By Matt Borelli
About one month ago, I came across a 60-year-old newspaper article describing what we now call Needham Crossing, but what was formerly called the Needham Industrial Center.
The paper discussed how this part of Needham was zoned with restrictions to prevent density as well as to curb residential growth due to the fear of too much residential expansion in Needham. Until about five years ago, many of these 60-year-old zoning changes stayed in place and as industry evolved and our needs changed this area became stagnant.
About five years ago, Needham saw an opportunity to revitalize this area, which is the gateway to the N2 Innovation Corridor. We enacted zoning changes and rebranded it with a name that would represent the shift from industry to innovation. Needham Crossing was born. So what changes did we make?
In 2011 we up-zoned the entire area to allow for greater density and height, as well as allowing new uses and greater flexibility into the zoning. This made it possible for TripAdvisor to stay in the corridor, which was important to both Needham and Newton. We were also able to offer TripAdvisor a property tax incentive because we knew that they would act as an anchor business for the area and that even with the tax incentives, the revenues would be much greater than they would be for vacant land.
So even with the tax incentives, our overall tax revenues were up 5.8 percent last year due mostly to development in Needham Crossing and as a town we are able to fund projects that we otherwise would not have been able to. Tax revenues from the commercial side have increased from 11 percent to around 14 percent. In addition the development of the General Dynamics property continues to improve our revenue.
The same concerns about residential development that existed 60 years ago still exist today; but with different concepts and better infrastructure we look to promote housing that will support economic growth. We now recognize that suburban communities cannot expect robust economic growth without providing housing, so we approved Normandy’s planned 390 units of multi-family housing in the N2 Corridor and reached our 10 percent 40B threshold.
But we did not stop there. Town Meeting recently approved an overlay zone to allow up to 250 units of multifamily housing in the corridor — right across Highland Avenue. The proposal was adopted by Town Meeting, not as a housing strategy, but as an economic strategy.
Needham has also been working closely with Newton on improving the infrastructure within the corridor. Over the next few months, we will see the Kendrick Street bridge expanded and the Route 128 ramp project completed. The Add-A-Lane project provides unparalleled access, and the work on Highland Avenue and Needham Street received MassWorks funding and then achieved a place on the TIP for 2018. Such improvements would not have been possible without the collaboration between Newton and Needham.
The success of our municipal partnership with Newton is now expanding with the added assistance of the Newton Needham Regional Chamber. Establishing an effective and sustainable organization to promote our corridor is a vital component of our economic success here. We have unique natural resources not usually present in former industrial parks — Charles River and Cutler Lake and the location is exceptional.
In addition to retaining existing companies and enticing new ones, we need to promote opportunities for the entrepreneurial citizens already living in our communities to start and to grow their businesses here. Co-working and collaborative working spaces, together with an enriched amenity environment, can do that. The corridor is already home to hundreds of innovative businesses; we have a story to tell and we need to work together to get the word out.
Needham looks forward to this continued partnership and I encourage us all to work together to help make this corridor thrive.
Matt Borelli is chair of Needham’s Board of Selectmen. The comments here were originally delivered at the release event of the N2 Innovation Corridor Economic Development Project report on June 29.