Northland Investment Corp. has taken the long view as it weighed its development options in Newton Upper Falls. 

The Newton-based developer acquired its first property in the neighborhood in 1978 and later redeveloped a FedEx facility into a shopping plaza. Then it acquired an adjacent factory complex with converted office space that was most recently occupied by shoe manufacturer Clarks’ headquarters. 

With nearly 23 acres to work with off Needham Street, Northland is proposing the largest development in the Garden City’s modern history: a $650 million project including 822 apartments and condominiums and 365,200 square feet of ground-floor retail space in a 13-building complex totaling 1.9 million square feet. The application, following more than 100 community meetings, will get its first formal review at a city council hearing Sept. 25. 

“We appreciate this is a very complicated project, and not one the city is used to dealing with,” said Peter Standish, Northland’s senior vice president of development. “In 2016, the advice that was given us was to get out and talk to the community. We’ve spent two years doing that.” 


Steve Adams

Steve Adams

Reinventing Needham Street  

Wedged near Newton’s southern border, the Needham Street corridor is an outlier in a city known for its walkable, transit-friendly villages. Rush hour traffic chokes the main artery, which is lined with strip malls occupied by chain retailers and fast-food restaurants. 

Residents, city officials and Northland agree on the area’s shortcomings, including misaligned intersections, limited public transit and poor pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure. 

“Needham Street is not a pleasant place to hang out. People avoid it if they can,” said Deborah Crossley, an at-large city councilor who lives nearby. 

Industrial buildings dominated the area until the 1990s, when many were converted into strip malls and freestanding retail pads. Northland played a role in the neighborhood’s metamorphosis, acquiring a former FedEx facility and redeveloping it a shopping center. 

Changes also have been spurred by the loss of two major corporate office tenants in recent years. TripAdvisor decamped for a new headquarters off Route 128 in Needham in 2015, and its former offices were redeveloped by Crosspoint Assoc. as a retail complex known as Newton Nexus. Then Northland lost its anchor office tenant when shoe manufacturer Clarks moved to newly renovated complex bordering Route 128 in Waltham. 

Northland plans to renovate the former Clarks’ space into 193,000 square feet of updated brick-and-beam offices, potentially as a multitenant building. Its proximity to more than 300,000 square feet of new retail on the property will be a selling point for potential office tenants, Standish said. 

Northland’s plans align with the goals of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber and the N2 Innovation District, a joint economic development program by Newton and Needham to stem the exodus of companies to transit-friendly urban locations. 

“It’s a transformative project that fits into what we’ve been trying to do in the N2 Innovation District,” Chamber President Greg Reibman said. “It provides workforce housing, which employers are desperate for, and these hundreds of apartments will make a huge difference.” 

Newton’s inclusionary zoning policy requires 15 percent affordable units, which translates into 123 apartments and/or condos at the Northland site. 


Transportation Debate Expected 

With a blank slate to work with on most of the site, Northland proposes a Main Street-style layout lined with residential buildings up to 8 stories and ground-floor retail and restaurants. The strip mall anchored by Marshall’s would be demolished. Northland would reconfigure a property it owns on the eastern side of Needham Street to align Charlemont Street with the main entrance to the site. 

The project has the potential to aggravate traffic congestions along Needham Street, residents and officials say, while Northland sees an opportunity to cure some of the existing headaches. 

Northland is in talks with the 128 Business Council to sponsor commuter shuttles from the property to key MBTA commuter rail and Green Line stations, and potential direct service to Newton Centre and downtown Boston. 

Final routes haven’t been determined, but could include the Green Line’s Riverside station and the Needham, West Newton and Newtonville commuter rail stations, said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, executive director of the 128 Business Council. Similar shuttles in Needham – funded by private companies and hotels – cost approximately $350,000 a year, providing up to 14 departures and arrivals daily on shuttles carrying up to 36 passengers. 

Approximately 7 acres of the Northland site would be retained as green space, including a 1-acre central park area. Northland is studying ways to maximize connections to the Greenway, a pedestrian and bike path owned by the city which runs along the western edge of the property. 

Northland faces a steep threshold gaining approval, needing 18 votes from the 24-member city council to rezone the property and obtain numerous special permits and waivers. The current zoning requires nearly 3,500 parking spaces, but Northland is proposing 1,953 spaces vehicles, along with 1,129 for bicycles. 

Even so, at-large Councilor Andreae Downs said the parking allocation seems excessive and suggested Northland consider decoupled parking, in which parking is not included in the rent or purchase price of housing. 

“That’s a pretty easy ask. It allows them to build less parking,” Downs said. 

Crossley said transportation will be the most critical element of the council’s review. 

“We have to have other ways of moving people. As I understand it, the developer is taking up that challenge and they’re going to show us a very robust shuttle service and an investment in the Greenway,” she said. 

Newton Developer Has Big Ideas for Upper Falls

by Steve Adams time to read: 4 min