Needham’s economic advisers are hoping to “unlock the potential” in the New England Business Center by relaxing zoning requirements, which could make the corporate park more attractive to companies.
The New England Business Center features about 213 acres of developed property lying east of I-95/Route 128 and stretching from just south of Highland Avenue down to Kendrick Street. More than half the space is used for offices, with other uses including manufacturing, research and development, warehousing and retail.
On Wednesday, Oct. 5, the Council of Economic Advisors held a public workshop at , inviting town officials, employees, public safety officers, property owners and residents to weigh in on changes that have been proposed for the Nov. 7 special Town Meeting.
About 25 people attended the hearing, which began with a presentation by CEA chairman Matt Talcoff, Needham Economic Development Director Devra Bailin, Planning Director Lee Newman and others.
“One of the things we have looked at is why the economic arm of Needham has consistently underperformed,” Bailin said, in discussing how the New England Business Center had been studied recently. “Under current zoning, we can expect that this lack of performance will continue.”
The proposed zoning changes are a result of several years of study. At a CEA symposium held in 2009, commercial brokers, local businesses, developers, tenants and real estate advisors met to discuss some of the limitations and issues with zoning in the New England Business Center.
“We were told repeatedly by people who attended the symposium that the town needed to modify the zoning in advance of new market demands,” Bailin said.
Voters at the May 2010 annual Town Meeting agreed to fund a professional study that reexamined the uses and future potential of the New England Business Center. Early recommendations from that study , including now allowing a mix of retail, restaurant and consumer services on the first floor of multi-story buildings in that area.
The next series of recommendations looks at dimensional changes—adjustments to allowable building height, setback and density.
A Closer Look
Zoning changes that will be before voters on Nov. 7 include:
• Increasing the building height limit from 68 feet to 72 feet, and up to 84 feet with a special permit if it is determined that the building would be accessible to Fire Department equipment. (Unchanged: Building height is limited to 54 feet within 350 feet of a river or lake and to 41 feet within 350 feet of a residential district.)
• Increasing the maximum lot coverage from 50 percent to 65-75 percent, under certain conditions.
• Decreasing the required front-yard setback for structured parking from 30 feet to 25 feet.
• Increasing the floor area ratio (known as FAR) allowable by special permit from 1.1 to 1.75 and from 1.5 to 2.0 if it is determined the proposed use will not produce traffic that exceeds a limit set in the bylaws. (FAR is the ratio of the total building area to the total lot area; for example, with a .5 FAR, a 100,000-square-foot lot could have building coverage with a total area of 50,000 sq. ft.)
• Decreasing the minimum open space from 25 percent to 20 percent of a total lot area—and allowing that open space to include paved areas as long as they use pervious surfaces (which allow water to drain through).
The changes also include a new section that allows the Planning Board by special permit to “waive any or all dimensional requirements set forth above […] by relaxing them up to a maximum percentage of 25 percent”—except for height limits—if the board finds that the allowance would not be a detriment to the community.
Why NEBC Is Important
In her presentation at the Oct. 5 hearing, Planning Director Lee Newman said the New England Business Center accounts for about 5.7 percent of the town’s total assessed value (a total of $462 million) and property owners in that area paid Needham about $9.9 million in real estate taxes in fiscal year 2011. The Business Center makes up about 56.2 percent of Needham’s commercial/industrial tax base and accounts for 11.1 percent of the town’s overall tax base.
“As a largely residential community, Needham relies on a limited number of commercial areas for its nonresidential tax base,” Newman said. “The most important tax base is the New England Business Center.”
Kathleen McCabe of McCabe Enterprises, a member of the team of consultants, spoke about the Business Center’s potential for future growth, saying Needham was in a “strong suburban submarket.”
She presented an outlook for the next 20 years that showed what might happen if the New England Business Center were to add or redevelop a total of 1 million sq. ft. of commercial/industrial space—a number she called “a reasonable goal.” With that kind of growth, Needham could see revenues of about $5.2 million in additional real estate taxes, which includes subtracting the potential costs to the town associated with new development.
McCabe also looked at a “high expectation”—an increase by about 2.5 million sq. ft. in commercial/industrial space—a number she said was plausible but which would require some of the site’s largest property owners to make serious investments. With that kind of growth, the town could realize more than $13 million in added revenue, she said.
Giles Ham of Vanasse & Associates Inc., also part of the team of consultants, discussed possible traffic impacts with future development in the New England Business Center.
He began by noting what many already know: that the area is “very congested,” with about 35,000 cars a day traveling through the Highland Avenue corridor, and about 20,000 cars a day traveling through the Kendrick Street area. In addition, he said, about 300 cars a day cut through the business center just to get to Kendrick Street.
Plans for alleviating that problem are already underway in the form of , which will include widening Kendrick Street and Highland Avenue where they pass over I-95/Route 128.
Along with that project, Ham said some other roadway improvements might help ease traffic in the area once the New England Business Center is fully developed, such as new turn lanes and traffic signals.
Discussing the Issues
Though the Council of Economic Advisors originally planned to have workshop attendees break up into small groups to review issues with the proposed zoning changes, the evening ended instead with a question-and-answer session.
Planning Board member Jeanne McKnight questioned whether the town would have to invest in new water and sewer systems to accommodate Business Center growth.
Bailin said that the town was already looking to install a new pumping station in that area and that once it was on-line, it should be able to meet the center’s growing needs.
Selectman Jerry Wasserman said he was still concerned about traffic impacts and felt the town should continue to “push the state” for more public transportation, such as a new bus route or an eventual extension of the MBTA’s Green Line.
And Martin Walter, a Town Meeting member from Precinct E, said it was important that the various property owners come together to encourage growth in the New England Business Center, and bring more jobs to the area as well as tax income.