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300-unit apartment proposal in Needham clears first hurdle

Posted by Leslie Anderson  January 25, 2013 10:22 AM

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A proposed 300-unit apartment complex for Greendale Avenue in Needham has cleared its first hurdle under the state’s affordable housing law, even as local officials contend the development would overwhelm the residential neighborhood.

In a letter dated Jan. 15, the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency granted the developer permission to take the proposal to the Needham Zoning Board of Appeals. MassHousing is a quasi-public agency that provides financing for affordable housing in the state.

“Town government in Needham, and the population at large, support affordable housing,” said selectman Moe Handel. “The issue here is the scale and the siting, not the affordability. I would be personally opposed to any development of this magnitude in that location. And I believe that concern would be shared by many others in the town.”

The proposal calls for five buildings, ranging in height from two to four stories, on a six-acre parcel, according to Robert D. Hewitt, Vice President of Development at Mill Creek Residential Trust LLC. Of the 300 rental units, 75 would be affordable.

“Obviously, we think it’s viable,” said Hewitt. “We don’t think there is anything that prohibits development here. If needed, we would challenge any denial from the town.”

Under the state’s Chapter 40B law, which is meant to encourage the construction of affordable housing, developers are allowed to bypass many local zoning rules in communities where less than 10 percent of the housing stock is called affordable by the state. Needham has 7.6 percent, according to the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

A local zoning board is allowed to deny a permit for an affordable project, but the law allows the developer to file an appeal with the state – and often, the state allows reasonable projects to move forward, according to the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, a nonprofit housing advocate.

Needham’s Zoning Board of Appeals clerk Marita Klements declined to comment on the project because she has not yet received any paperwork from the developer. Hewitt said he plans to file within the next month.

He said that before he files, he will be reaching out to neighbors to discuss potential issues.

“Often, there’s a lot of concern about anything that’s a change,” he said. “I think as people understand it and get more information, oftentimes, it’s not as objectionable as you thought.”

Hewitt also said that if the project moves forward, it would push Needham’s affordable housing percentage over the 10 percent the state calls for.

But Needham officials say that the project is just too big for Greendale Avenue.

“The Board of Selectmen is of the unanimous opinion that the development of 300 units of housing on a six acre parcel in a residential neighborhood is inappropriate,” wrote Needham Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick in a letter to MassHousing dated Oct. 31, 2012.

“The town is committed to achieving an affordable housing goal of 10 percent, working with private developers to permit and construct projects of different types and sizes,” she wrote. “However, the board is convinced that the sheer size of this proposal will be significantly disruptive to the neighborhood and contrary to the best interests of our citizens.”

In the Jan. 15 letter allowing the development to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals, MassHousing said that though the project is denser than the surrounding lots, it has been designed to be “compatible” with the other homes in the neighborhood.

Hewitt said that the developers have spoken to some residents, and the reaction has been mixed.

“I always hear concerns about Greendale Ave., which gets traffic today. People are concerned about safety. That’s one thing we’ll be looking at closely,” he said. A traffic study is in the works, he said, and prospective renters would have to pass background checks.

Still, public debate over the development could be contentious.

“I can’t speak for my colleagues, officially, but in my judgment, the town has already made it clear that it opposes the scale of this development,” said Handel. “I anticipate there will be a lot of opposition from many neighbors and abutters in that portion of the town.”

Evan can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com.

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