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.
Here are a few things that you may have missed in the flurry of docket items (proposed legislation) that City Council passed in recent weeks, and my thoughts about them:
Washington Street Vision
I am glad this passed. Late amendments included exploring parking maximums, lowering heights on the westernmost edge of the study area (Webster Street).
Some of the comments both in the Chamber and in letters demonstrates conflation of vision and zoning. The vision is just the envelope for the zoning—in the zoning discussions next term, Council will tackle the difficult task of determining where exactly six stories will be allowed and under what conditions—I expect this will be by special permit only. In the original proposal for heights (remember Hello Washington started out with 20 stories?) taller heights were conditioned to specific transit improvements and improvements to the tax base (ie all commercial). I thought that was a good stipulation.
Zoning to allow more energy-efficient homes
Council also unanimously passed zoning to make it easier to insulate, add electric heat pumps for cooling and heating, creating better shading, and allowing some flexibility for solar panels. This amendment was the direct result of the Climate Action Plan which we passed in November.
Bulky Item Fee
The cost of throwing stuff “away” is going up, and many councilors would like Newton residents to think more carefully about how to dispose of unwanted bulky items. Council voted to impose a $20 fee for bulky items left on the curb for pickup and $25 for white goods (thnk-appliances). All our surrounding communities charge at least $25 per pickup, if not per item, and a very few Newton residents use this service regularly, costing all of us more.
Like having to pay a fee for each bag you get at the supermarket, this fee is intended to prompt thought, not to penalize residents—and there are many ways to dispose of most usable stuff:
or at the Newton Swap Shop
To know: If you put items out for a scheduled pick up and someone else picks them up to re-use, you still pay the fee (because it costs Waste Management, our contractor, to send a truck to you).
New Parking Meters
While we passed dynamic pricing—charging the least amount possible to ensure some availability in each block—that program can’t get started without working parking meters. Many of Newton’s analog meters are broken, and the manufacturer no longer makes parts. Council approved funding for new parking meter heads for all on-street meters, but this will take time to implement. Eventually, all of our meters will accept coins and credit cards—and of course the phone app—for customer convenience. New meters will also be remotely programmable, saving our transportation planners time and money to adjust pricing. I am thrilled that this is moving forward, albeit slowly, so that drivers in Newton can stop circling to find an in-demand spot (less traffic!) while also adding convenience and reducing city costs.
A better Walnut St. in Newtonville
We are finally out of the planning stages with the Newtonville improvements. Council unanimously approved $5.7 million to fund the construction of wider sidewalks, adding safer crossings, adding street trees and other furnishings that will beautify and enhance Newtonville from the bridge over the MassPike to Newton North High School. The contract will be awarded in July and should be complete by fall of 2021. I can’t wait to see this complete!
More green on Commonwealth
We approved the mayor’s request for $200,000 to further design and engineer the western end of Commonwealth Avenue. The preliminary design would restore the Carriageway as a primarily low-stress alternative for biking and walking this strip, and reduce the difficulty of crossing the main stem of the road, where Newton has had fatalities in the not-distant past. Once Newton has brought the design to 25%, it can be appended to a $10+ million state Department of Transportation project to fix the bridge over the river and Rt. 128. If completed, this would repair a link in the river paths from Lyons Field to Riverside and would connect our Carriageway to a proposed protected multi-use path along Rt. 30 all the way to Natick. With the increasing sales pedal-assist e-bikes, this could be the first corridor in a west – suburban Emerald Network that allows more residents to travel car-free without fear. I’m hoping to be able to bike the Carriageway all the way either to Natick or to Boston.
A more complete Nahantan Street
The Council approved $129,250 in state transportation funds (from Uber & Lyft) to design engineering for the intersection of Wells Avenue and Nahantan Street. The plan is to make this a more complete street by adding continuous sidewalks to & over the bridge over the river, make safe pedestrian crossings, add bike lanes, and to upgrade the signals. This will allow those using the Jewish Community Center or those wanting to walk in the parkland on the Wells Avenue side to get where they are going without being forced to drive, and I welcome this design.
Come talk with me and sample the coffee at Central in Newton Centre during my monthly office hours. 10-11:30 am on Sunday, January 26!
I wrote the following op-ed with Councilors John Rice and Deb Crossley after the Dec. 6, 2019 council vote on the Northland Needham Street project:
As we head in to the eating season of Thanksgiving & December….good news:
For over a year, the city has been working to create a shared vision of the Washington Street corridor from the MassPike entrance in West Newton east to Crafts Street—where Whole Foods is now.