New Year's Resolutions
Police Task Force
Green Gateway to the Garden City Wishing you and your family health, warmth and increasing sunlight as the season moves from the shortest day toward 2021, the inauguration, spring, widespread vaccinations, and so much more to look forward to once the pandemic is under control!
New year’s resolutions: I have been reading Nature’s Best Hope by Douglas Tallamy, which is about how every one of us with a yard can save, not only butterflies, but life in this corner of the earth. If you were looking for a good read (and beautiful pictures) before planning your spring seed orders, this is it.
Shop Local: I am thankful that Mayor Ruthanne Fuller has made it easier for restaurants and shops to provide curbside pickup. If you own a business that needs a 15-minute parking spot in front--the request form is here. Questions? Contact Newton’s Economic Development Director Devra Bailin who is the City’s coordinator for this program at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-796-1122 (office) and 617-831-0103 (cell).
If you still have holiday shopping--check out the local options! Local businesses sustain our economy, our tax base and our non-profits. The Newton-Needham Chamber has a handy directory.
Police task force: If you are interested in the progress of the Newton Police Reform Task Force, there’s a Town Hall Tuesday, Dec. 22, 5:30-7:30 pm (remote) to develop a framework to guide their recommendations. Share your ideas and hopes for the NPD and the community. Register here. To join the email list for Task Force updates, click here.
Meanwhile, the city’s search for the next police chief continues.
Weigh in on Zoning, too: To get a sense of your questions and thoughts on zoning, the Planning Department has generated a presentation (because zoning is complicated) and a survey. Deadline to participate is January 10th, so make this an early resolution. If the survey isn’t enough for you, send questions and ideas to email@example.com.
Green gateway to the Garden City? As part of the bridge work for the Commonwealth Ave/Route 95 area, Newton has the opportunity to have MassDOT rebuild the Auburn St./Comm Ave intersection, which is between the boathouse and the Marriott. Right now the only crosswalk in that section is at Ash St. to the east; westbound traffic is not stopped by the current stoplight at Auburn St. and is fast moving as it approaches the highway entrance ramps so there are no safe crossings for people on foot.
MassDOT has proposed a roundabout, which would improve pedestrian safety, including for those with limited vision, connect the trails coming north from Riverside with the riverside trails coming south from Waltham via Lyons Field, and knit together the Carriageway east-west protected bike boulevard (which eventually will extend west to Natick and east through Boston).
At its presentation to Public Facilities recently, MassDOT representatives indicated that they would build this roundabout, which greatly increases the green space here, or return the intersection to its current, unsafe, design.
Read more about roundabouts and safety for all users (driver, pedestrian, cyclist) at the Federal Highway Administration website which includes a helpful 10 minute educational overview video.
If you are interested in better safety and more greenspace at our western gateway, please plan to attend the meeting on January 14, 7-8:30 pm
Meeting ID: 867 1865 9714
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Please stay safe through the holidays, so we can gather in person again in 2021!
Just after my November update went out, Newton lost a valued public servant. Ward 1 Councilor Allan J. Ciccone, Jr., known to us as Jay, passed away suddenly at 55, leaving his father, siblings, children and grandchildren. I join my colleagues and the city in mourning a good, kind man who loved Newton and worked to make life better here for all.
David Olson, our trusted city clerk, announced this month that he will retire in February. David has just shepherded us through two difficult elections in the midst of the pandemic. As with everything he does, David pulled through with equanimity and professionalism. I know Council will miss his presence at our meetings and his competence in office, and wish him well in retirement.
It is of course not a loss for Representative-elect (and former Ward 2 City Councilor) Jake Auchincloss, but in terms of City Council, his presence and his perspective will be sorely missed. His resignation, effective Nov. 10th, means that I am now the chair of the Public Safety & Transportation committee. Personally, I will miss having his advice and collaboration on many important topics of very local import--while welcoming his strong voice on transportation and climate in Washington.
All this means two vacancies, and a special city-wide election, coming soon.
Zoning & Planning
A new Planning Department hire, Nevena Pilipović-Wengler, is coordinating a series of listening sessions on Zoning Redesign. You can tune in remotely (only) Dec. 2, 7-9 pm and Dec. 3 12-2 pm. You need to RSVP to attend. The presentation will be posted Dec. 4 on the Zoning Redesign website along with a survey for those who can’t comment during these sessions.
If you want to read the original documents yourself, as well as all the memos from councilors, architects and planners, you are in luck. Thanks to volunteer Richard Rasala zoning documents organized by subject (as well as date) are on his website here, where they are easily found and cross-referenced.
This month I collaborated with colleagues to weigh in on proposed service cuts to the MBTA, which, if effected as planned, would make regional economic recovery difficult, increase traffic congestion and work against state goals on climate mitigation, equity and air quality. Our letter is here. More detail is available here. Add your own comments here.
Newton’s own Ashish Jha has been weighing in on the necessary steps to contain the pandemic--in case you missed this Boston Globe article.
What we can all do: wear a mask; don’t gather inside.
Worsening numbers also mean that travel is now even more restricted without a 2-week quarantine (this may change, so check the state’s travel order). It’s another loss, but there’s hope that by this time next year we will be able to gather with our families and friends again.
Just as in April, it is important to get outside, particularly as it gets dark and we are more likely to hibernate, for our mental and physical health. It’s good to see each other, even at a distance, and we still have open walking trails, sidewalks, and the Carriage Lane. Send me your best ideas, and I’ll post them on my website!!
One idea just appeared in Cold Spring Park thanks to Newton 9th graders (Zoe Hong, Ellie Gish, Naomi Weitzman, Elliot Heywood, Edward Macklin, Sylvia Jacobs, Seth Korn, Josh Wolf)--a purely visual scavenger hunt. Use this document to find the clues & surprises.
In this time of giving, and giving thanks, I am going to give YOU Jerry Reilly’s ideas (and post) for creative ways to help others now (link here). There’s also the three Newton food banks (Newton, Centre Street and Arabic). And so much more.
I am thankful for you, so stay healthy, stay warm, mask up!
In this issue:
School in a Pandemic
Road Changes around Schools
What’s this Picture About?
Learn more about this picture at the end!
As I write this, ballots are still being counted. Things are still unsettled.
But in the sleepless hours of last night, I realized something--whatever the outcome.
Those of us who believe the United States should stand for “liberty and justice for ALL” have a lot of work ahead of us.
A lot of that work will be at the local level. Economic insecurity, inequality, climate action--all need localities like Newton, states like Massachusetts, to step up and do our best to build back better.
We are blessed in Newton with organizing dynamos who put together times and places for us to dine (Feast of the Falls), ride (Tour de Newton), run (Heartbreak Hill race) and see each other as a community. If we stay behind our screens and fire salvos at each other’s’ imperfect political positions, we lose the ability to work together across differences.
So let’s walk. Talk on the phone. Find each other outside of our political “teams,” and build the bridges that make for better policies and politics.
October’s Monday Holiday
We are blessed in Newton with several vibrant communities who persevered and remained in Newton despite facing down redlining and discrimination. So while I supported removing Columbus’ name from the Monday holiday name on official Newton calendars, I also supported a more nuanced approach to it.
We need to understand our history but also include all our communities in determining how we as a community can honor Italian-American pride as well as to recognize and educate around the damage unleashed by Columbus and his “discovery.”
School in a Pandemic
Parents, teachers and students are all struggling within our schools’ hybrid model for elementary students and distance learning for all the rest (which soon becomes hybrid for middle schools).
The issues of equity (some students cannot return to in-person learning, but some families can pay for additional enrichment or private schools), social and emotional needs (of students and teachers) and just how much education can happen in the hybrid vs. distance learning models are all being vigorously discussed on social media and in Zoom meetings.
Council has been asking questions of our School Committee colleagues, but ultimately, outside of budget and wider public well-being decisions, school policy rightly belongs in the School Committee’s hands, not ours.
Here’s my take:
So to the extent in-person education happens (and because infections in schools will translate to infections in the wider community, this is important for all of us), Newton needs to ensure:
I expect we will continue to hear a variety of voices around the issue of in-person vs. distance learning models, and I will continue to listen and learn.
Changes around Schools
COVID safety protocols have limited school bus seating capacity, and we also know that our schools, even at half enrollment, cannot handle many more vehicles at arrival and dismissal.
The school transportation working group--on which Councilor Alicia Bowman and I sit and the Complete Streets Working Group—have accelerated changes to streets around schools to improve safety at arrival and dismissal. These include traffic calming on Lowell Avenue near Newton North to create an additional drop off zone and protect students’ crossing, a contra-flow bike lane near Newton South, and more.
The nimble and creative response to make streets around schools safer is a model of what city and school staff can do. Kudos go to Mayor Fuller, Superintendent Fleischman, LIam Hurley, the entire Transportation Division, and many more
Admit it--you were curious about the photo at the top! That’s our neighbor Vince McKay helping to mark the newest official pedestrian off-road trail atop the southern section of the Sudbury Aqueduct. I confirmed this week that both the MWRA and the City have signed the official permit.
Now I am looking for volunteers in the neighborhood to help construct some sturdy erosion-controlling box stairs at the Stanley-Canterbury crossing. Send me an email if you’d like to help!!
I’m not holding office hours, but am always willing to listen--email to set up a time to talk.
Stay healthy, stay warm, mask up!
September was eventful. October equally so. Here's what you need to know:
Helping our Restaurants
Bullough's Pond Dam
Beacon Street Bike Lanes
Helping our RestaurantsCOVID has been devastating for local businesses, but particularly our restaurants. Last week, we heard from owners of our most established and successful independent eateries.
Heading into the colder weather and without the federal bailout money that sustained jobs in the spring, they are fearful.
"I am terrified," said Seana Gaherin of Dunn Gaherin's, noting that restaurants employ hundreds. To Council, she said "If you guys don't help us survive, we will not be around. We can't do this without you."
Losing restaurants will mean losing nearby stores," warned Newton Needham Chamber president Greg Reibman. He noted that already 1 in 5 restaurants had closed for good in Massachusetts. And that offices locate in Newton to be near eateries. And most of our commercial landlords are small, so lost rents from restaurants and offices would be tough to make up.
"It is as serious and as dire as it gets," agreed Johnny's Luncheonette owner Karen Masterson.
Councilors who have been working on this all spring & summer know that Newton has allowed on-street dining in the parking strip (but that other communities have allowed more). We know about the city-installed picnic tables in parking lots (but we also see Moody Street in Waltham, which, by the way, has extended its outdoor dining through Dec. 1).
And we know Moody Street's restaurants have had a better summer this year than last--and nearby stores saw more foot traffic.
That is why I (and many of my colleagues, notably President Susan Albright) have been urging the administration to be more flexible with street space allocation. And why I have signed on to multiple letters to the Licensing Commission asking them to cut liquor fees for restaurants (which they did Tuesday night).
Here’s how you can help: Give yourself a break from cooking and isolation. If you are comfortable doing so, eat (outside) at our local restaurants. Otherwise, order takeout. #SaveOurRestaurants.
Bullough's Pond DamDexter Road runs atop a 350-year-old dam that created the scenic pond near City Hall. Part of the scenery is a stand of trees that shields Dexter and Laundry Brook from Walnut Street.
The state is examining all dams for likely failure because storms with a 1% chance of occurring in any year (also called the 100-year storm) are more intense than before--more rain and higher winds—a consequence of warming climate.
The state determined that this dam would not withstand such a storm—for Newton that’s more than 8 inches of rain in 24 hours. In this scenario, trees rooted in the dam could pull it down when water overtops Dexter Road.
If the dam fails, many homes and businesses in Newtonville, and perhaps also Newton North, could be washed away. Laundry Brook drains much of Newton—all the way to Hammond Pond!—and that’s a lot of water. If the pond is dredged, it is even more water.
Newton is responsible for ensuring the dam is safe. This summer, an engineering firm was hired to survey the dam. In the process, they marked all the trees to ensure they were in the final model.
The marking does not mean those trees will be removed.
Newton’s engineering division has committed to working with the Bullough’s Pond Association to ensure that whatever dam repairs are needed, they will spare as many trees and as much of the natural landscape as possible.
Council has heard from many residents who believe the plan is to remove all the trees downstream of the dam on Laundry Brook. The truth is, we don’t know. But to find out what repairs are needed and devise a final plan, the engineering division needs the help of dam experts. I support appropriating funding for those experts
New Senior CenterI am pleased to see progress on a new Senior Center. To see the proposals so far, go to page 7 of this report—and also scroll to the slides at the end:
Quinobequin UpdatesNew Trails Proposed Riverside to Quinobequin
Exciting news out of the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) last month—they are planning for a shared trail to connect the Charles River Parks near Riverside and the Quinobequin Road trail south of Washington Street.
The presentation from the meeting is here.
Yesterday, Councilors Alicia Bowman, Alison Leary and I sent comments to DCR suggesting that people on bikes be directed over St. Mary’s Street (significantly shorter), thus sparing the mature pines along Pine Grove and Concord. We also suggested that DCR create a hiking trail that is closer to the river than to the roads.
Speaking of this state river parkland, a number of my colleagues and I proposed a resolution to the state (which owns the road) proposing a pilot “shared street” for the stretch. This would allow local access, but also allow families and others to use more of the road for recreation. The idea is to try it one weekend afternoon this fall, if the state allows. Council has passed this resolution, which now goes to DCR.
Tomorrow night at 6:30 is another meeting about how to better accommodate hikers and bikers -- shared use trail? Slower traffic?
You can participate via Zoom if you register here:
This international data-driven approach to traffic deaths and injuries would use crash information to determine where Newton most needs to fix its streets. I and 10 other councilors are proposing a resolution to make this Newton’s policy. If passed, it would request that the administration create a plan and a priority list that would target the most dangerous street sections first, and would put safety first in our street design decisions.
The longest new stretch of bike lanes
Beacon Street is a cycling superhighway through Newton, but parked cars mean that some of us—including students making their way to school—have to swerve into traffic or onto the sidewalk.
In September, Traffic Council approved a measure to remove parking (and extend the bike lanes) from just west of Newton Centre to the end of Beacon at Washington Street. I was proud to cast a vote to approve the longest single stretch of bike lane creation in Newton’s history. Look for new signage and markings by this spring.
More next month!
I write this August update to put the current draft of Zoning Redesign into perspective, including new proposals to allow two or more units in more parts of Newton.
Briefly, Council is looking to preserve Newton’s leafy look and feel while adding resilience and diversity.
Draft Zoning--A Question of Size
Council has been working to improve the rules that control what we may or may not build on our property (zoning ordinances) since 2011, but have been more intensely focused since 2018 (my first update on it is March of that year).
After many meetings, and public input from each ward, the Zoning and Planning committee (ZAP), decided to establish some rules controlling the size of new structures according to a detailed accounting of the scale and style of the neighborhood (aka the Pattern Book).
As I explained in April 2019, this is in part to reduce the number of tear-downs—ensuring that all new structures “fit” within the existing neighborhood.
To be clear: right now, current zoning, prefers BIG houses on BIG lots with room for lots of cars. And that’s part what makes tearing down perfectly good homes on spec so attractive—keeping the existing structure is less profitable under these rules.
The massive 2-4 unit structures that replaced torn-down modest housing in West Newton, Newtonville and other neighborhoods are allowed under our CURRENT zoning.
What Council is considering is allowing the kind of multi-family housing now existing in single-family-only zones—like Lincoln Street in Newton Highlands (yes, many of those majestic Victorians have more than one unit of housing, and could not be built—or altered—today by-right).
After all, if the exterior looks and feels the same, what do we care if the building contains two or more units? (Health and safety issues are covered in the building code)
Newton zoning already allows granny flats, but with many controls. The above proposal would also ease some of these controls, giving homeowners a few more options, and perhaps the wherewithal to stay or move.
Could a developer still choose to tear down a home and rebuild something big? Yes—but only in the right neighborhood (one with big houses), and within the environmental controls in the draft (to prevent flooding of neighboring properties, the draft zoning limits on how much of a lot can be covered with structures and pavement).
But as I reported from the Planning Department’s 2019 analysis of what makes for a tear-down, most developers won’t take that step if they can’t make a substantial profit (usually by exceeding 3,000 square feet per unit!). The draft makes it less profitable to tear down a home, and much easier for a family needing to reconfigure a property to do so.
As I’ve written before (February 2019), we had more people in fewer homes in the 1970s than we do now. As Newton has become richer, older and less dense, our village center businesses declined.
Smaller units are also easier to maintain, heat, and cool—even before new building codes add insulation and leak-sealing.
By allowing more, smaller housing units near transit and village centers, we create more of the 15-minute neighborhoods that add resiliency to our city in crises like pandemics or blizzards.
But doesn’t density increase the spread of disease? Some continue to argue this, but there’s little science to back it up. What we know is that when multiple families crowd into one unit, diseases can spread. What this zoning draft would do is enable Newton to add more housing units, and reduce crowding across the region.
By the way, riding public transit may be safer than thought, according to this NYT article.
As always, call or email if you want to chat.
Stay well; stay cool; and mask up!
June was a busy month. Here's a progress report
Police in focus
Surfacing Structural Racism
Budget Passed June 23
This was a particularly difficult budget, in part because of Covid-related reduced revenue and forecasts. Schools were held harmless, although I worry about the use of one-time funding (carry-over dollars from last year) and the administration's assumption that state funds would be as generous as they were last year. Another worry is the additional cost of opening schools in the fall—however that looks.
Cuts to the library and parks were particularly hard to accept. Council persuaded the mayor to restore Sunday hours, although we don’t yet know when we can safely enter the building.
Overall, however, the mayor’s proposals cut where Covid would also have meant less spending—or were in areas where we could pause our progress (on roads, tree planting) for a year without reversing our previous gains.
Police in Focus
One budget that was proposed to increase was the police. After the murder of George Floyd, and police using excessive force on people protesting, we started getting what eventually would be more than 400 emails asking us whether this increase reflected Newton's values. Newton's stand-out on Washington Street, and the report of a Newton resident that police had drawn a gun to stop him as he walked to the grocery store underlined this sentiment.
We all want a police force--or public safety force--that all our residents feel is protecting their safety and well-being.
I signed on to the following:
So this summer and fall, the Public Safety committee will continue to focus on this department, to get our questions answered and to assist the task force in its work.
Structural Racism and Zoning
Another area where our ordinances disadvantage people of color is in limits on housing production. I have been continuing to attend discussions on zoning redesign, although I no longer sit on the Zoning and Planning committee.
This week, the committee considered whether to allow multi-family residences within a half mile of transit. Currently, 81% of lots within 1/2 mile of Green Line stops in Newton are zoned exclusively for single-family homes. 51% of those within 1/2 mile of Commuter Rail are. I argued that the city should allow more kinds of housing (the NYT today concurs)
It makes sense to build density near transit. If we want to lower our transportation carbon footprint (pre-Covid at approx. 30% and rising), we need more residents and business near transit.
I noted that the maps of where multi-family housing is allowed now roughly correlate with redlining maps showing the “hazardous” and “definitely declining” neighborhoods (like Upper Falls and Nonantum), where banks were discouraged from lending.
This weekend, Richard Rothstein explicitly called out zoning as a tool of structural racism:
“Segregation increases as voters enact local zoning codes to prevent new home-building, but those in desperate need of housing can’t register to vote in the no-growth towns that ban them. That’s structural racism.”
Speaking of housing near zoning, the Riverside special permit process continues apace. We will soon be working on a final council order. All of the documents to date are here.
Here’s what is proposed:
I am still concerned that Grove Street serve all users better—not having a bike lane along the golf course side will mean cyclists will either double the time it takes to pass the development or will have to ride with cars and trucks.
Email me to set up a time to chat on any of the above.
Sunday’s Boston Globe article on the 1918 flu and fresh air reminded me again of how important getting outside is to our mental and physical health. The City website has important, and up-to-date information on how to do so safely here.
In this update:
If you are in need, PLEASE don’t hesitate to apply to the fund for aid. FAQ and details on how to apply are here
Newton Roads in Pandemic Times Now that more of us are at home, getting out on foot or bike or other nonmotorized vehicle, keeping enough distance from other people can be a challenge—a four-foot sidewalk won’t allow for six-feet of social distance!
Our park trails and the Commonwealth Avenue Carriage Lane, on a fine sunny day can get crowded.
We have a lot of streets that normally are safer for spreading out on foot or bike—Bike Newton has mapped them here
Are streets that you would like to see calmed for the duration of the shutdown? Email them to me and I will share them with the City.
In the meantime, if you are driving, PLEASE remember to slow down and watch out for your neighbors!
Maps of trails If your usual route is getting boring, check out the MAPC’s interactive map of trails, bike routes and more in our region here.
#TrashTag your walk Unfortunately, all our usual spring park cleanups have been cancelled for the duration. That means any litter cleanup will be something we do alone—or with immediate family—on our walks through our parks (or along Newton streets!).
Bring a bag and protective gear and lend a hand! If you have bigger finds, you will want to coordinate with Parks & Recreation.
The city has already issued guidance on how to help while also staying safe. Link is here.
Take a selfie with your trash, the name of the park or road you cleaned, and post it to social media with #TrashTag and @AndreaeDowns. I will be re-posting the biggest/most entertaining collectors!
Other Creative ParkVentures
Stay safe & wash your hands!
February Update: Landmark Status
In this update:
I have joined 10 other councilors in docketing a temporary suspension of the landmark ordinance while necessary revisions are made to it.
My reasons are:
There is no question that some of our structures deserve to be recognized and preserved to the extent possible. But landmarking, like designating an historic district, comes with added expense and responsibility for stewardship. Newton and the state do not provide extra compensation that would compensate owners for the added expense and review involved in preserving the exteriors of landmarked structures.
More than 80% of our homes are more than 50 years old—which means that most of us live in possibly historic structures! We heard in January from owners who could not sell their parents’ home because of the threat of its being landmarked—the risk was too high for the prospective buyers.
We also heard that commercial tenants will walk away from a prospective lease when a structure in a village center is nominated for landmarking—again the risk of immediate increased costs is too high.
A task force of councilors is hammering out a compromise landmarking ordinance. I hope we will have something to discuss in the coming months.
Party for the Park!
We had a great time Feb. 9—and raised over $2,000 to fix the trails at Cold Spring Park. The Conservators are still accepting donations toward the trails (for the Friends of Cold Spring), if you want to advance this ambitious plan to fix trails that haven’t had professional maintenance for 37 years. Donate on line here: https://newtonconservators.123signup.com/donation/21167
As you may know, I strongly support this project—my reasons are here. I will be voting to uphold that vote on March 3 (Super Tuesday) or earlier (early voting is available from Feb. 24-28). Please join me in voting YES.
If you would like to help with the YES campaign, their website is here
Tell us your Transportation Priorities!
The Public Safety & Transportation Committee wants to hear your top transportation priorities before we set our legislative agenda for the new term. Come talk with us!
We will be taking public comment Wednesday, Feb. 19th at 7 pm in Council Chambers. Or you can email us directly
Party for the Park!
Cold Spring Park is one of my favorite places to run or wander. I am hosting a fundraiser for the Friends of Cold Spring Park—snacks and drinks with a park theme to add to the fun of meeting your park-loving neighbors and learning a little about this gem in the heart of Newton. Suggested donation is $50. Details and to RSVP here.
Climate Change Forum
The League of Women Voters of Newton is hosting a forum Wed., Feb. 26 on climate change with the leagues of Framingham, Needham, Wayland, Wellesley and Weston 7-9 pm at the Scandinavian Cultural Center, 206 Waltham St., West Newton. More details here.
The Land Use Committee is holding a series of public hearings on the proposed development at Riverside. Please use this forum, or email the clerk’s office (dolson AT newtonma.gov) to let us know your thoughts. Dates so far are
Open Space & Recreation Plan
Please respond to the City survey on your priorities for open space and recreation in Newton. Or come to the Feb. 6 public hearing, 7pm at City Hall.
I heard from thousands of Newton residents that green and open space, playgrounds and natural areas are highly valued—let’s make sure the plan reflects those values.
Almost every month I write constituents about a topic before the city