The Kesseler Woods Story
An Inside Look at How this Minor Miracle Came to Pass
Remarkably, the City of Newton has prevailed in its effort to acquire the 42-acre Kesseler Woods property owned by NStar (formerly Boston Edison). The story of how this extraordinary achievement came to pass is only partially known, because of the need for secrecy at critical points along the way, given the decision by NStar to sell the property by auction. A more public process would have jeopardized the city’s ability to succeed in this competitive process, but now the details of the story can be revealed. Interestingly, local news organizations have shown little interest in telling this story in a thorough and accurate way. So here’s how it looked from the inside.
When NStar notified the city in January that it intended to sell this property on the southeast corner of Newton by auction, three things became clear. First, NStar had no intention of giving the city a break in its effort to acquire the land. The Newton Conservators had been informally discussing ways to transfer the property to city ownership, so the company was aware that the city was interested and that other avenues were open for achieving this result.
Our belief at the time was that NStar felt constrained because of the oversight role of the Attorney General to create a process that demonstrated that it would get the maximum value for the land. The AG’s oversight role resulted from energy deregulation legislation enacted in the mid-90s that required ratepayer relief through the disposal of all surplus assets. Kesseler Woods was NStar’s last remaining unused property.
The second thing that became clear when NStar announced its intention to sell the property by auction is that the city had too little time under NStar’s six-week bidding schedule to craft a qualifying proposal. The public sector requires more time than private developers to make things happen, and we would need an extension in order to participate. Mayor Cohen was successful in convincing the Attorney General to require longer bidding period, and the time frame was extended from February 21st to June 20th.
Finally, it was clear that the city could not afford to purchase this land by itself, even though preserving the entire 42+ acres as open space was everyone’s initial goal. Reluctantly, the task force convened by the Mayor to advise him in this process agreed that a private development partner, who would share acquisition costs with the city, offered the city its best chance to succeed. The question then became how to find a partner who had the interest, the cash and a willingness to work with the city to achieve its goals for the property.
Three steps would be needed to move in this direction. First, a series of conceptual designs would be needed to understand the development constraints, how the property might be developed under various scenarios and the highest and best use of the property from the city’s point of view. Second, a land appraisal would be needed to help the city determine the value of the property. And third, a set of goals needed to be articulated for the benefit of potential partners as well as our own purposes in crafting a bid strategy.
A request for up to $50,000 was submitted to the Community Preservation Committee to fund the services of a land planner and an appraiser. This expenditure was approved by CPC and the Board of Aldermen in February. Sasaki Associates and LandVest, both highly respected firms, were hired to handle the land planning and appraisal projects, respectively.
Out of this phase of the process came a set of goals (see April/May Conservators Newsletter) and a template for use of the land that became the basis for issuance of a Request for Interest to the development community. To our surprise, xx developers submitted proposals to the city. These proposals covered a wide range of ideas, including some that were very creative in responding to the city’s goals and others that seemed not to have read our criteria (one developer proposed up to 246 housing units). The list was quickly whittled down to a handful of the most responsive proposals.
After careful evaluation of each developer’s proposal, track record, financial capacity, and flexibility in working with the city, Cornerstone was selected as our partner. Several factors distinguished Cornerstone from the others:
- Their proposal fit our open space preservation and development goals closely,
- The cluster housing they suggested for the area off LaGrange Street was cleverly designed to look like large single-family homes, making them visually more in keeping with the neighborhood,
- They were willing to work flexibly with the city toward a final bid agreement, and
- They proposed a contribution toward land acquisition that made the financial part of the project work.
After a period of negotiation, Cornerstone and the city agreed to bid $11.3 million for the property, with the city contributing $5 million and Cornerstone the remaining $6.3 million. In exchange for its contribution, Cornerstone would be allowed to build 8 single-family homes off Brookline Street and 55 units of multi-family housing, 20% of which would be affordable, off LaGrange. This would leave the southernmost sections of the parcel undeveloped, which would enable connection of the large pieces of open space in that area ( Sawmill Brook Conservation Area and Baldpate Meadow) already owned by the city. We believed that the development contraints and associated risks associated with the Kesseler Woods property (see April/May Conservators Newsletter) would keep the bid prices low and that a $11.3 million bid could indeed prevail.
The Community Preservation Committee and the Board of Aldermen met separately and together in executive session to consider a request to fund the $5 million city portion from CPA funds. This would require bonding against future CPA revenues over a 10-year period, requiring that we set aside 40% of next year’s fund to pay down the bond. This share would decline by a percent in each of the remaining years to 30% in year ten. The actual amounts range from $680,000 in year one to $518,000 in year ten.
The main concern of both groups was the amount of affordable housing included in the plan and, with agreement that the number of affordable units would be increased to 20% of the LaGrange Street development, the CPC unanimously recommended to the Board of Aldermen that these funds be approved. The Board ultimately did approve the $5 million and the bid was submitted on Friday, June 20th to NStar.
The company indicated in its bid spec that the winner of the auction would be announced the following week, but the following week came and went with no word. Finally, in mid-July we learned that there would be a second round of bidding. An unidentified developer had submitted a high bid (the rumor is that it was nearly twice as much as the second-place bid), but had failed to close the sale. Now NStar was opening a second round to the three or four highest bidders from the first round. The city was one of those invited to submit a new proposal and bids were due on Friday, August 8th.
Knowing that there had been a higher bidder and that those invited back would be re-examining their assumptions, the Mayor went back to the appraisal data developed for the first round and, working with Cornerstone, determined how much more the city would need to offer to win the auction. That led to a discussion about how much the city could afford to add to the $5 million already approved and how many more units of housing would need to be added to the first-round proposal to justify additional dollars from Cornerstone.
By early August, a deal had been struck. If the city put up an additional $1 million, Cornerstone would add $2.8 million to its previous share for a total bid of $15.1 million. In exchange for the additional $2.8 million, the developer added three house lots to the eight already agreed along Brookline Street and seven units of multi-family housing in the area off LaGrange Street. This meant the total number of units would increase from 63 to 73 units.
On August 4th, the Community Preservation Committee met, again in executive session, to consider the Mayor’s request for the additional $1 million. Since there was not time for the Board of Aldermen to act on the request, the CPC did not take a formal vote that evening. But it did discuss the proposal at length and gave the Mayor its support in principle. Later that evening, the committee met in executive session with the Board of Aldermen for the purpose of presenting its position in support.
The Mayor then asked the Board for its sense of whether he was on the right track with this deal and whether they would likely approve the request for an additional $1 million in CPA funds, should the city prevail at the auction. With another plea for a minimum of 20% affordable units along LaGrange Street (the number had fallen one unit below that threshold as a result of the negotiation with Cornerstone), the Board gave its tentative approval.
On Friday, August 8th, the city and Cornerstone submitted a bid for $15.1 million for the NStar property. The next week, we learned that ours was the winning bid. The rumor mill, again, indicated that we prevailed by a narrow margin, making our success all the sweeter. On August 28th, Cornerstone and the city signed a Purchase and Sale Agreement with NStar. The transaction is expected to close on January 7, 2004.
The Community Preservation Committee met again on September 2nd to formally consider the Mayor’s request for the additional $1 million. About 20 citizens attended the meeting, many of whom were neighbors and all but one of whom spoke strongly in favor of the project. CPC voted unanimously to recommend to the Board of Aldermen that the city expend the additional million in CPA funds. If approved, this will raise the share of local CPA annual revenue devoted to acquisition of Kesseler Woods to 48% in the first year. By year ten, that share will fall to 37%. Actual amounts range from $816,000 in 2004 to $621,000 in 2014, when the bond is fully paid down.
This recommendation now goes to the Board of Aldermen for consideration. Two Board committees, the Ad hoc Committee on Community Preservation and the Finance Committee, will formally review and vote on the request, followed by the full Board, probably sometime in October.
Meanwhile, a number of steps will be set in motion to move this project along. First, the conceptual plans developed during the bidding process will be fleshed out. Cornerstone will likely begin with the single-family houses along Brookline Street, since most can be built without special permit or other approvals. The city’s agreement with Cornerstone allows three of these homes to be constructed in rear lots. This will require special permit approval by the Board of Aldermen under the rear-lot subdivision ordinance.
Planning for the multi-family housing development along LaGrange Street will likely follow the Brookline Street subdivision. This part of the project would also require a special permit because its density exceeds the number of units permitted by the zoning ordinance. Also, grade changes of more that three feet are likely to be required, again triggering a petition for special permit. In approving CPA funds for purchase of the land, the Board of Aldermen does not by default signal its approval for special permit applications required for the project. Each special permit request will be considered on its merits and action will be taken independent of the Board’s earlier votes.
Knowing this, Cornerstone negotiated a fall-back position. If special permits are not approved, the developer is entitled to build up to 80 single-family homes and/or multi-family units in a configuration that conforms to the zoning ordinance or that is allowed by the state’s anti-snob zoning law. In either case, 20% of the units are required by the agreement to meet affordable housing standards.
The lots on Brookline and LaGrange Streets are required to be situated in a way that creates a substantial buffer zone between the new homes and existing homes on Harwich Road in Newton and Rangeley Road in Brookline. If the special permit is not approved by the Board of Aldermen, the layout Cornerstone chooses may not provide this degree of separation, since the amount of open space in these two areas will likely be reduced or eliminated.
Another contingency affecting the number of housing units is included in the agreement with Cornerstone. If the Board of Aldermen fails to approve the additional $1 million from CPA funds, Cornerstone will contribute the million dollars to the deal, but will build three additional single-family homes off Brookline Street. This too would greatly reduce or eliminate the buffer zone negotiated as part of the preferred development plan.
In addition to the Board of Aldermen, the developer must go before the Conservation Commission to get approval to build near the brooks and wetlands that run through this property ( Sawmill Brook and its tributaries). The conceptual plan is to keep buildings as far away from the wetlands as possible and to cede ownership of much of the wetlands to the city, either by deed restriction or by gift. This wetland will be added to the approximately 18 acres the city will purchase with its $6 million contribution to the deal.
Once purchased, the city plans to assign jurisdiction of this property to the Conservation Commission to be used as conservation land. As mentioned earlier, it will abut two existing conservation areas of significant size, creating a large swath of green space in this section of the city. The land will be used for three primary purposes: passive recreation, wildlife habitat and wetland preservation, permitting groundwater recharge. Existing walking trails will be extended and new trails will be constructed, offering connections among the various conservation areas, new and old.
In meeting in executive session, the CPC and the Board of Aldermen followed the provisions of the state’s Open Meeting Law, which allows municipal boards to go into executive session to consider land acquisitions, among other reasons. This part of the law recognizes the sensitive nature of these transactions and the disadvantage that would be created by requiring deliberations to be part of the public record. This would providing potential competitors information that would virtually guarantee their ability to outbid the city in its effort to acquire land.
The Open Meeting Law does require disclosure of minutes and other documents after the outcome of the process is known. This information is now available on the city’s Web site at ci.newton.ma.us.
All the Things That Didn’t Happen at Kesseler Woods
They say you make your own luck. But luck of the kind the city experienced at Kesseler Woods is difficult to fabricate.
Here are some of the things that could have gone wrong, but fortunately didn’t, in the city’s effort to acquire Kesseler Woods through NStar’s auction process, protecting most of the land as publicly-accessible open space.
The Over-the-Market Bid
When a large institution decides that it needs 42 acres for its own purposes and can’t get it any other way, it may submit a bid so high that no one else is likely to top it. To attract a bid of that kind is the seller’s reason for the auction. In recent years, this strategy worked well for the Turnpike Authority and for Conrail in Allston, where Harvard submitted bids for large parcels of acreage in the hundreds of millions of dollars, roughly double the land’s market price. Kesseler Woods was potentially attractive to institutions in Newton and Brookline. But none submitted a bid of this kind.
The Excessive City Bid
If the city’s bid exceeded the second highest bid by a wide margin-say, $15 million from the city versus $10 million from the next bidder-the City would have been subject to the criticism that it had vastly overspent and wasted the taxpayers’ money. That didn’t happen either. The next highest bid was low by only “the price of a Mercedes,” a small amount in comparison to the total bid.
If the city’s bid were leaked, the competition could easily have over-matched the city slightly. Instead, the bid price was kept secret-not a small feat for a local government.
To Lose Barely
If the city’s bid were short, but just barely, the next discussion in the open space community would likely have been that the city take the land by eminent domain and pay NStar the winning bidder’s price. The city has that right. To exercise it might have been perceived as unfair to the winning bidder, of course. And, if the city had spoken of eminent domain before the auction, it could have unfairly poisoned the auction process. Eminent domain has its own pitfalls. If it can be avoided, it is best avoided. Instead, none of that happened. The city never spoke of eminent domain. And the city was the one that won, just barely.
An auction is about price. The price the city will pay, $15.1 million, is fair. NStar received unsolicited offers in the range of $14 to $15 million before it entered the auction process. It can be argued that, if NStar had marketed the property in standard fashion, through a broker, over the course of several months, it could have gotten a higher price. The land was appraised at a higher price-nearly $20 million-more than two years ago. NStar has made it a practice to sell its land at auction. The auction process opens the door to very high bids, if there are very high bidders, like institutions, with a pressing need. In this case, the process seems to have worked to NStar’s disadvantage-and to the benefit of Newton.
Conservators Take Position on Kesseler Woods Purchase
As the Board of Aldermen took up the Community Preservation Committee’s recommendation to spend an additional $1 million to acquire Kesseler Woods, the Board of the Newton Conservators met to determine its position and convey it to the two aldermanic committees charged with reviewing the proposal. Below is the text of the letter outlining the Conservators’ statement on this issue:
October 27, 2003
Alderman Amy Sangiolo
Chair, Ad hoc Committee on Community Preservation
Alderman Paul Coletti
Chair, Finance Committee
Newton Board of Aldermen
Dear Ms. Sangiolo and Mr. Coletti,
I am writing on behalf of the Newton Conservators for two purposes: to express our appreciation of the work of city officials that has led to the acquisition of Kesseler Woods; and to comment on the proposed expenditure of an additional $1 million for the acquisition.
The mission of the Conservators is to preserve open space. To this purpose we heartily applaud the Mayor, the CPC, and the Board of Aldermen. The acquisition of Kesseler Woods has been a high priority of the Conservators for many years. The city’s winning effort to acquire the land is a great success. The city undertook a difficult process in partnering with a private developer, in keeping the amount of the bid secret, and in submitting a bid that topped the others yet gained the land at a very favorable price. This acquisition is an example of what can be accomplished by the Community Preservation Act and will be appreciated for generations to come.
The Conservators promote basic principles regarding open space acquisitions. We seek open spaces that are contiguous to other open spaces. We seek whenever possible to create the largest open area. And we believe that these spaces should be easily accessible to the public. The Conservators’ Board of Directors met on Wednesday evening, October 22, and was unable to reach a consensus on whether to support either of the two current alternatives for the land on Brookline Street. In particular, our concern is with the proposed configuration of the open space to be protected in the 11-lot plan.
We look forward to endorsing a workable plan for this portion of the site that does create the most contiguous open space with public access. During our discussion, individuals on the Conservators’ Board pointed out how the development plan in that area might be altered to provide the developer equal benefits while increasing the public benefits of better access and more open space. These Conservators may wish to convey their advice individually. We appreciate that the city, of necessity, has available to it only limited options in altering the development plan for this portion of the site. We offer as guidance from the open space community that open space in that location not be isolated and that the acreage in publicly accessible open space be maximized.
Eric Reenstierna, President
Action by the Board of Aldermen
The CPC recommendation garnered a tie vote in the Ad hoc Committee and failed in a Finance Committee vote in a joint meeting of the two committees. Some aldermen who opposed the expenditure cited their belief that giving up a few acres (estimates ranged from 3-4 acres based on various plans) of open space was worth the savings of $1 million. Under the agreement negotiated by the city, the developer guaranteed the $1 million and would have the right to three additional house lots along Brookline Street if the city failed to appropriate the money.
Other aldermen indicated their concern about a three-quarter acre parcel of open space that would serve as a buffer between existing and new homes to which public access would be limited. A view was expressed by some that ground apparently lost by not spending the $1 million could be made up in the special permit process when this project comes before the Board of Aldermen as part of the land use process. Finally, some members of the Board felt that the million dollars could be better spent on other projects in the city.
The proposal went before the full Board of Aldermen on Monday, November 3 and was chartered by Alderman Ciccone. This means that the matter is automatically tabled until the next meeting, to be held on Monday, November 17. That meeting had not been held as of this writing.
Other activity on the Kesseler Woods acquisition includes the delineation of wetlands, required to determine areas that are protected under the state Rivers Act and other wetlands legislation. This falls under the jurisdiction of the Conservation Commission. In addition, the developer continues to develop plans for the Brookline Street parcel, which will be the first of the two development parcels to go through the city’s land use process.
The first step is the subdivision of the property, which will be considered by the Planning and Development Board. Lots that require grade changes of three or more feet or that constitute rear lots, as defined by city ordinance, will also require a special permit from the Board of Aldermen.
The acquisition is scheduled to close on January 7, 2004, the date the city will take ownership of its share of the property and Cornerstone, the city’s development partner, will take ownership of parcels on LaGrange and Brookline Streets.
Kesseler Woods Update
The purchase of Kesseler Woods by the city and its development partner, Cornerstone Corporation, from NStar in January was postponed because of a new requirement imposed by the state Department of Telecommunications and Energy. DTE halted the transaction until it can hold a hearing to review NStar’s plans for distributing the proceeds of the sale to its customers. This hearing is currently scheduled to be held in March. If all goes well, the closing is expected to occur in early April.
Meanwhile, the Conservators, under the leadership of Cris Criscitiello, Jon Regosin and Eric Reenstierna, have been working with Cornerstone to map out a proposed trail through the area that will not be built on by the developer. As currently conceived, the trail would cross Vine Street from the southern parcel and proceed in the direction of South Branch, an annual stream that enters the property from LaGrange Street. This waterway separates the portion of the northern parcel that the city will own (the portion south of this stream) from the part that Cornerstone will own. Since the area from South Brook north to a rocky ledge that roughly demarcates the buildable upland portion of the property along LaGrange Street is not conducive to construction (it is either protected wetland or too steep for building), the trail is proposed to cross South Branch and continue to and along the base of the rocky outcropping of Roxbury puddingstone.
Atop this ledge is a community of plants that Jon Regosin, a biologist and Conservators director, say is rare in Newton. It contains a variety of mosses and lichens, as well as a wonderful view Sawmill Brook below and a large portion of the protected wetland that will be donated to the city by Cornerstone through a conservation restriction. Ideally, the edge of this ledge would be preserved to allow a branch of the trail to reach the top of the outcropping and for walkers to enjoy the view as well as the special character of the plant life.
From the ledge, the trail would wind westward toward Sawmill Brook, with which South Branch connects. It would follow Sawmill Brook, a perennial stream, toward the Brookline town line. There is an opportunity for a bridge across Sawmill Brook to enable walkers to connect to Harwich Road , which connects to Brookline Street on the opposite side of the property.
Cornerstone has committed $90,000 for the construction of trails and other amenities. Their representative has been receptive to suggestions by the Conservators about the location of trails and the nature of amenities. Those conversations are expected to continue in conjunction with city officials.
Doug Dickson, with input from Cris Criscitiello
Photos by Doug Dickson
Kesseler Woods Purchase Complete
Subdivision Plan for Brookline Street Filed with City
After a three-month delay ordered by regulators, the 42-acre Kesseler Woods property was formally conveyed by NStar to the City of Newton and its development partner, Cornerstone Corporation, on Wednesday, April 7. The delay allowed the Department of Telecommunications and Energy to review the transaction to ensure that the price and sale process were fair to consumers. DTE approved the sale in late March. Proceeds will be distributed by NStar to ratepayers, as required by 1994 legislation deregulating the telecommunications industry in Massachusetts .
As a result of the transaction, which went off uneventfully, the city took possession of nine acres of open space adjacent to the existing Sawmill Brook Conservation Area on the south side of Vine Street along with an additional three acres north of Vine Street . Cornerstone now owns the remaining 30+ acres, but a conservation easement of about 16 acres is expected to be granted to the city when the two Cornerstone projects are complete. This additional land straddles Sawmill Brook and South Branch, a stream that feeds into Sawmill Brook, from the city-owned conservation land to the Brookline town line. Altogether, this will create a 28-acre parcel of open space.
By connecting the existing 20-acre Sawmill Brook Conservation Area with the approximately 5-acre Baldpate Meadow Conservation Area, this new property will create a 50-plus-acre swath of green in this part of the city. In addition to recreational opportunities, this area will preserve much-needed wildlife habitat, groundwater recharge and other environmental benefits.
Cornerstone has filed a subdivision plan for the first of two developments it will build, this one along Brookline Street . It shows a 13-lot plan, nine in the subdivision itself and four with frontage on Brookline Street . The firm’s representatives have been meeting with city staff on road engineering, water and sewer service, tree removal and other details needed to proceed with the subdivision process.
A hearing is scheduled before the Conservation Commission on Thursday, April 15, to begin the process of getting their approval for work adjacent to the wetland. In addition to Conservation Commission approval, the subdivision must be approved by the Planning and Development Board (acting as the Board of Survey) and a special permit will likely be needed from the Board of Aldermen because of grade changes required to build in this area.
Once all the required approvals are obtained, Cornerstone intends to develop the infrastructure, including roadway, sewer and water, and then to sell off the lots individually to other developers, who will construct the thirteen new homes. Cornerstone plans to begin the process of developing the larger property along LaGrange Street after this first project is underway.
A Good Plan for Newton
February 3, 2005
THE COMMUNITY Preservation Act is designed to allow a city or town to establish a special fund to preserve open space and encourage construction of affordable housing. The state Legislature should not stand in the way of Newton using $5 million of this money to safeguard much of Kesseler Woods, one of the few undeveloped tracts of land in the city, while still facilitating the creation of housing.
If this project were in the heart of Newton, it would move forward without question. Because it is on the Brookline border, Representative Michael Rush, who represents part of that town and most of West Roxbury, has intervened. The objections of a few constituents should not trump the greater good of everyone in the area.
The Brookline residents are worried because a 62-unit condominium development would be located a few hundred feet from their doors. Eleven single-family homes are also planned. The neighbors may want to keep Kesseler Woods free of development, but that is out of the question. Until 2004 the land was owned by NStar. To maximize the value of the site, it had obtained preliminary approval for 68 single-family homes, without open space laid out to facilitate public access.
Newton, working with Cornerstone Corporation, has devised a plan that will preserve more than half the 42-acre site as open space, yet the company is putting more into the land purchase than the city, $10.1 million compared with $5 million. Cornerstone will contribute $75,000 for trails on the conserved land to encourage access.
Housing prices have skyrocketed in all three communities. Under the plan, 12 of the 62 condominiums will be sold at reduced prices to address affordable housing needs.
Rush says the development will increase traffic on busy LaGrange Street, and might threaten Saw Mill Brook, which runs through Kesseler Woods to the Charles River. LaGrange is busy, but that has far more to do with new vehicle registrations than with any one development. According to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, since 1990 car registrations in Newton have increased by 15 percent, those in Brookline have gone up 16 percent, and those in Boston 34 percent (no breakdown is available for West Roxbury).
Rush wants to kill the project by banning development within 1,000 feet of the brook, but existing environmental law, which prevents development within 200 feet of the waterway, should be enough.
Cornerstone should strive to minimize the impact on the Brookline neighbors by keeping construction noise to a minimum and shielding the finished project with trees and scrubs. But overall the development will enhance the entire area.
Kesseler Woods was a ‘bargain’
Letter to Newton Tab from Conservators President Eric Reenstierna
February 16, 2005
Mike Striar uses the city’s Kesseler Woods open space purchase to take issue with Mayor Cohen [“Lessons from the private sector for our next mayor,” guest commentary, Feb. 9], saying the mayor “paid $5 million to help a private developer build condos.” Elsewhere in the TAB, critics have called this “$5 million for a swamp.”It would help to get the facts straight. For Kesseler Woods, Newton put up half as much money as the developer that was the city’s partner. But for its smaller share, Newton got by far the bigger part of the 42 acres. Newton got all of the South Parcel, which had enough frontage and upland to allow 10 house lots that NStar (the former owner) had already surveyed and could have sold without approvals, because they were “ANR” (Approval Not Required) lots. Those lots were each conservatively worth $500,000 or $600,000. Anyone can do that math. The city did well to get the land in those 10 lots for $5 million. On top of that, the city got land that would have been made into lots in the back, it got a big chunk of the North Parcel with wetland and more street-front lots, and it got an agreement from Cornerstone, the city’s partner, to build a large percentage of affordable housing on the rest of the land. At Kesseler Woods, the city hit a home run.
On this acquisition, David Cohen showed real leadership. At $5 million for our part of Kesseler Woods, what he got us was a bargain.
President, Newton Conservators
New Development Plans
The Kesseler Woods agreement with Cornerstone Corporation is producing more open space for Newton than was originally planned. The additional open space is the result of negotiations between the developer of the housing (Cornerstone) and the city’s Planning Department.
The city partnered with Cornerstone in the successful bid for Kesseler Woods in 2003. Since then, Cornerstone has presented the Planning Department with its design for condominiums on the high ground at the north end of the parcel on LaGrange Street near the Brookline town line. Later, the plan will go to the Board of Aldermen for a special permit.
Tom Southworth of Cornerstone spoke to the Conservators’ Board of Directors at its January meeting and took questions. Mr. Southworth compared the original plan to the current plan. The original plan called for multiple townhouse buildings and surface parking lots spread across the entire hilltop. The new plan calls for most of the units to be consolidated into a single, main building at the middle of the hill. All the parking is to go into a central garage under the building, requiring less land. The development will require removal of ten feet of ledge, on average, where the buildings will stand to keep parking below grade and to allow the buildings to achieve a low profile. Land along LaGrange Street that originally was planned for townhouses is to remain in its wooded state, leaving the streetscape as a natural corridor.
Materials to be used in the exterior of the buildings are stucco and stone. The Conservators have advocated for “green building” technology in new public buildings in the city. The condominium is not a public building but we support the technology here as well. Mr. Southworth indicated that the plan is not yet well enough developed for him to say whether green building technology will be used.
During the last city-wide election, some candidates tried to make Kesseler Woods an issue, suggesting that public money was being used to aid a developer and to buy a swamp. In the heat of a campaign, facts can be lost. For the record, here are the facts:
- Cornerstone paid $10 million for 11.5 acres of upland that is the actual site of its developments (the land inside the “hay bale line”).
- The city paid $5 million and got protection of 30.5 acres, or 73% of the land.
- The land the city got contains more developable upland than the land Cornerstone got.
- Half the city’s $5 million is from Newton taxpayers and the other half is matching funds from the state.
- Cornerstone has agreed to pay $75,000 for installation of new trails.
- 20% of the new housing at Kesseler will be affordable, helping to meet an ongoing and serious need in Newton.
The $2.5 million actually paid by Newton taxpayers went a long way. The purchase was a bargain from any perspective. The 30.5 acres of open space at Kesseler are a link between existing city-owned conservation holdings along the Sawmill Brook, creating a contiguous 55 acres of mixed upland and wetland habitat.
Martha Horn of the Conservation Commission indicates that the Commission, which has control of the $75,000 for trails, will likely use part of the funds to hire a wildlife biologist, who will make recommendations about trail locations and management of the land. One existing path is atop a drain easement that runs from LaGrange Street to Sawmill Brook. The Conservators have advocated for a trail to reach the high rocky outcrops on the edge of the proposed condominium parcel. Hikers go to the high ground for the views available there over land to the south. Siting a trail there requires sensitivity, because some of the best locations for views are adjacent to the proposed new buildings.
Brookline abutters near the proposed condominium have opposed the new construction. A Brookline state representative filed a legislative proposal to extend the boundary of land regulated under the Rivers Act to 1,000 feet at this location, whereas a margin of 200 feet applies at this and all other similar locations across the state. The proposal would prevent Cornerstone’s development. The Conservators opposed the effort in a letter to the chair of the committee hearing the proposal. One reason for our opposition was that denial of the development could be seen as a failure of the city to complete an agreement with a developer, making the city a less reliable partner in future agreements. And, we argued, an extension would do harm to the Rivers Act itself. The Act has become an important tool for the protection of land along rivers and streams. If it can be extended and re-worked simply as an anti-development tool at the discretion of neighbors, the Act itself is weakened and could some day face repeal. The Mayor and others from the city met with the committee chair at the State House to argue against the proposal. Mr. Southworth reports that the proposal appears unlikely to pass.
Kesseler Woods was a success the day the bids were opened and the City of Newton/Cornerstone partnership won the bid. The plan protects the land from much more extensive development and assures public access to a large open space that could have been shut off in a development of single-family house lots. The changes the city has achieved through negotiations since that time have created further protections for open space in that area of our community.