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Needham 40B apartment developer appealing town's decision to slash project size

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  February 27, 2014 05:00 PM

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The 300-unit residential complex was proposed for 692 and 744 Greendale Ave. in Needham.

A developer who wants to build a 300-unit apartment complex on Greendale Avenue in Needham is fighting the town's decision that the project must be capped at 108 units.

Mill Creek Residential Trust LLC, who proposed the project under the state’s Chapter 40B affordable housing law, was given permission from the quasi-public Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency last January to take their five-building, 262,000-square foot proposal to Needham’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

But after months of hearings, Needham's Zoning Board of Appeals decided on Dec. 19 that the complex must be drastically reduced in order to go forward. They also decided that the project would also have to follow town setback, elevation and open space requirements, and that the developer would have to pay for a traffic signal there.

But developers from Mill Creek Residential filed an appeal on Feb. 12 with the state's Housing Appeals Committee, the governing body that deals with Chapter 40B affordable housing conflicts.

Robb Hewitt, managing director at Mill Creek Residential, said that developers were "disappointed" in the zoning board decision, adding that the board "effectively denied our proposal."

"We had no choice but to appeal the decision since the conditions of the decision render the development uneconomic," Hewitt said. "Unfortunately, the appeal will be costly for both us and the town, causing the town to spend significant resources that most certainly could be better and more constructively spent."

The town has zoned the six-acre site so that no more than four residential units can be built on one acre, although town officials said guidelines would allow up to 10 units per acre for affordable developments. But the developers were able to bypass local zoning laws to propose building 50 units per acre under Chapter 40B, a state law that encourages affordable housing construction.

Currently, about 7 percent of Needham’s housing is affordable under state guidelines. Selectman Dan Matthews previously told the Globe that the project as originally proposed, offering 75 affordable rental units and 225 market rate units, would push Needham over the state's required 10-percent threshold, giving local officials greater control over proposed developments.

"Of course, it is also disappointing that the denial of our project misses an opportunity for Needham to achieve the 10 percent affordable housing goal," Hewitt said.

However, the project gained staunch opposition from town residents and officials, who cited its high density, proximity to the highway, and negative pollution and traffic effects.

In the end, the town's concerns won out in the zoning board's decision.

"The applicant has been stubbornly demanding an extremely dense development that will destroy green space, crowd occupants, create unnecessary traffic congestion and not fit with its neighborhood," the written decision says.

"If the applicant cannot build an economical project at a density approximating 108 units while addressing the board's other local concerns, then the site is simply not the right location for the project and the application should be denied," the decision says.

Jason Talerman, an attorney who will represent Needham in the appeal, said the first meeting in front of the state appeal commission will take place Friday.

"The town feels very strongly that its decision is completely defensible," Talerman said. "The zoning board worked for more than six months to collect data, numbers, and expert reports and arrives at decision that is both fair and equitable and will, in fact, will result in a good project if the developer wishes to build it."

Although developers said a smaller complex would not make them money, Talerman disagreed.

"The data presented is quite the contrary, and indicates that it will be profitable in the density and design approved by the board," he said.

Talerman, who has represented dozens of towns in 40B cases, said appeal cases can take anywhere between six months and four years to resolve.

"This is a pretty big project and there's a lot of issues, so I expect a lot will be on the table," he said. "I doubt it would be on the shorter side."

As previously proposed, the development's project plans called for one- and two-bedroom apartments with gourmet kitchens and in-unit laundry machines. The complex would have also featured an outdoor swimming pool, a fitness center, a WiFi lounge, an underground parking garage, and a pet-friendly policy, according to developers.

Needham ZBA Presentation single rendering.jpg

Handout, Mill Creek Residential

A rendering of the proposed 300-unit development on Greendale Avenue.

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Follow us on Twitter: @yourtownneedham, @jaclynreiss

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com

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