Land Use Committee Approves Washington Place

Well, at last it’s happened: After a year of public hearings, developer presentations, and questions and comments from the members of the Land Use Committee and other councilors, on Tuesday evening, 30 May, the members of the committee voted on the proposal by Robert Korff to rezone the site of the Orr Block in Newtonville to MU4, then raze the existing buildings and erect in their place a 4- and 5-story structure containing commercial space on the ground floor and residential units above.

The results? Six LUC members voted to approve the zone change that gave developer Robert Korff a windfall: Scott Lennon (Ward 1), Jake Auchincloss (2), Deb Crossley (5), Greg Schwartz (6), Marc Laredo (7), and Rick Lipof (8). Only Councilor Harney (4) voted against the rezoning, while Councilor Cote (3) abstained.

On the special permit itself, with its unresolved issues and the gracious offer to the developer of his choice of building either 140 or 160 residential units, depending on what he thought most advantageous to his own interests, councilors Lennon, Auchincloss, Crossley, Laredo, and Lipof again voted to approve, while Councilor Harney again voted ‘No,” and councilors Cote and Schwartz abstained.

As someone who attended all the hearings held by the Land Use Committee on this proposal, I was, if not entirely surprised, certainly disappointed by the outcome. While I had no expectation that the ‘No’ side would win, I had held out the hope that the votes on both petitions might yield 4-4 ties, which would have sent a message to the full City Council that the LUC was divided in its opinions about the appropriateness of Korff’s project. That the vote was so lopsidedly in favor bodes ill for the future of Washington Street and the rest of Newton—at least for those of us who value Newton’s suburban character.

I find myself particularly irked by the rezoning vote. If I go to a car dealer and negotiate the purchase of a Chevy, I don’t have the expectation that when I take delivery, the dealer will let me drive away in a Cadillac, but that seems to be pretty much how it worked for Mr. Korff. Yet keeping the original BU1 and BU2 zoning would have enabled him to build nearly everything he wanted with respect to commercial and retail space. He simply would have had to restrict the number of residential units to 103 apartments, which I would consider a substantial number for the location.

In the most recent public hearing on Mr. Korff’s Washington Place project, one supporter of the project suggested that those of us who favor a suburban environment should move to Weston. Even if that were a viable alternative—and for many of us it isn’t—I’d turn that around and suggest that those who prefer a place with taller buildings and greater residential density move to Brookline (8,800 residents per sq. mi.), Boston (16,000/sq.mi.) or Somerville (18,000/sq.mi.). Newton’s lower density (4,400/sq.mi) seems just right the way it is, allowing more trees and green space in yards and parks.

For those who believe it is either impossible or wrong to limit growth, I would invite you to contemplate, on the one hand, the Outer Cape, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, and on the other, Atlantic City, Virginia Beach, Miami Beach, and Waikiki Beach. What all these places have in common, of course, is beaches, but the beach environment in the first group is profoundly different from that in the second. Each type of beach has its partisans, though it is possible for the same individual to like beaches of both types at different times and for different reasons. However, I don’t think it’s reasonable to assert that only one type of beach development is desirable, or that places like those in the first group are “underutilized” and ought therefore to be opened to high-rise development.

Likewise Newton and its neighbors in eastern Massachusetts.

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2 Comments on "Land Use Committee Approves Washington Place"

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Bob Jampol

Thanks for the report, none of which surprises me but all of which depresses me. Interestingly, in a piece I wrote several years ago in the Tab, I called the process the “Brooklinization of Newton.” I can’t grasp why increasing our population density appeals to anyone beyond the developers and real estate moguls involved. It’s a tale of greed and profit.

With Newton’s finance and budgets overextended for 30+ years and its commercial income at a low 16%, it makes no sense at all to invest in high-density housing. This will cost the city in perpetuity as people move here to drop their kids in maxed out schools. If you have $30K to spend on your house, do you fix the broken plumbing, replace the rotting porch, or do you put on an addition? Who benefits from these apartment buildings? Certainly not Newton. We need a grown-up in the room to just say no!

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