Newton developers behaving badly: Turtle Lane edition

In Newton, a major building project at the corner of Ash Street and Melrose Street across from the Auburndale Community Library has turned into a giant eyesore and question mark for neighbors. I typically walk past the Turtle Lane building site several times per week on the way to my office, the coffee shop, or the Village Bank branch on Auburn Street and have been wondering what was going on at Turtle Lane. Why was construction so slow, and then apparently halted altogether?

There is now more clarity on this aspect of the Turtle Lane project thanks to a letter from Newton’s chief building inspector. It’s worse than many people thought.

Turtle Lane & the Auburndale Club

Turtle Lane was a community fixture for decades. I went there for neighborhood parties, and even had a drink at the old-fashioned bar! This Patch article describes some of the Turtle Lane history:

According to the Turtle Lane website, the non-profit theatre organization started as an offshoot of Wayland’s Vokes Theatre in the 1970s. The group of actors started with a production of “Godspell” and held rehearsals at a cast member’s house, which was located on Turtle Lane in Dover, Mass.

After success with its “Godspell” production, more actors joined and the group purchased the old Auburndale Club on Melrose Street in 1979. Two years later, the Turtle Lane Playhouse opened its doors with a production of “A Little Night Music,” according to its website.

In addition to its productions, Turtle Lane also offered internships, classes and a Children’s Workshop series in the summer.

The project to redevelop the former Turtle Lane playhouse into housing started some 10 years ago, but wasn’t approved until early 2016, according to the Newton Tab:

Developer Stephen Vona has been eyeing a project to renovate the theater while also adding a mix of residential and commercial uses to the Melrose Street site for more than two years.

The City Council Monday night cleared the way for Vona to construct a 16-unit multi-family building plus a new three-story office building attached to the theater, which will be rehabilitated and reopened.

In addition to office space, initial plans called for 29 units plus a restaurant on the site, but the developer agreed to modify the proposal after feedback from neighbors and councilors.

Once construction on Turtle Lane started, there seemed to be spurts of activity involving the original structure and new modular units, interspersed with increasingly long pauses. Here’s what it looked like in May 2018:

turtle lane auburndale May 2018

Over the next few years, the original playhouse building was gutted and partially refurbished. Modular units were placed to the north of the playhouse and connected; as I recall this was during the early part of the pandemic. But then work on Turtle Lane stopped completely more than a year ago. What happened?

Turtle Lane Construction as of mid 2022

Here’s what it looked like this past summer. The plywood on the east side of the old playhouse was already starting to look weathered. Someone finally had covered up the open holes against the elements, though (they had been uncovered for many months).

Turtle Lane developer 2022

Here are the modular units per Google Street View:

turtle lane Melrose street view better

The Newton ISD memo

Rumor had it there was an issue with the foundation. According to a recent document from Newton’s Inspectional Services Department, that’s not all. It turns out the problems are manifold and extremely serious. Here’s what ISD Commissioner John Lojek states in his January 4, 2023 letter to Mayor Fuller:

Residents in the area surrounding 283 Melrose Street in Auburndale have voiced frustration with  the stalled Turtle Lane Development, which includes a theater building and a 16-unit modular  residential dwelling (the “Residential Building”) at 283 Melrose Street. I appreciate these frustrations and share them.

This memo focuses on the issues concerning the Residential Building. I have significant concerns  about the structural integrity of the Residential Building and the overall safety of the site.  Significant work was performed without building permits and in violation of multiple City of  Newton Stop Work Orders. Much of the work has not been sufficiently inspected or signed off on in  accordance with the State Building Code.

I. History

On multiple occasions, work on the Residential Building has been performed without obtaining building permits; without notice, knowledge, or oversight by ISD; and in direct violation of the  State Building Code. The installation of manufactured (modular) units is strictly regulated under the  State Building Code. One notable issue is that the modular housing units were set on the foundation without a building permit.

As a result of such violations, the City has issued numerous stop work orders and notices of  violation. Despite this, work continued to be performed in violation of the notices and orders. Some  on my recent notices were appealed to the Massachusetts Building Code Appeals Board and upheld  after thorough review.

After conducting a walkthrough of the Residential Building, I determined that the structure was not  safe and issued a notice of unsafe structure. The Newton Fire Department also determined that the  structure is unsafe in the case of fire and marked the Residential Building with a red X as notice of its unsafe condition, signifying that the structure is deemed unsafe for interior firefighting or for interior response by first responders.

II. Structural Concerns

An overarching concern is that the Residential Building was installed without building permits and  without full inspections. Even without full inspections, it is clear that the physical structure, as it  currently exists, does not meet the requirements of the State Building Code and is not structurally sound. Based on its walkthroughs of the property, ISD has discovered a number of serious structural problems with the Residential Building and has been unable to confirm the Residential Building’s compliance with the State Building Code or issue building permits to complete the building. In essence, the Residential Building was incorrectly assembled.

ISD has sent comprehensive letters to Turtle Lane, LLC listing the requirements that need to be  fulfilled in order for a building permit to be granted for the completion of the Residential Building.  To date, the majority of these requirements have not been fulfilled.

III. Steps Forward

I want to see the Residential Building completed as quickly as possible, but it must be built safely and in accordance with the law. I have continually consulted with the City’s Law Department to consider all possible avenues of achieving completion of this project. As this is private construction  on private property, the options available to the City to force compliance are limited. It is ultimately  the property owner’s responsibility, along with their construction team, to comply with the State  Building Code. I have clearly and unequivocally communicated to the property owner and the  development team the steps that are required for the Residential Building to proceed. They know  what is necessary to come into compliance to complete construction and it is ultimately their  responsibility to do so.

The City should continue to evaluate all of its options and rights. Currently, an upcoming meeting  has been scheduled with city officials and the developer’s representatives in another attempt to  resolve the outstanding issues. I will provide a further update after that meeting.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen Newton developers behaving badly. There was the shoddy finishing work at Mark Development’s Trio project in Newtonville (see “Substandard “luxury” housing construction, from New York to Newton“) as well as developer Ty Gupta’s outrageous and illegal demolition of the  Gershom Hyde House, a nearly 300-year-old historic home.

But “unsafe for interior firefighting?” “Incorrectly assembled?” “Not structurally sound?” Turtle Lane takes things to a whole different level, if the ISD letter is accurate.

What’s even more alarming is the ISD’s claim of limited options being available to force compliance. This is a longstanding problem. Newton negotiates projects with no real strings attached, and when developers screw up or demand more concessions (see “More broken promises, more developer demands at Riverside T Stop in Auburndale“) it’s neighbors who are left staring at derelict buildings, shoddy construction, and unfinished foundations.

A system needs to be implemented that penalize developers and property owners with significant fines that not only “force compliance,” but serve as a deterrent for delays and corner-cutting. Ultimately, if Newton developers prove unable to finish the work that they promised to do, there needs to be a mechanism for the property to be turned over to a more competent party … or the city.

What will happen to Turtle Lane? In the absence of any compliance mechanism, I and many other neighbors fear Turtle Lane will remain a hazard and eyesore for years while the developer, the city, lawyers and lenders deal with the mess.