Rendering of the proposed building on Highland Avenue / Credit: Boston Development Group

Nearly a dozen Needham Heights residents raised traffic concerns as their primary objection to a Newton developer’s plan to build a 50,000-square-foot medical office building along a block of Highland Avenue between the former Three Squares restaurant and Cross Street.

The responses came at Tuesday’s Planning Board public hearing on Boston Development Group’s application for a site plan review special permit for the property at 629-661 Highland Ave.

As a site plan review, the project faces less scrutiny than it would under other special permit processes in which the Planning Board would have greater discretion to impose conditions before granting zoning relief.

The plan calls for the existing five buildings on the 2-plus-acre site to be demolished and replaced by a single building of two stories. The office space would be built atop a two-level garage that would be mostly below street level and have 250 spaces accessible from both Avery and Cross streets.

“We are not asking for any zoning relief. This is a use that’s allowed by right through the bylaw and it meets all the dimensional criteria of the bylaws,” Evans Huber, attorney for the developer, said at the opening of the developer’s presentation.

Jonathan Cocker, the project architect, noted that the single structure would be built toward the center of the site with considerable setback from Highland Avenue and with ample landscaping and screening. 

In addition to providing a visual and physical buffer, Cocker said the siting reduces the footprint of the building by 350 square feet from the total of the existing five buildings.

The new scheme would result in a 13,000-square-foot reduction in paved area and a 12,000-square-foot increase in green space. “We’ve tried to create a sleek, modern medical office building,” he said.

Credit: Boston Development Group

As for traffic impact, a review for the project estimated it will result in an overall daily vehicle trip increase of about 5%. Jeffrey Dirk of Vanasse & Associates, Inc. said a traffic mitigation plan would be designed to disperse traffic across multiple streets to reduce bottlenecks. Measures would also be taken to reduce use of nearby residential streets, some of which are private ways, as cut-throughs.

“There are 20,000 vehicles a day that go by this section of roadway, with peak hour about 1,700 vehicles,” Dirk said.

The building is expected to be open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.

Nearly a dozen neighbors responded with skepticism that multiple streets would be spared from a dramatic increase in traffic. Most pointed to the cumulative effect of increased traffic expected to result from previously approved and substantially larger projects at the former Muzi site and the Wingate residences.

Jennifer Yogel of 612 Highland Ave. said the nearby areas are densely populated neighborhoods with lots of children. “We’re all very concerned about the safety of these children because cutting through these streets happens. No matter what sign you put up, it happens. It happens all the time and at high speeds.”

Attorney Howard Goldman spoke on behalf of residents of the Gateway Townhouse condos, 12 units at 605-607 Highland Ave. located on the opposite side of Cross Street and adjacent to the project. Goldman said many of the units have families with small children.

“My experience is, if people can avoid traffic they will,” he said. “What’s the enforcement mechanism? Who do they call?”

Emily Pick of 12 Mills Road listed multiple concerns, but stressed her primary concern is traffic. “I’d like to see additional traffic dispersion. Highland Ave. has become a highway.”

Rendering of the proposed building on Highland Avenue / Credit: Boston Development Group

Ben Daniels of 5 Sachem Road discussed the cumulative impact of the multiple projects scheduled for the area over the next few years and lamented the lack of big picture thinking. “It’s mainly about the overall traffic. Where does this all end?”

After adjourning the public hearing the board voted to ask the developer to pay for a peer review traffic study. This would allow the town to hire its own consultant to review the data used by Vanasse & Associates and perhaps form different conclusions on traffic impacts and mitigation.

The public hearing will resume at the Oct. 3 Planning Board meeting.

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