Supporters and skeptics of the Needham Housing Authority’s (NHA) ambitious plans to construct a four-story, 247-unit complex along Linden Street had their say last week at a joint community meeting of the NHA and the Planning Board.
The Planning Board will vote, likely in March, on whether to amend the zoning regulations at the 11-acre NHA site to allow construction of a 200,000 square-foot complex on Linden and Chambers streets across from High Rock School.
The new structures would replace the 152 units currently housed in 23 separate structures — 18 one-story buildings on Linden Street and five two-story buildings on Chambers Street — with two four-story buildings, one with 136 units fronting on Linden Street and the other with 111 one-bedroom units on Chambers Street.
Failure to obtain the zoning change could be a fatal blow to the $83 million project, a centerpiece of the NHA’s long-planned Preservation and Redevelopment Initiative (PRI).
Reg Foster, chair of the NHA, was joined by the architect for the project to present the current substandard condition of the 152 units built between 1959 and 1970.
Foster and Dan Chen of the architectural firm BH+A said the 23 buildings are nearing the end of their useful lives, are undersized, raise environmental concerns and have poor energy efficiency standards. They said the 11-acre site presents design challenges, with only half the site being buildable due to wetlands and other impediments.
They said the zoning changes are required to allow the fullest and most efficient utilization of the site, which is currently zoned for single-family residential uses.
The buildings would have a roughly 1.2-acre footprint and be 43 feet tall with a 53-foot ridge height. Those who spoke in opposition to the zoning change were almost universally critical of the buildings’ mass and the overall project density, especially in a residential neighborhood.
Nancy Potts, whose 135 Linden St. home abuts the site, expressed concern that the mass of the project would worsen a pre-existing persistent flooding problem in the area, as the site is adjacent to wetlands. She offered photos of water damage her property has incurred from past flooding.
“It would ruin the character of the neighborhood,” Potts said, a concern raised by others as well.
“One can’t simply add 95 units to a lot that only has 900 feet of frontage along the street without transforming the neighborhood,” said Morris Singer, whose home at 60 Sylvan Road also abuts the property.
Danielle Rodriguez of 160 Maple St. added to the chorus of flood concerns, noting the site’s proximity to wetlands and adding, “It probably shouldn’t have been built there in the first place.”
Many of the abutters who spoke against the zoning change said they were not opposed to the goal of improving the town’s stock of deeply affordable housing — just not at the scale that is being proposed.
“A lot of people agree it needs to be done,” said Lionel Desrosiers of 117 Linden St. “It’s about finding the right solution for everyone that’s not going to cause further impact.”
The vast majority of the non-Linden Street-area residents who spoke during the nearly two hours of public comment endorsed the zoning change. In addition to noting the NHA facilities are in dire need of attention, many cited the town and regional need for additional housing at more attainable price points, especially at the deeply affordable level provided by the NHA.
Nearly all who spoke in favor are Town Meeting members, which matters because any zoning change approved by the Planning Board must ultimately be passed by Town Meeting.
The timetable for this project calls for a vote at annual Town Meeting in May, assuming the Planning Board puts forward a zoning warrant article. The Planning Board will hold public hearings in early 2024 before voting on the change.
Last week’s meeting was the latest of more than a dozen public sessions about the project, including the NHA’s eight listening sessions with local neighbors and current Linden-Chambers tenants. The NHA also has been before the Select Board, Finance Committee, Board of Health, Town-Financed Community Housing Oversight Committee (T-CHOC) and the Planning Board.
To date, the town has provided $1.386 million for the pre-development efforts from Community Preservation Act funds. An additional $1.25 million was provided from a state earmark obtained by State Rep. Denise Garlick from federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.
In early 2024, the town’s Community Preservation Committee will consider the NHA’s application for an additional $5.5 million to support design, engineering and other pre-construction costs.
While town funds have supported the project to date, future spending will be almost totally from non-town sources. The NHA anticipates the project will receive support from 14 funding sources and expects more than 90% of the cost will be covered by non-town entities.