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A dreary stretch of Route 9 could help shape Brookline’s financial future

The eastbound side of Route 9 in Brookline, a quiet stretch which the town is hoping to redevelop. Photo by Sam Mintz
June 26, 2024  Updated June 27, 2024 at 11:34 p.m.
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On a sunny Saturday morning in May, about 35 Brookline residents gathered in a parking lot off Route 9 in Chestnut Hill.

As they walked around a half-mile stretch of land dominated by a partially vacant office building and parking lots, town officials and a consultant carrying clipboards scribbled notes about the neighbors’ concerns, ideas and observations.

It was the start of a process to determine what kind of commercial development to bring to the underutilized area and, with it, revenues from commercial property taxes to a town heavily reliant on homeowners’ taxes.

The area under consideration, one of the few parcels in town deemed ripe for commercial development, lies on the south side of Route 9, from Dunster Street to the east and the Brookline-Newton border to the west. Due to its location, size and current under-utilization, some in town government call the area the town’s “last frontier” for commercial development, according to Meredith Mooney, Brookline’s economic development director.

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In one sign of the potential for redevelopment, City Realty Group recently purchased the area’s centerpiece office park for $41 million.

Over the next year, Mooney and other town leaders will work to come up with recommendations for zoning changes that could help jumpstart a transformation from a sleepy afterthought into a vibrant hub of commercial life in Brookline.

Why?

In recent years, Brookline’s town budget has become stretched, and property tax bills for homeowners have increased.

The town’s elected and administrative leaders often stress that there are no quick fixes to those problems, which have been exacerbated by inflation, increasing healthcare costs for employees, pricey school construction projects and more.

If there is a silver bullet, it would be commercial development.

“At a basic level, the more commercial development we have, the more likely it is that we are able to ask our commercial sector to shoulder a greater portion of the tax burden, which then takes it away from the residential side,” said Town Administrator Charles Carey.

A scant 16% of the town’s tax levy is paid by commercial and industrial taxpayers. The rest is covered by residential property owners, according to Rachid Belhocine, the town’s chief assessor.

That’s on par with nearby communities. In Newton, about 15% of the city’s tax levy comes from commercial and industrial property owners, and in Wellesley it’s 11%.

In Needham, on the other hand, commercial taxpayers shoulder 22% of the levy, and in Lexington it’s 23%. In larger cities it’s even higher: In Cambridge, that number is 66%.

For Michael Sandman, the Select Board member leading the advisory group helping to develop the rezoning plan, the goal is to dampen the impact of future tax overrides on residents.

“What the town needs to be thinking about is to increase the commercial tax revenue that we get, as a way to mitigate, though not completely eliminate, the need for periodic tax overrides,” Sandman said.

The location

An office building at 1330 Boylston Street was recently purchased by City Realty, and is part of the town of Brookline’s plans for commercial redevelopment. Photo by Sam Mintz

When town leaders have talked about commercial development over the last several years, they have usually focused on this stretch of land.

The heart of the rezoning plan is the office park that City Realty bought. It is centered around 1330 Boylston Street, a partially-vacant six-story office building with a Citizens Bank on the ground floor, and abutting parking lots.

Some town leaders have argued for a long time that the use of the land has been at odds with its prime location, but the mismatch has grown even greater since the Covid-19 pandemic as work and business habits have shifted.

City Realty’s purchase of the four-building parcel in May was first reported by the Boston Business Journal.

What the company plans to do with the land will depend, at least in part, on the rezoning.

Clifford Kensington, the developer’s director of acquisitions, told the Journal that City Realty foresees a hotel on the site, but “has really tried to stay pretty open-minded.”

From the town’s perspective, a hotel would likely be the most fiscally beneficial construction in terms of sheer revenue. In addition to standard commercial taxes, hotels pay a “room tax” to the city or town in which they are located.

Other possible uses Kensington mentioned include medical offices or life sciences lab space, although town officials have been trying for years without success to recruit life sciences companies to Brookline.

“We’re certainly at a disadvantage because the life science industry sprouted up around us and we didn’t have anything in our zoning to accommodate that,” Mooney told Brookline.News. She pointed to hotspots for development in Cambridge and more recently Watertown, where new spaces built in recent years are already outstripping demand in a slumping industry.

One thing that’s unlikely, town officials and the developer say, is that the area will become a “retail-centric” plaza similar to The Street across Route 9.

“Really what we want to do is create something that is complementary to what already exists in Newton,” said Carey, the town administrator. “We don’t want to just try and build out more of the same.”

“It wasn’t really built with purpose. It was just built.”

At the community walk in May, residents weighed in with ideas and worries about the future development on the site.

They shared concerns about traffic on nearby Heath Street, as well as the height of new buildings and the shadows they might cause. They wondered about the possibility of bringing new green space or a park or playground to the area.

Daryl Donatelli, a Craftsland Road resident, brought his two young children to the meeting.

“I love the neighborhood, but that strip of Route 9 has always bothered me,” Donatelli said after the tour. “I’ve always thought it was an afterthought from a development perspective and community perspective. It wasn’t really built with purpose. It was just built.”

He says he was drawn to take part in the process by a sense of opportunity.

“For me, it’s the optimism that this is a clean slate,” he said. “I look at that stretch on Route 9 and I think ‘Oh, man, we could have so much fun with this.’ The possibilities are quite frankly endless right now. That’s really cool. We can dream what we want it to be, rather than being bound by what it is currently.”

When asked about what might be built in the space, Carey, the town administrator, said that the community feedback the town has been collecting is fundamental to its decision-making.

“We have to let the process play out,” he said. “I think it really is important for us to evaluate all these options and let the committee do the work and consult with the neighborhood and the broader business community to see what the appetite is and what will fit there.”

A building at 1280 Boylston Street, part of an area where the town of Brookline is hoping to bring more commercial development. Photo by Sam Mintz

Zoning like ‘sedimentary rock’

The advisory group and town staff are still collecting feedback from the community and information from its consultants about the market possibilities for the area. They are hoping to develop a draft outline by the early fall.

The final product will be a package of zoning changes, which Mooney said the committee hopes to have ready to send to Town Meeting for a vote by next May’s session.

“Our zoning is like sedimentary rock. It’s been laid down over the eons,” said Sandman, the Select Board member leading the advisory group.

Currently, the area’s zoning allows for a medley of office, mixed use, retail, health and fitness, parking lots and residential.

“If you look at the zoning for that area, there are things like height limitations and parking requirements that you need to consider,” Sandman said. The most effective way to work toward the changes the town wants, he said, is to “start with a clean sheet of paper.”

Despite the town’s strong interest in what gets built in the area, zoning can only set the parameters for development. What ultimately gets built will be up to the owners of the land, including City Realty, within those parameters.

“We are following the community process closely and can’t wait to see what vision the town and the advisory group bring to the area,” Kensington of City Realty wrote in an email to Brookline.News. “And as things progress, we are excited to work with the town on how we can help make their vision a reality.”

Carey expects that the town, informed by the work of the community advisory group, will have a plan with proposed zoning changes ready to present to Town Meeting next year.

“Once we have a zoning plan in place for those parcels, we already theoretically will have a plan for what’s going to go there that we’ve developed in conjunction with all the community stakeholders, the landowners and any potential development partners that they enter in with,” Carey said. “In order to get the community’s buy-in and create a glide path to the development that we all agree makes sense, we need the zoning to reflect what that plan is.”

Click here to visit the town’s website for the Chestnut Hill Commercial Area Study.

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