Austin Street development incites controversy amid vote today


Jackie Gong

by Jackie Gong
Since the city deemed the Austin Street parking lot surplus in 2012, opinions over the future development of the municipal lot have been split across the city. A project proposal for a mixed-use building from a group known as the Austin Street Partners LLP (ASP) has been under review by the Board of Aldermen Land Use Committee after mayor Setti Warren officially submitted a special permit application to redevelop the lot last May. While some have embraced the idea of a new building in the Newtonville lot, others have wholeheartedly rejected it.
The special permit, which was voted on today, will not stop or ensure development of the lot once and for all. If denied, developers (including ASP) will continue to have the opportunity to present different proposals. If approved, there is still an ongoing lawsuit filed by a dozen Newton residents suing the city in order to stop the project.
According to ASP’s website, the project includes 68 apartments for rent—including 25 percent set aside as affordable housing—a 5,000 square foot first-floor retail space, and a public plaza with a dining area, benches, and a wider sidewalk. The building is currently planned to be four stories high, six feet lower than the original proposal after concerns were voiced that the building would be too tall and make Newtonville seem crowded. A recently-revised proposal of the project included a 99-year lease on the lot instead of a sale of the land.
Due to the lack of enough on-site parking at this school, “Tiger Permit” spaces in the lot were once eligible for purchase for students to use.
These spaces in the lot were deemed underused after a study by the City’s traffic council that concluded that they were unnecessary, and that there were more than enough spaces on Lowell Avenue for students to park.
The project plans to replace 127 of the current 159 spaces of public parking in the lot that would continue to be owned by the city, while 90 private spaces underneath the building plan to be added for residents and employees.
A Goodwill trailer currently in the lot would be moved to a recycling facility on Rumford Avenue, two miles away from its original location.
The “Newton Villages Alliance” (NVA) opposes the project. According to its website, residents and businesses “have reason to be deeply concerned about the process of declaring the lot surplus, rezoning it from public use and selecting Austin Street Partners (ASP) to be awarded control over this valuable parcel of public land. The process has lacked transparency and seems deeply flawed.”
NVA board member Kathleen Kouril Grieser has had many concerns about the project.
In an opinion piece published in the Newton Tab this past October, Kouril Grieser wrote that the project would negatively affect the physical character of the neighborhood and that residents “want to see our commercial tax base strengthened to pay for schools, services, and our unfunded liabilities, not demolished to make way for more…complexes that burden infrastructure.”
In another opinion piece, also published to the Tab, Kouril Grieser discussed that Newton should focus on current residents who struggle with the city’s rising property taxes and high cost of living.
Citing a demographic study that found 12.5% of Newton households live on $25,000 or less per year, Kouril Grieser wrote that “the study put to rest idea that Newton needs to build units to import poor people for they are already here and being displaced by the radical transformation and urbanization of our villages now underway.”
“Friends of Austin Street” has been the main organization in support of the project. The group, which is unaffiliated with Austin Street Partners, is made up of multiple Newton organizations and individuals, such as Engine 6 and the League of Women Voters. According to Friends of Austin Street member Kathleen Hobson, a petition in favor of the project has gathered 705 signatures.
Hobson believes that the impact of the project will be “entirely positive. For local merchants, 68 new homes in downtown Newtonville will mean more regular customers who don’t need to drive to shop. The project will result in a more coherent, walkable village.”
According to Hobson, projects by the City to improve infrastructure and traffic circulation as well as improvements made by the developers “will decrease congestion and increase safety—and benefit everybody.”
Hobson said that she does not believe the lot can be improved without the project. “I don’t think the parking lot is even on the City’s capital improvement schedule,” she said. “It was declared surplus…with the understanding that a developer would eventually improve it.”
Hattie Gawande, who graduated from South in 2014, submitted a testimony to the board in favor of the project, discussing the reality of young adults not being able to afford single-family housing in Newton.
If the project fails, Gawande believes “Newton is the poorer for it. Developers will be scared to come to Newton, and Newton is going to solidify its reputation as hostile to multi-family and affordable housing,” she said.
“Few developers will want to come here again. The opposition will get what they want, but on a much, much larger scale, they’ve effectively killed any hypothetical affordable or multi-housing project that we could ever build in the future,” she added.
Alderman at Large Susan Albright, who has been an advocate for the concept of a mixed-use project on the lot, plans to “carefully review each aspect of the project” before deciding her vote.
“Land Use [Committee] members need to keep an open mind as they judge the project,” she said. “Can you imagine walking into court and on the first day the judge says, ‘You’re guilty, now start the trial’?”
Albright said that factors such as safety, energy efficiency, and parking requirement compliances all must be satisfied before she approves the project. The project requires a two-thirds vote, 16 aldermen, before it can be approved.