Alderman Lisle Baker Baker Alderman for Ward 7

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Reproduced with permission of the Newton TAB

Baker: How big is too big here?
By Lisle Baker/ Guest Commentary
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A proposal has been made to build a 132-unit high-rise condominium project on less than one-and-a-half acres next to the Waban Hill neighborhood at 27-35 Commonwealth Ave. It is currently the site of a small 12-unit apartment building and an adjacent house.

Is this the best use of this land?

Since Newton's zoning ordinances limit development to low-rise residential scale, neighbors ask me, as their ward alderman, how can something this big get built on so small a site? They ask if it can happen here, can it happen anywhere in Newton?

Chapter 40B of state law allows certain developers to bypass Newton's zoning limits if a portion of the units are allocated for low- and moderate-income residents, an important benefit to Newton's housing supply. Here, Covenant Residences, as it is called, is being proposed by the well-regarded nonprofit B'nai B'rith Housing New England, and will set aside 33 of the 132 one- to two-bedroom units for residents below median income.

A number of such 40B developments have occurred throughout Newton, including a 204-unit project under construction in Chestnut Hill on Boylston Street.

So what is it about this Covenant project which causes such concern among hundreds of its neighbors?

Compared to the three other large 40B projects in Newton (Arbor Point at the Woodland T station or Avalon in Chestnut Hill and Avalon on Needham Street) the Covenant project will have twice as many units per acre and will rise twice as tall - 9 to 10 stories above grade, towering above and overshadowing its neighbors. Such high density leaves little room for open space between its neighbors or for its occupants to use on site.

Covenant Residences will also displace an existing parking lot behind the apartment house where extra spaces are now rented, and will provide 165 parking spaces in two decks under the 132 new units. This is 1 1/4 parking spaces per unit compared with more than two spaces per unit at Avalon in Chestnut Hill. This could force Covenant project residents and guests to park in a neighborhood already burdened with double and other illegal parking.

But what about the MBTA's B Line nearby? The problem is that it runs slowly and only into Boston, and there is no supermarket or drug store nearby, meaning project residents will still drive to shop and work. These trips will add several hundred cars of new traffic in and out to neighborhood roads and intersections, creating difficult pedestrian access and adding to already growing congestion as Boston College expands east.

I helped organize two neighborhood meetings with the developers where they were urged to reconsider their proposals. Although they did agree to reduce the Covenant project from 179 units for rent to 132 units for sale, it is still too large for so small and difficult a site.

Newton's Housing Partnership, a citizen body appointed by the mayor to advise about projects like this one, did not support a much less dense 40B project in Auburndale two years ago in part because of neighborhood concerns. The partnership has been asked also not to support this one for similar reasons, and is scheduled to take up the matter again on June 29 at 7:45 a.m. at Newton City Hall.

I and my Ward 7 colleagues, Alderman Verne Vance and Sydra Schnipper, share concerns about the size, design and impacts of the current Covenant proposal. We are ready to work with the developers, the neighbors and the city to craft a better future for this land that provides affordable housing but also makes sense for the site and fits in with its neighbors. At this time, Covenant Residences does not meet those criteria.

R. Lisle Baker is the ward alderman for Newton's Ward 7 and president of the board.

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