Little gains, big losses mark a much-developed Newton

By Matthew Call

Newton may be called the Garden City, but fewer than 20 percent of its land is open space, and with development projects planned for all corners of the city, that portion is in danger of dwindling further.

“It is estimated that 19 percent of the total land area is open,” said Michael Kruse, director of the Planning and Development office. “That means not built on, including both public and private parcels.”

Meadow as surplus, yet privately owned land parcels – which cities and towns list as open space – have become prime targets for development, risking what could become a city with more office cubicles and apartments than trees or wildlife.

“Open space is like a release valve for a densely populated area,” said Martha Horn, the city’s environmental planner. “To have a place that you can run, walk with your kids, fish, all without getting into your car is wonderful. When you live in a densely populated area, like Newton, you need places to go.”

Private property accounts for slightly less than half of the open space in the city, but it is more greatly endangered than public open space because it is worth so much money. Newton Planning & Development numbers show that the city has lost about 50 percent more land due to private companies selling than it has gained by acquiring parcels itself.

The Flowed Meadow Conservation Area will in the next few weeks be turned over from a Department of Public Works-controlled landfill into passive recreation, with the recommendation of the Conservation Commission for bike and walk paths.

The capping of a landfill last year that sits on the Flowed Meadow site prompted former DPW Commissioner James Hickey to declare 36 acres around the perimeter of the landfill surplus, putting a prime piece of wooded land under the Conservation Commission’s jurisdiction.

“It’s quite beautiful and very pretty,” Horn said. “It could be set up as an outside classroom for the Burr School and that’s wonderful.”

The DPW will still have to maintain the landfill, and keep vegetation from growing around it, as the roots would penetrate the cap, but the rest would be left untouched.

The turning over of the land to passive recreation is a positive move for the city, said Michael Clarke, a member of the Newton Conservators.

“It’s a very important piece to hold on to,” he said. “It’s a nice, pleasant area.”

The city has always had ownership of Flowed Meadows, though, and there was little chance of it being sold, Horn said.

“City-owned parcels haven’t changed,” she said.

Private open space vanishing

Over the past few years, though, privately owned lots have been disappearing, with a number of key development projects planned.

“Most, if not all, of the vacant lots, at least the easy ones, are gone,” Horn said, referring to “easy” lots as vacant parcels without any environmental concerns. “And the scarcity of the easy lots makes marginal lots more attractive.”

Marginal lots, those with wetlands or toxic areas attached, are being scooped up more and more because there is no other area to buy or build on, Horn said, and they are still worth a lot of money.

“Someone owns them,” she said about vacant lots in the city. “And they can [make enough money to] pay for a college education.”

Institution Hill, named for the Andover Newton Theological School which owned 42 acres of land in Newton Centre until it sold about 10 acres to Hebrew College, has become the site of three development projects.

Hebrew College is the first, having broken ground on construction of a campus next to ANTS.

“What we try to do is insist any open space in any parcel is kept in its natural vegetative space, and I think we’re pretty successful in that,” said Aldermen Susan Basham, chairwoman of the Land Use Committee.

Jim Sullivan, president of the Bowen-Thompsonville Neighborhood Association, sees any loss of trees to make way for construction as a harm to the city.

“The amount of trees being cut down on Institution Hill is larger than Newton Centre itself,” Sullivan said.

Another 10-15 acres of the Andover Newton site is planned to go through a pair of other developments as well. Two companies are moving forward on an apartment building and a health worker training facility. If all three projects go through, the school would be selling off a little over half of the undeveloped land it owns.

Bradford Development Corp. of Chestnut Hill is still trying to go ahead with its plans to build more than 50 apartments on a “marginal” lot on Route 9 in Thompsonville. The 6-acre site, directly across the street from a small Veterans Park, contains wetlands and an old gas station that has cleanup issues of its own.

“There is really a safety concern for traffic and for the pedestrians,” Sullivan said about the Bradford project, adding that one proposal involved a stoplight at Route 9 and Langley Road.

Meetings of both the Land Use Committee and the Bowen-Thompsonville Neighborhood Association, scheduled for Feb. 3 and Feb 15 respectively, are being held to discuss the Bradford plans.

“We are going forward as we can, all subject to the Board of Aldermen,” said Fran DeCoste, Bradford’s vice president for development, who added that the wetland area would be owned by the company, but would not be touched.

Developing marginal sites

Marginal property is all that remains, Kruse said.

“In built-out communities like Newton, that’s all that’s left – parcels that are left over,” he said. “There is more blasting, developers are moving closer to wetlands than they ever used to.”

Yet wetland areas are obstacles to developers, not deterrents, Kruse added.

Another company, CareMatrix of Needham, is in the midst of finishing construction of Lasell Village, a retirement community on 13 acres of Lasell College’s campus in Auburndale. The housing complex, set to open in a few months, provides 162 units of living space, and cost $58 million.

Several other parcels of land in the city are being held by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and Boston Edison, which have both expressed interest in getting it off their hands.

Kessler Woods, a 42-acre site on the West Roxbury and Brookline borders of Oak Hill, is owned by Boston Edison, which has temporarily taken the property off the market to study it more, said Mike Monahan, a spokesman for NSTAR, Boston Edison’s parent company. The land will be put on the auction block eventually because the company has no use for it, according to Monahan.

The woods are flanked by two pieces of land the city does own, that make up the Sawmill Brook Conservation Area. Up until a few months ago, city engineers had carte blanche when it came to studying the land Boston Edison owns that connects with Saw Mill Brook. That agreement was terminated when talk of selling the land reached a high point, Horn said.

“It is my hope that the city could work with a developer who would give us the south parcel,” Horn said.

Yet Michael Clarke of the Newton Conservators said that the city has virtually no means to get a hold of a place like Kessler Woods.

“Even if Boston Edison wanted to sell it for little money to the city, the city doesn’t have any money,” he said. “We don’t have money to buy any land.”

As it stands now, Kessler Woods could become, say, an office complex, as is an example of how the city’s hands are pretty much tied when it comes to keeping private space wooded. The area had been targeted by the Open Space Plan of 1995 to be acquired by the city, yet the city does not have the money to front for such an undertaking, Horn said, despite the benefits.

“You don’t find such a huge parcel of undeveloped land in Newton – you just don’t,” Horn said.

The Riverside Station in Auburndale and Woodland Station in Lower Falls, both owned by the MBTA, have been the subject of development plans. National Development Co. had filed for an application to build a 175-apartment building near the Woodland site, but has taken the proposal back due to neighborhood concerns.

The city hasn’t seen the last of that proposal, though, said Mayor David Cohen.

“They may be filing soon,” Cohen said about a second application. “I would expect them to.”

Yet Cohen thinks MBTA officials could put the land to better a use that is a little more tree-friendly.

“I think they should be keeping as much land as they can, as a primary use for parking facilities,” he said.

The MBTA has put development of the Riverside Station, also considered for similar leasing, on hold until Woodland is finalized, Cohen said.

In all the losses of private land, the city could not even hope to compete with other bids offered. Developers have anted up close to $9 million for the rights to land eventually sold to Hebrew College.

“Most people who live near [an open space area] would love to have the city buy it, the city would love to buy it – but it would be difficult to buy these properties,” Horn said.

The state legislature is on the verge of passing a measure allowing cities to add a tax in order to keep open spaces open. The resolution, similar to one passed by Cape Cod voters, has made it through both the House and the Senate, and now lies in a conference committee.

“The purpose of the Community Preservation Act is following up on what the Cape was working for, the ability to preserve open space, affordable housing and historic sites,” said Newton state Rep. Kay Khan.

Parts of the bill include the ability to chose between a tax on selling homes or an added property tax if communities would like to create such a fund, and $50 million in matching grants.

“We have very limited open space, and this to me is a fabulous opportunity before us,” Khan said, adding that residents would have to vote as to whether they want this in or not before local governments can take advantage of it.

The act would allow the money raised from self-imposed higher taxes to go into escrow to be used by governments for acquiring open space, creating affordable housing or preserving historic landmarks.

Also in favor of the act, Clarke said any opportunity that gives a city power to buy up open space is good.

“Commercial development has made Newton much more of a congested space,” Clarke said. “We have to look at saving other sites.”