Northland Investment Corp. is proposing to replace a retail plaza with 800 housing units 180,000 square feet of office space and 115,000 square feet of retail space. Image courtesy of Cube 3 Architects

Is it time to make burial arrangements for the latest would-be megadevelopment in Newton? 

It’s a fair question as a make-or-break vote looms next week in the Garden City on Northland Investment Corp.’s ambitious and hotly contested plan to build a 23-acre, mixed-use oasis off traffic-choked Needham Street. 

Democratic and Republican primary voters who go to the polls next Tuesday will also be asked to decide the fate of Northland’s 1.1 millionsquarefoot proposal, which includes 800 apartments, restaurants, shops, parks and lots of office space, as well. 

The sprawling project, which would transform a dingy suburban tract anchored by a dying shopping plaza, ran into trouble not long after Northland managed to win a two-thirds City Council vote in favor of the project, as required under current state zoning laws. 

Newton homeowners and others opposed to the project under the Right Size Newton banner responded by collecting 5,000 signatures – 2,000 more than needed – to slap a referendum on the ballot for the upcoming primary vote. 

Will Sanders Surge Hurt or Help? 

Defenders of the sweeping Northland development proposal in the local business community say they are optimistic Newton voters will do the right thing and vote to keep the project and its badly need housing. 

The vote will be held on primary day, so it will bring a wider array of voters to the polls, not just the haters that would likely dominate if it were just a low-turnout city election – or so they say. 

Northland is also forking over some serious cash for a professional campaign staff, while doing its best to energize supporters of the project in Newton who understand the desperate need for housing in a city where the median home price tops $1 million. 

Let just say I’m not so sanguine. 

It sounds like some of the project’s most ardent boosters haven’t been paying all that much attention to the strong NIMBY tendencies of Bernie Sanders, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential primary, not to mention his die-hard supporters. 

And the March 3 primary will bring out the Sandernistas in droves, with Sanders leading the latest polls with 25 percent of the vote in Massachusetts, according to stats-crazy FiveThirtyEight, with a 1 in 2 chance of winning the state.  

Northland has promised big investments with its project, like a frequent shuttle bus connection to the Green Line. But will that convince Newton residents to support the project? Image courtesy of Cube 3 Architects

While Sanders has talked of the need for more housing, it’s pretty clear the only thing the long-time senator from mostly-rural Vermont finds acceptable is governmentfunded affordable housing. 

Sanders seems to have little patience for projects that include high-priced apartments or condosminiums, which the self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist clearly sees as just more capitalist greed to shout about. 

Left’s Troubling Record on Housing 

If you think I am making some overly broad extrapolations here on Sanders views based on his debate rhetoric, check out my recent column on just this issue, as well as a big takeout in Mother Jones that took an unsparing look at Sanders’ puzzlingly purist stances on local housing questions. 

Sanders endorsed a slate of NIMBY city council candidates in Cambridge, who then shot down an innovative and badly needed plan to get not just more housing built, but housing that middleclass people can actually afford. 

The apparently flaw in the eyes of Sanders acolytes is that it actually included some give and take, allowing developers build higher and denser if they committed to projects in which all the units were rented or sold at affordable, below-market rates. 

Sanders has also unhelpfully injected himself into local races in the Bay Area out in San Francisco, coming down on the side of the anti-housing and anti-development candidates in a region where prices are so high, they make Boston seem a bargain. 

While Northland plans to rent out 140 of the 800 apartments at below-market rates, whether that will pass muster with Sanderssupporting Newton voters remains to be seen. 

Opponents Obscure Their Motives 

In a taste of what Northland is up against, a group called the Committee for Responsible Development says it welcomes new development in Newton. 

However, new proposals must reflect Newton’s “progressive and inclusive values” and not be “driven by developers,” which, of course, is how 99 percent of everything in our capitalist country gets built. 

Right Size Newton and other opponents of the Northland project like to insist they are not anti-housing, even as the group’s website prominently lists the fact the project will have 800 apartments, a number apparently egregiously large and offensive to opponents but a far cry from what the site could hold. 

Go figure. 

Scott Van Voorhis

These opponents, though, are spewing out all the tired and long-since-debunked arguments that have been used for decades now to block new housing across Boston suburbs for decades now, citing increased school costs from the supposed influx of schoolchildren the new rentals would bring as well as fears of additional traffic.  

If Newton, one of the wealthiest communities in the state and with an elite public school system, can’t afford to take a few more students, then who can? 

Of course, Right Size Newton has yet to lay out exactly how much development is too much development, or how much would be just the right amount, which makes any clear-eyed observer wonder if the goal is no development at all. 

So, is Northland’s epic Newton development plan cooked? 

We’ll find out next Tuesday. 

Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at 

Is Northland’s Goose Cooked?

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 4 min