Town Meeting Waits to Decide Linden/Chambers Fate

May 7, 2024
• In a lengthy first session of Town Meeting, members left a proposed zoning bylaw amendment that targets the Linden/Chambers project in limbo after passing several budgetary items.

The evening began quickly with the withdrawal of five articles: the renovation of the Needham High School tennis courts, the proposed stipends for the Needham Contributory Retirement Board and three separate appropriations for the capital improvement fund, capital facility fund and debt service stabilization fund.

Sixteen articles passed via the consent agenda, including a $3.6 million appropriation for improvements to Claxton Field, $201,885 for the removal of fire alarm wiring and a reversal of the $2.5 million borrowed for the Charles River Street acquisition at the October 2022 Special Town Meeting. After that, the proceedings slowed.

Town Meeting spent considerable time on the first of four articles related to the Linden/Chambers project, which would replace the existing 152-unit affordable housing units with 247 new, larger ones. Article 18 proposes the town establish an affordable housing district, which would permit the multifamily development under new, detailed zoning. Under the zoning amendment, buildings within the district, like Linden/Chambers, could afford tenancy to those earning 80% of the area median income or less. Currently, the residences are available to the elderly and disabled.

Needham’s area median income is just over $100,000 for a single person, according to the Needham Housing Authority, which owns and manages Linden/Chambers, among other affordable housing units across town. Reg Foster, chair of the NHA, said most current residents fall within 30-40% of the area median income. He said he expects future tenants to exhibit a similar level of need.

Planning Board Chair Adam Block separated out the Linden/Chambers project from the bylaw change, adding that the NHA would still need a site plan review should they move forward with development.

“The purpose of this district is to promote the health, safety and the welfare of our community by encouraging the establishment of affordable housing while minimizing adverse impacts from development,” Block said.

The Finance Committee also recommends Town Meeting pass the amendment, as “the time has come for this project,” committee member Jim Healy said. Needham “has a duty and a moral obligation to make sure this housing is appropriate and fitting the needs of all of our citizens,” he said.

Linden/Chambers were built in the mid-20th century. Given their age and size — studios at Linden Street currently sit at about 420 square feet — the units require an update, Select Board Clerk Cathy Dowd said.

“The residents deserve better,” Dowd said.

NHA resident Ross Donald, who lives at Linden/Chambers, criticized the proposal and views the project as “a teardown.” He and fellow NHA resident Jim Burke asked that the impact on the nearby High Rock School be further considered in the process.

Burke also expressed concern for the loosened restrictions around occupancy, fearing that seniors and the disabled would become less of a priority.

“I am 83 years old, I got a lot of vigor in me, but let’s keep it for the elderly and the disabled and forget the affordable,” Burke said of the project.

Block reassured residents that “nobody would be displaced,” as there is a right-of-return policy.

After further discussion, Town Meeting adjourned without resolving the article. They will take it up again Wednesday night, where members will continue moving through the warrant.

Town Meeting will consider three other Linden/Chambers-related articles: an amendment to the zoning map that would place the property in the aforementioned affordable housing district, a transfer of $5.5 million for the redevelopment and an authorization to remove restrictions that limit the housing to the elderly.

The town did, however, pass other items earlier in the evening. Members unanimously approved $1,500 stipends for Select Board members and a $1,800 stipend for Chair Kevin Keane, as well as new Town Clerk Louise Miller’s salary. A $1 million appropriation for public facilities maintenance also received unanimous support, as did the authorization to use the state’s roadway improvement funds — or Chapter 90 funds — which will likely total about $900,000 this year.

Funding for planning consulting assistance and separate funding for scientific experts and consultants faced criticism from the Finance Committee, who felt the allotment lacked the necessary specificity. The $80,000 for the planning services required a hand count vote but passed 148-71. The $50,000 to be used by the Board of Health for scientific consulting passed, but it was not unanimous.

The approximately $600,000 information technology consolidation between Needham Public Schools and the town passed, as did the FY25 operating budget, after much discussion. Of note, funding for NPS and Minuteman High School reached more than $100 million this year, which is a nearly 8% increase from last year. That includes the $1.9 million municipal information technology line item, which is related to the consolidation.

The second session of Town Meeting begins Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at Powers Hall.

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