A tale of two Chestnut Hills: Brookline seeks to rezone Route 9 land

A tale of two Chestnut Hills: Brookline seeks to rezone Route 9 land

A tale of two Chestnut Hills: Brookline seeks to rezone Route 9 land

By Greg Ryan

Brookline wants part of its stretch of Route 9 to be more like Newton’s, and a Boston-based real estate developer is poised to benefit.

The town of Brookline is launching an effort to rezone its land on a half-mile of Route 9 from Hammond Pond Parkway to Dunster Road. Most of the property sits on the southern side of the heavily trafficked roadway, though a sliver is on the other side, not far from the Chestnut Hill Green Line stop.

The goal is to create significant new commercial development on the land, in order to pad the town’s tax coffers. Right now, it’s mostly home to older commercial properties, including a few office buildings with high vacancy as well as low-slung retail sites that host bank branches and the like. But the Newton side of the same section of Route 9 shows a different way forward. 

Many see Chestnut Hill as a monolith, but the neighborhood is made up of parts of Boston, Brookline and Newton. The Route 9 stretch at issue is at the Brookline-Newton border. The Newton side has The Street, the WS Development shopping plaza that got a refresh more than a decade ago and features places like Shake Shack, Davio’s and Barry’s gym. Newton also has Chestnut Hill Square, a New England Development plaza that opened around the same time that has a Wegmans, medical offices and hot spots like Sweetgreen and SoulCycle.

“The town is eager to bring more balance to the level of activity on the Brookline side of Route 9,” Meredith Mooney, Brookline’s economic development director, said during a recent kickoff meeting for the initiative.

Office park’s future

A large property in that area is on the verge of changing hands. City Realty is under agreement to buy the five-acre Chestnut Hill Office Park at 1280-1330 Boylston St. from the family trust that owns it, an executive with the real estate firm told members of an advisory group during the meeting. The office park now includes four buildings, three of them vacant. The six-story building at 1330 Boylston has office tenants with a ground-floor Citizens Bank location.

City Realty expects the transaction will close this month and has hired Finegold Alexander as an architect for the property. The executive, Clifford Kensington, declined to speak with the Business Journal about the deal. He said during the meeting that the firm is in an “information-gathering phase” about the site’s future.

One use that interests town officials is lab space. Mooney calls that part of Route 9 “one of the few potential sites town-wide that could accommodate a life science lab.” Any new lab there would be years away, but right now demand for lab space is down and a ton of supply is about to hit the market: Just under 10 million square feet of labs are under construction in the region, with more than half expected to deliver in 2024, according to CBRE.

City Realty is interested in a lab, Kensington said, but given the state of the market, it wants to explore multiple options.

Community buy-in an ‘open question’

RKG Associates principal Eric Halvorsen, who is helping conduct an analysis of the area for the town, raised the prospect of mixing in residential with new commercial.

As with any major rezoning, nearby residents are likely to weigh in about how much new development — and what kinds of development — they will tolerate. Much of the area in question abuts a cemetery, but there is plenty of residential off Hammond and Heath streets. One member of the advisory group, Mariah Nobrega, said she sees community buy-in as an open question, pointing to other Brookline zoning initiatives that failed to achieve liftoff.

“That is beyond a weakness and something that we need to do a huge amount of work on, to communicate the benefits of such a program and the responsible development that can occur,” Nobrega said.

Janice Kahn, a member of the Chestnut Hill Village Alliance, said at the meeting that she sees “tremendous opportunities” for the properties and hopes “we can really maximize commercial growth in this area.”

“I personally don’t like having to go to Newton every time I want to buy something,” Kahn said. “It would be really nice to be able to spend my money in Brookline.”

At the same time, she said, she would not want a “five-story wall on the Brookline side.”

“I think I can speak very confidently that my neighbors would feel similarly, that we believe we should have access to light and space and air as well,” Kahn said.

Brookline officials have mapped out an aggressive schedule for a rezoning. They want to formally propose zoning guidelines by early fall and finalize them by year’s end. Residents would then vote on the proposal at Town Meeting next spring.