request to change the zoning of the land to a "Mixed Used 3/Transit Oriented District." The Land Use Committee will now move in to a working session on the project.

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