Reimagining Linden/Chambers

October 4, 2023
• The latest iteration of redevelopment plan signals financial delays, and projects completion of the first phase in 2027

The first phase of the Linden/Chambers affordable housing complex may not move residents into their new units until at least early 2027, according to estimates provided by project officials.

Representatives of the Needham Housing Authority shared the latest version of their plans at Tuesday’s Planning Board meeting. They hope to break ground on the property in the summer of 2025, a delayed start that reflects the time it will take to gather adequate funding, secure zoning and apply for competitive funding rounds. Afterward, phases 1A and 1B of the project — which account for 136 of the 247 total planned units — will each take about 16 months to complete, according to officials. They did not share a timeline for phase 2.

Reg Foster, chair of the NHA’s Board of Commissioners, considers the project “the top Needham priority since the 2007 Affordable Housing Plan.” Though it looks to be quite the long-term endeavor, Foster expressed that the plans will not completely shut down the development.

“The 80 Chambers units still can operate, and those are our youngest units,” Foster said of Phase 2. “Those were built in 1971, and they’re actually structurally in better shape than the original Linden units.”

Because construction costs in the current economy are high, the redevelopment’s lead architect Dan Chen, principal at Bargmann Hendrie + Archetype, said they altered the plan by combining both the amenity spaces into one room and the two buildings into a “shared core design.” Such a design would “produce the most compact footprint,” Chen said, which will offer more open space and a reduced cost.

The ceiling height in the apartments was also reduced from nine feet to eight feet, Chen said, and despite the building increasing from three to four stories, it will actually stand at 53 feet, just two feet higher than the previous iteration.

In total, Chen said they’ve eliminated about 13,000 square feet.

“The building, in essence, has really become much tighter, and it’s a straight bar,” Chen said. “We eliminated almost all the deficiencies of the previous concept design, and all of this is done to maximize the dollar that is available for this project.”

The 144 units proposed in the first two-tiered phase of the project has been reduced to 136 units, broken down into 128 one-bedrooms and eight two-bedrooms. By number of bedrooms, Chen explained the change by saying 144 residents would still be accommodated, and the two-bedroom units would generate more revenue. Phase 2 included, the project would now supply 247 units. There have been no changes to Phase 2 of the design since it was first presented to the Planning Board in June.

About 116 of the 136 units will likely have an attached subsidy, making them “deeply affordable,” said Margaret Donnelly Moran, deputy executive director of development of the Cambridge Housing Authority — the development consultant on the project. The other 20 will rent for about $1,600 a month, she said, which is considered affordable.

A soft estimate at the total cost for phase 1A and 1B comes in at about $70 million, Moran said.

The majority of the funds would come from a tax credit, and be eligible to receive support via Section 8 vouchers. They also envision funding through the Needham Community Preservation Act Committee and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, when the state public housing program moves to a federal program, Moran said. Debt would contribute to about 20% of the total financing, she added, which would be repaid by rent.

“You’re layering a cake,” Moran said of the payment sources.

The current schematic also has the building set back about 80 feet from Linden Street, Chen said, but the board expressed concern over the wetlands near the site. Phase 1B would sit at the 50-foot wetlands buffer zone, according to the latest plan. Comparatively, one of the existing buildings — the Chambers Street property — is already located near the 25-foot buffer.

They also raised the issue of sufficient emergency access for the fire department, which the project team noted they would reevaluate.

Outdoor recreational spaces, including a possible bocce court, a seating area and community gardens, are still in the works, Chen said. There is a net increase of green space with the revised proposed plans, Foster said.

Planning Board member Jeanne McKnight drew a comparison between Linden/Chambers and Webster Green, a community for seniors in which she once resided.

“You walk in, and the community room is right off of the lobby,” McKnight said of Webster Green. “It made for friendship, it made for people saying ‘Hi’… It really makes a difference, and I like the location of (this) community room.”

The board delved into the zoning details provided by the NHA and considered the logistics of drafting zoning bylaw changes for affordable housing. Members expressed support for retaining Linden/Chambers as an elderly, disabled community, with exceptions for younger caregivers who don’t fall in either of those categories.

The NHA’s 2019 master plan laid out a 10-year timeframe to redevelop the authority’s 336 deeply affordable units. Linden/Chambers is the first in a series of renovations to take place, Foster said — the organization will next modernize Cook’s Bridge, which contains 76 housing units, and later the remaining 60 of 80 units at High Rock Estates.

When asked whether the future projects would require additional possible zoning bylaw changes, Foster said he’s unsure at this point.

Over the next few months, Foster said several informational sessions would take place to gather community feedback. They plan to meet with residents next week, and an expanded group of neighbors — including some “strong voices” from Town Meeting — on Oct. 17. He said they will probably host additional meetings to gather more feedback.

Foster added that residents have expressed “a lot of paranoia but a lot of excitement” for the years ahead.

“This has been very thorough, and we really appreciate the time and the commitment to helping make this success worth helping guide us here,” Foster said.

“It’s an important project for the community,” Chair Adam Block replied, “and I want to make sure that we have the thing that we need to line up properly to ensure the most success for the town.”

NHA will return to the Planning Board Nov. 7 with further refinements to their plans. The entire project will need to be ready to go in front of Town Meeting for approval in May 2024.

The Planning Board next meets on Oct. 17, when they will continue the public hearing for the proposed medical building at 629-661 Highland Avenue.

Story Update: It was brought to our attention that the images originally shared in this article were outdated. We have replaced the images with the current iteration of the project. We regret the error. (Oct. 11. 2023)

The full Planning Board meeting of October 3rd can be viewed here.

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