Faulty Towers: Rezoning as a Gift to Developers

Developers often like to present an image of themselves as risk-takers in the mold of Leif Erikson, Vasco DaGama, and Christopher Columbus—or the captain of the starship “Enterprise”—boldly going where no man has gone before.

But I believe that this is an inappropriate analogy. Explorers achieve renown because they are venturing into the unknown. The risks they face are often unforeseeable and sometimes life-threatening. This is definitely not the case with developers in the 21st Century (except perhaps for Elon Musk and his plan to establish a colony on Mars).

No, today’s developers are not explorers; they are gamblers—but of a very particular kind, perhaps closest to card-counters in blackjack. It’s like the W.C. Fields movie in which a timorous fellow approaches a group of card players and asks hesitantly, “Is this a game of chance?” and the Fields character says under his breath, “Not the way I play it.” As we witnessed during the course of the Austin Street project and seem to be seeing again with Mr. Korff’s proposal for the Orr Block, developers are willing to take a gamble, but only when they’re friends with the casino owner, buddies with the croupier, on good terms with the dealers, know the deck is stacked, and have a card or two up their sleeves.

A well-known illustration of chutzpah is the teenager who murders his parents, then throws himself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that he’s an orphan. Now, in Mr. Korff’s proposal for demolishing the Orr Block and erecting the mammoth Washington Place complex, we have another great example.

Mr. Korff over a period of time has bought up—or acquired options on—a whole group of contiguous properties, spending somewhere between $24 million and $30 million in the process, knowing full well that they were zoned Business 1 and -2, designations that carry clearly-defined constraints on the height of what can be built. Nevertheless, he went ahead with his plans, apparently in the strong expectation that his purchase would be upzoned to Mixed Use 4, which would allow him to greatly increase the density of what’s built and thus, his profits. In the process, he will force out as many as 20 families currently living in 2- and 3-family houses on the site at affordable rents, as well as most, if not all, of the existing businesses, which are unlikely to survive the higher rents that Mr. Korff’s vision of an upscale “Washington Place” will command.

While it’s true that 25% of the units are promised to be affordable, it’s important to acknowledge the corollary that 75% of the units will be market-rate. As we heard during public comments on this project from a woman with long experience in the Newton rental market: “People are pricing out of the Avalons.” I doubt that the market rate for apartments in Newtonville will be substantially different than it is at the Avalons or Arborpoint. If people are “pricing out” of those places, will they not do likewise here? (Indeed during the October 6 hearing, a member of Mr. Korff’s team suggested that a market-rate 1,100 s.f. 2-BR unit in Washington Place would likely rent for about $3,300 per month.)

I think most Newton residents recognize that with the exception of the Chestnut Hill Towers and several other nearby apartment buildings, Newton is not a high-rise city. Three stories is the general rule in our village centers—and, no, church steeples and the tower of the Masonic Building don’t constitute precedents for putting up 4- or 5-story buildings in those areas.

If Mr. Korff’s proposal is accepted—even in the modified, stepped-back alternative plan shown at the hearing on 6 October—I and many others fear that it will be taken as a precedent for the rest of the Washington St corridor from Newton Corner to West Newton, confronting us with the unpleasant prospect of a nearly unbroken wall of 5-story monoliths looming over the sidewalks, very much like what has recently been built on Pleasant St in Watertown.

I find alarming the support given in the Planning Department’s memo of 30 September on the Orr Block proposal to the American Planning Association’s “best practices” in village zoning, which recommend “locating multiple-story buildings at the front of the property in a common street wall to create a sense of visual enclosure and sense of place.” With walls rising 50 to 60 feet above the sidewalk, we’ll feel enclosed all right, and the sense of place will be something like the Flume or Hell’s Canyon, without the trees and running water.

As we all know, the City Council has already approved the construction of the Mixed Use 4 Austin Street apartment and retail complex, in the face of serious concerns for the viability of the area voiced by many residents. Construction on that project has not even begun, and the results won’t be known for several years, yet Mr. Korff and his supporters want the City to go ahead and approve an even bigger project now.

The infrastructure can’t be significantly altered, the commuter rail service is still spotty and the station inaccessible to all but those in their physical prime, and the toll on existing businesses is expected to be severe, but none of that matters to Mr. Korff. He’s trying to externalize his risk by getting his property upzoned to MU4. He gets the goldmine, while the residents of Newtonville once again get the shaft. But neither this city, its councilors, or we, its residents, have any obligation to assure Mr. Korff the profit margin he desires. He should build what he can under the existing zoning.

Come to think of it, developers like Mr. Korff are a lot like Columbus: they show up where they’re not wanted, drive out the natives, and get someone else to foot much of the bill.

Rising septuagenarian; 40-year resident of Newton, though a Northern Californian by birth. Married, with two Millennial daughters who are products of the Newton school system (Countryside, Brown, NSHS).

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