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.
This document is the template for zoning, and is the result of hundreds of community meetings, workshops, surveys and public hearings. The mayor and council wanted to ensure that residents had input into a strategic vision of what the corridor could be, rather than simply reacting to developer proposals here.
The vision, and eventual zoning, will allow for complex, mixed-use projects with vibrant commercial areas and parks, and which can create community benefits and linkages that residents have told us they want.
I think they reflect Newton’s desires—for better village experiences, safer streets, better transit, housing for the small households (1-2 people) we now have, historic preservation, good planning practices and responsiveness to climate change.
Here’s what I particularly like about what is in the vision:
* It is ambitious in outlining what the area could be—with more parks, more pedestrian and bike connections, more trees, more and better transit.
* It links development to these benefits.
* It breaks up current massive blocks to allow pedestrian and bike passage through them—asking the area more walkable and pleasant.
* It specifies shorter storefronts and bans blank walls—this allows for an interesting walk, but also for small businesses.
* It does not allow the dreaded “concrete canyon” of six story buildings across from six-story buildings.
* It requires militate heights and roof types, using high-quality materials and encourages sustainable, energy efficient buildings.
* It shields the neighborhood from the highway, and calms feeder streets like Eddy and Harvard to protect current residents from cut-through traffic.
*It will help us achieve our climate and environmental goals: * Shorter trips because of mixed uses, which mean less traffic and fewer car trips * Storm water infiltration and treatment, which means more trees and grass, cleaner water * Better parking management and less walking through or along parking lots—both reducing circling for parking, but also cutting into the very thing that creates traffic—free and abundant parking. * Programs to reduce demand for car trips, with city-set goals rather than a prescribed set of tools. * Added solar panels.
The vision has been revised several times in response to public comments. How it manifests in the zoning will be the subject of Council work following the adoption of the final vision in the Comprehensive Plan—this will also get into the touchy subject of height and how much will be allowed in the zoning vs. by special permit.
Whether we approve the vision this month or not, public comment is still welcome on the zoning.
The rest is municipal (30%), retiree pension & benefits (10%) and debt service.
Overview In broad strokes—the operating budget ($430 million in Fiscal 2020) is primarily funded by property taxes (83%). Our tax rate grows by 2.5% (on the whole, individual properties may differ), to which is added “new growth” from expansions or new buildings. This year’s new growth is $4.3 million; last year’s was $5.7 million. Debt service (primarily linked to school building projects) is $3.5 million, up from $3 million last year.
Newton’s ability to take on new initiatives is handicapped by pension and retiree benefit obligations. Newton has a $600 million retiree health obligation on top of a pension fund that is still not fully funded.
That said, the city is moving forward:
Updating and integrating many of its functions from paper to paperless—it will be great when everything from permits to proposed ordinances are all searchable and accessible to multiple departments.
The city website will also get upgraded software, with a focus on better search functions.
A study of the western end of Commonwealth Avenue, near the Marriott, could enable Newton to piggy-back on the state highway department’s planned rehabilitation of the bridge over 128–in other words, saving Newton several million dollars, for construction to connect several river paths and make that section of road safer and more pleasant for driving, cycling and strolling.
New Knowldege Council’s annual review of the budget is also a time when I always learn something new about what our city departments are doing. Here are some of these:
The city has 12 solar sites, which saved $550,000 in last year’s budget. The next phase of solar installations (Phase 4) is moving forward, but the incentives are less rich than they were for the previous three.
The early childhood program building—which is currently housing the Horace Mann elementary school—will be retrofitted before the preschoolers move in and should be entirely electrically heated and cooled—a move away from fossil fuels in public buildings here.
Over 50% of schools and municipal buildings have switched to LEDlight fixtures.
Food waste is being collected for compost at Angier and Zervas, and organics collection is being explored for all of the schools. This will also save on trash hauling costs by lowering tonnage.
The city treasurer is making it possible for residents to pay for more city services with a credit card or on-line payment.
Angier and Zervas building projects have come in under budget. Cabot looks to be on track to do so also, as the Building Department found few surprises. Day and Bigelow middle schools are getting new, more efficient, boilers.
The Building Department is aggressively working to reduce its maintenance backlog and creating capacity for preventativemaintenance. This will also save the city money.
Our street paving is starting to pay off—in terms of average condition, more streets are in good shape.
There is more money in the traffic calming budget, but a backlog of 43 requests, some going back decades, and at current funding levels, Newton can address about 10 of them each year. That’s still 10 more than two years ago, and some are addressed when streets are reconstructed, but I’d like Newton to be able to address more of these, sooner.
Newton’s analog parking meters will finally get upgraded so they can take credit cards (as well as coins) and be remotely adjusted—this will also make parking management easier. The app for the meters, parking enforcement hand-held devices and pay-by-phone software should also be able to handle digital parking permits.
The Library is adding summer Sunday hours as of July. Newton is now second in usage and borrowing (in the state) after Boston.
The city is spending more next year on park maintenance. 850 trees will be planted, which is the maximum that can be maintained—the forestry division also does not want large swaths of street trees hitting the end of their lives at once.
Director of Special Needs Mark Kelly is getting a well-deserved national award for his work in Newton creating special needs camps and programs.
If you need medical equipment like walkers, crutches, etc., the Senior Center has a lending program. It’s also a good place to donate durable medical equipment (not orthopedic boots).
Newton Corner may be getting a new neighborhood association! This neighborhood was fractured by the MassPike; it would be good to have a community organization to help build better social connections.
Newton is hiring crossing guards. Anyone interested should contact the Police Department!
About two signals or street lights is knocked down per month. These cost $10,000 each to repair.
Vaping andopioid—or now fentanyl—misuse are ongoing challenges in our community, with both the Health department and the police taking on prevention
Office Hours I plan to join Andrea Kelley (W3, at large) Saturday, June 22, 3:30-5 pm at L’Aroma. Come join us for tea and conversation!
Are you around in July and August? Council has a lighter schedule, but if you are interested in office hours in your ward, send me a note, and I will schedule. Otherwise, I will resume office hours in September.
In this update, I want to give everyone some background on the criteria for granting or denying a special permit. Background Criteria Fair Housing rules Elections! Already? Office Hours Background Since these are the rules City Council must abide by for both small home renovations (particularly until the Zoning Code is revised) and for large projects, they are clearly vital to understanding how we in City Council go about our business.
Both special permits and zoning changes require a 2/3 vote to pass, or 16 votes in our council. But there are important distinctions.
According to our Law Department: “…while City Councilors serve broadly in a legislative/political role, when acting as the special permit granting authority the City Council is acting in a judicial role and is conducting what is commonly referred to as a “quasi-judicial process.” City Councilors are not acting on behalf of their constituents when voting on special permits.” (Emphasis mine).
This tension councilors face is probably why Newton is one of the few communities in which a political body makes special permit decisions (it's in the charter). Most Massachusetts cities and towns use an appointed body.
In short— Of course I want to hear from you, and any light you can shed on an upcoming permit is tremendously useful. But, it is best to do so in a public hearing, or via an email to the whole council (citycouncil-AT-newtonma.gov). Also, I won’t be able to tell you “how I am going to vote,” because I can’t. In this role, City Councilors should weigh all the evidence first—and until right before the final vote, we don’t have all the evidence. Criteria The special permit criteria are outlined in Newton’s zoning ordinance. A project should, in Council’s judgement:
Serve the public welfare
Be in an appropriate location for the use or structure
Not generate a nuisance or safety hazard (this may apply to traffic)
Have appropriate access
Be sustainable, both in energy and other natural resources
Fair Housing rules Additional guidance is provided by Fair Housing laws, which requires that opportunities for housing and employment are not just equal, but that governments proactively work to reverse discrimination based on:
Familial Status (families with children under 18)
Source of income
Gender identity and expression
In a city-sponsored training for decision makers in Newton last month, we learned that these laws apply to both decisions that clearly intend to discriminate as well as those that have a discriminatory effect. Among the case studies of illegal decisions were:
Prohibiting or severely limiting multi-family housing, especially rentals (renting requires half the income of ownership)
Limiting new housing to studio and one-bedroom apartments
Decision-makers (us) using language during the process or deciding in a way that can be interpreted as discriminatory intent (examples: associating rental housing with transients; not wanting school children, not wanting urbanites...)
Not allowing reasonable changes to buildings that would enable access for a person with mobility issues
Using maximum occupancy standards to prevent a group home for individuals with a disability—this applies not just to the developmentally disabled, but to sober houses—except to protect health and safety related to overcrowding.
Related to Fair Housing, some historical background:
Our zoning code harkens back to the dark days of the 20th century when single-family zoning was intentionally used to segregate minorities (mostly African-Americans, but also "undesirable" immigrants like Italians, Jews, Irish...) from "white" people. Multi-family homes in the urban core were “red-lined” by banks (they would not lend to these areas) and left to minorities. Suburbs, even in the 1950s, were usually too expensive and often actively prohibited minority ownership. (Interesting: Nonantum and Upper Falls were red-lined in the 1930s)
Newton currently only allows multi-family housing (3-or-more-units) by special permit. Some argue that this is exclusionary, and is compounded by having our special permits (for all multi-family housing) made by a political body. What do you think?
I take special permit decisions seriously: I listen carefully and read everything I can that’s related to them. One looming challenge for the city is managing traffic that may be generated by a project. Councilors and the Planning Department have been discussing several tools—including measurement and enforcement—that may help the city to mitigate traffic. One of these tools is parking. I have covered this in earlier emails, see here.
I will be running for re-election this term. The city has made progress in making it safer to walk and bike; we have gotten the attention of the MBTA on issues such as station accessibility and service frequency; we have started to plan for a greener, more vibrant, more welcoming city.
But there is still much to do, including Zoning Redesign for the whole city, and implementing climate action plans. I’m willing to do that hard work. Ours will likely be a contested race. I am hoping for your support!
Launch Party—is Thursday, May 23 at 6:30pm. Pia Bertelli has kindly opened her home at 31 Locke Road, Waban. There will be great company, which I hope includes YOU! If you can’t make Thursday, there will be more events listed on my website and Facebook page.
Redesign delayed ouncil will be taking more time on the zoning redraft for the whole city—it just became increasingly clear to the Zoning and Planning Committee chair, Susan Albright, and the Planning Department that we could not complete this work before the end of the year.
While this will mean slightly more focus on the vision and planning for Washington Street, the Redesign work will continue. A quick recap of the goals of this work: Match the city as it is (currently 85% of residences are non-conforming) Reduce tear-downs Advance goals like responding to climate change and housing diversity and affordability
Build-out analysis The build-out analysis (read the full report here looked at the maximum amount of square footage (bulk) that could be allowed under the February (2019) version of the draft zoning code, as well as the maximum number of units. Remember, these are unlikely scenarios: Under our 60-year-old zoning, in the neighborhoods, Newton owners are allowed to build 2,000 more units than have been built today, and have created only about half as much total bulk as is allowed in residences.*
What we learned It appears that the current Newton trend is to buy 2 family homes and convert them to single-families (data is still coming in). Two-thirds of Newton’s 1 & 2-family homes were built before 1941 (first adoption of the current neighborhood zoning)
What makes a tear-down?—As we currently understand--for the most part--properties will only be bought on spec and torn down if the replacement home can be at least 3,800 sf (including a 2-3 car garage) and resold for at least 2.4x the price of the original property. To put that in perspective, look at the dimensions of your own house.
The good news-much of the city becomes much more tear down resistant under the February version. Homes built under this code will be smaller and cover less of the lot than is now allowed.
* Whether to place emphasis on number of units (which if pushed lower could create larger individual apartments) or size of units (which if pushed lower increases the number)
*Whether to insist that buildings include off-street parking in neighborhoods near village centers
*Whether to allow larger lots to be split into smaller ones, and how many/what size
*Whether to retain single-family zoning or allow splitting small “house B” type residences to contain two units
40B news Council was informed early February that city calculations determined Newton has moved even further from meeting the “safe harbor” for 40B—the anti-snob-zoning provision that allows multi family housing that meets a 20 or 25% minimum of units affordable to low and moderate income households.
Each municipality in Massachusetts needs to either have more than 10% of units deemed affordable by the Department of Housing and Community Development OR 1.5% of developable land occupied by affordable units.
Until Newton reaches either goal, developers can build housing projects that meet the 40B requirements and ignore most of Newton’s zoning rules. Both the numerator and the denominator in both these calculations change regularly as housing is built or as units are no longer deemed eligible for classification as “affordable.”
Good to know According to Newton’s Economic Development Director, the cafeteria at the UMass Amherst/Boston campus (former Mt. Ida) is open to the public. The Amherst cafeteria was voted best on-campus dining in the US, so it might be worth a try!
You can now text 911 from your cell phone anywhere in Massachusetts. While it’s recommended to call if you can, it’s good to know you can text if you can’t. Remember to give as much information—particularly the nature of the emergency and where it is.
Office Hours I will be at L’Aroma April 6, 10-11:30am. Come join me!
Other April Dates April brings Park Serve Day/Charles River Cleanup (4/27)--I will be helping out at Hemlock Gorge, the city treasure in Upper Falls. Cleanup starts at 10 am. Those of you wishing to honor former Councilor Brian Yates--the Friends of Hemlock Gorge is one of two charities to which he wished donations to go.
The next day is Newton Serves, when Newton neighbors pitch in to beautify the Garden City. Join me on the Quinobequin! Details here (meet us at the corner of Radcliffe Rd).
Hope to see you in the parks this month!
*Want to see all the zoning redesign documents? Link is here.
If you have read some of my earlier posts, you know that I’m passionate about parking. Parking:
makes housing and commerce more expensive,
distorts the look and walkability of village centers and
creates heat islands.
But one of the least-appreciated effects of ample, cheap parking is that it induces driving. Your choice to drive rather than use another mode for short trips is affected by three things:
Whether there’s a car in your driveway
The amount of cheap, available parking at your destination
How comfortable (i.e. safe & pleasant) your trip is via transit, foot, or bike
Even item [c] is essentially about parking. Too much parking makes your trip windswept and unpleasant—or if it is structured, it can mean an ugly blank wall or unnecessarily tall, monolithic buildings along your walk. In Massachusetts, the rough estimate is that 40% of current emissions (and climbing!) is transportation – which, if you’ve been reading your congestion reporting, is driving cars. Cruising for parking also creates emissions—which is why I and colleagues have docketed an item to allow the City to charge the lowest price necessaryto free up public, metered spaces. In some cases, this will raise the meter price, in some it will lower the meter price. City staff will assess the effectiveness of the price change every six months. If it needs further adjustment, and if they can remove time limits (I hear you, Newton Centre!), they will. Surface parking lots also contribute to heat island effect. But in many cases, they are required by our Zoning Code, which is why I support removing parking minimums in the Zoning Redesign. Because we want developers to produce the least amount of parking necessary to create a successful development, not some arbitrary number in a 1950s-era “parking handbook.”
Of course, if all of your destinations are far from where you live, driving is essential. That’s why getting Zoning Redesign right is so critical to advancing Newton’s climate goals. The draft we have before us moves the needle—some would say not enough—to adding housing and commerce near transit. Newton and the rest of the communities within 128 need to add enough housing that is affordable to our employees (both public and private—our firefighters, police officers, teachers, city staff, nurses, etc.). Otherwise, expect to see more parking lots instead of parks or homes near schools, etc.
I have joined other councilors and the mayor in advocating for better transit service, better stations and bus stops and more frequency of trains and buses to serve Newton. The City has some areas we can control around transit:
make buses faster by giving them signal priority (red lights that turn green when a bus approaches).
move stops to the far side of signals.
add bus shelters. (fun fact—not having a shelter is one of the most-cited reasons to not take the bus)
But where the City has the most leverage is in adding pedestrian connections (bike connections, too) to stops. That means sidewalks, safe crossings, but also off-road connections like the Upper Falls Greenway. I’ve been working
to ensure that the Greenway connects to and under Rt. 9 at Winchester Street, and
to get a bridge and connection to Needham on the Greenway spur.
I support completing the bike network (and have filed a docket item to advance it), and
connecting the parks near Riverside to the station site. Talk about a pleasant walk to the train!
If you have read this far, you have probably guessed that I support all the installations in the Solar Phase III proposed by the mayor. We can quibble about aesthetics. But the number of trees to be removed or relocated has been reduced to just a few. The cut trees will be replaced and then some within the same neighborhood. No tree trimming is necessary for the realigned installations. And we will see our electricity production increase to about 40% of municipal and school electricity use. Of course, most of Newton’s energy use is in the private sector (mostly residential), but at least the municipal fossil fuel budget can be reduced, and set an example for the rest of us.
I’m always happy to chat in more depth at my office hours.
Saturday, March 16. 9:30 -11:00 am at Central in Newton Centre. Am sharing with Councilor Noel, so the joint will be hopping!
Saturday April 6th 10-11:30 am at L'Aroma in West Newton
In this update, answer common questions about the first draft of Zoning Redesign for Newton:
What parts City Council needs to decide
Questions on the current draft
Where to learn more
The draft aims to address the following challenges in the current zoning code:
Tear-downs and those super-large replacement homes
A special-permit process (which can be unpredictable and expensive) even for moderate changes (dormers, mud rooms)
Excessive on-site parking requirements that distort and dismember village centers
Advantaging deep-pocketed developers with grandiose plans over ordinary homeowners wanting small improvements
Nasty surprises for neighbors, because with 85% of all residences non-conforming, there is little predictability from the ordinance on what will next be built.
The goals of this first draft are to describe and –using better tools, including “form-based zoning,”—preserve what’s in place, while allowing for minor updates that meet residents’ needs (dormers, mud rooms)
2. What parts City Council needs to decide In short, lots. But the likely areas on which we will need to make tough calls are:
Where is the line between an administrative vs. a Council decision on development?
Where are parking minimums (or maximums) appropriate to reduce driving and impermeable space?
How far are we willing to push the energy efficiency and renewable energy envelope?
What storm water rules are fair and enforceable?
Where does the current draft of the zoning map need additional modification?
How far will we push affordability and housing near transit?
Can we enforce building rules that will enhance neighborhood connections (front doors, porches..)
3. Common questions, claims
I’ve read about how Zoning was created in the 1920s to enforce segregation. Will this draft change the basic bones of that for Newton?
No. If it were, it would be in the goals, above. If that’s what you want—let City Council know!
Does the Zoning Draft increase density? Where?
Yes, if by density you mean more of housing. But the draft restricts the size of the outside of the building, so the units inside will be smaller. (fun fact: our households are smaller than in the 1970s, but our housing units are bigger).
Also, the current Zoning ordinance (formulated in 1941/53, so I’ll call it 1953 Zoning from now on) also allows for more units, but in many cases (Nonantum, Newtonville) the ability to build a 2- or 3-family hasn’t resulted in more 2- and 3-families.
The largest areas where multiple unit buildings are located (in the draft) are on the Commuter Rail/Express Bus routes. That’s because the draft follows where the multi-unit buildings are now (see goals about preserving what’s there, above). If the draft changed those areas over to 1-family zoning, folks with a 2-or3-family would need to jump through additional regulatory hoops to make minor changes.
There’s not as much land devoted to multi-family housing as some would like near the Green Line. Council could change that.
Will this mean more affordable housing?
Not yet. By preserving the current fabric and allowing just a few changes to allow more units in structures that basically look like what’s here, Newton won’t build its way to affordability. Smaller units are usually cheaper than larger units, but may still be too rich for many pockets (Cool look at modern compact housing here—h/t Ted Chapman).
That said, a separate effort to add subsidized units via a tool called “inclusionary zoning” is ongoing.
Will this mean a housing glut in Newton?
Unlikely. You’d need a LOT of willing sellers, a hot market and people willing to invest in construction. 1953 Zoning enabled tear-downs and supersized homes to be profitable in the last decade, but this draft aims to stop that.
Won’t this be a windfall for large landowners?
The draft doesn’t necessarily add value across the board. In fact, developers are complaining that it will cost them in lost value.
Can you remove units from your multi-unit home? Yes.
Will large apartment buildings (20 units or more) be allowed near single-family homes in neighborhoods?
No. For instance, in the R3, which allows multi-family, the greatest number of units allowed is 14, but only IF that project is super energy efficient or 100% affordable. It would also require a lot of at least 10,000 sf. Is that too dense? Let City Council know!
BUT, homes on smaller lots, while they may be big enough for an additional small unit or two, will not be allowed to convert, for the most part. Council could change that.
Will streets be narrowed and parking restricted?
Not exactly. Zoning doesn’t address how many lanes are in a street (do you want your street widened?).
Parking? 1953 zoning has meant that a small, non-profit in my neighborhood has been required to add five times the number of spaces (and pavement) than they felt was necessary, despite being located steps from other large parking lots. This is stupid, and we shouldn’t require people to build more of something that will increase traffic, pollution and flooding without a sound reason for it.
Will it apply to all villages? Yes, but this is just the first draft. The Planning Department and City Council are actively seeking comments. You can expect to see changes as a result of community feedback and the build-out analysis (see below)
4. Office Hours Still have questions? So do I. Come share them at my office hours! Or tell me what I need to know!
Friday, February 15, 11 am, at the Senior Center again with Councilor Danberg.
Saturday, March 16, 9-10 am at Central in Newton Centre
It’s the Parking. Really. In this update, I talk about the unexpected ways that parking affects:
Buildings and streetscapes
Newton’s vulnerability to climate impacts, particularly
Buildings Parkingturns out to be a driver of more than just trips (pro tip: more parking=more driving=more traffic.
In fact, parking, or specifically government-mandated “minimum parking requirements,” are one of the reasons new apartment and office buildings are often massive and ugly. The higher the minimums (which are built into zoning codes—Newton’s is particularly high), the more likely the building will look massive and generic. In this scenario, the parking comes first—the apartments or offices are a thin veneer around a garage! First a developer acquires a large block of property, builds a multi-story garage to meet the parking minimums, and builds the stuff that will sell/rent (apartments, condos, offices, etc.) around the outside. Parking minimums began in the car- and sprawl-happy 1950s and later, as planners assumed that everyone who could, would drive. A similar assumption drove the demolition of rail and street-car services. Since then, we have learned the economic and climate consequences of drive-everywhere culture, and City Council has started requiring developers of larger projects to include transit passes, bike- and car-share and carpool programs, among other things. One reason is that it’s clear all these spaces are underutilized. Look at the parking lots surrounding many of our stores on Needham Street and even on a busy shopping day, many spaces sit unoccupied (many of them meet Newton’s current parking minimums). I toured a new, luxury development in Waltham’s downtown recently and noticed that most of the cars occupying the spaces were dusty. On a Monday morning—so they weren’t being used for commuting or for weekend shopping trips! If Newton were to reduce its parking minimum in half (and remember that developers can always produce more parking than the minimum if they wish), a single story of underground parking could allow for courtyard-type buildings with amenities in the middle. The developer would still need a large block of property, but could dig down just far enough to hide a full-size parking lot with one entrance. Building above might have to still be fairly big, but it could allow for more air, light, and shared space for playgrounds or other community assets. Buildings with no parking minimums? Well, that’s how any of our village centers built before 1950 were constructed. Sometimes homes and shops included spots for cars (or horses). Sometimes the builder assumed people would walk or take transit. So yes—parking can shape buildings, even whole village squares. My take: I personally prefer the look and feel of those buildings created without massive parking—this has also been called building for a “human scale,” not for “auto scale.” Climate Impacts:
Throughout this winter, the city is assessing the risks of extreme heat and more intense rainfall as a result of the emissions that already are in the area’s future. These are climate changes that are highly likely even if we stop using fossil fuels today. Here’s (p21) where Newton has “heat islands”—those areas that are hotter than normal on a hot, sunny day: The reddest areas are hottest. They are also where Newton has the highest density of surface parking lots—along Washington Street, Needham Street, at the Chestnut Hill malls, etc. Buildings also have an impact on heat, but there are many available technologies that will lessen this—from painting the roof white to planting a flat roof. It’s a little more expensive to build, but both of these methods reduce operating costs.
The second, and possibly bigger, threat to Newton’s population is water. We had a foretaste of what that might look like in March of 2010 and over the snowy part of winter 2015. When we build and pave over open space, water doesn’t filter back into the ground; instead it flows—often fast—into storm drains. Pollution—nutrients from exhaust as well as junk on the ground—washes into the Charles River, Crystal Lake and –sometimes—into our sewer pipes, overwhelming them. Therefore, one of the recommendations of the climate vulnerability plan is to depave—to reduce the size of parking lots, the width of streets, driveways, etc. The newly-asphalt-free spots can become places where street trees could thrive, or places for rain gardens—installations designed to absorb water (more than just grass or garden). So in this way, also, parking and driving can affect our future in a changing climate. In other words, we in Newton have choices to make that will affect the city’s future. Do we continue to build for cars or for people? How will we address flooding and heat? Do we want to drive alone and be able to park everywhere, or is it time to take some of our trips in other ways? My take:City officials, including city councilors, need to do whatever we can to avert climate disasters and to mitigate the effects of those that will be coming our way. I’d like to see city officials get out of the business of estimating parking needs (leave that to the developers, who have skin in the game), and, if anything, restrict new parking—both to save current residents’ lives and property threatened by heat and water, but simultaneously for our kids’ future on the planet. Action I encourage you to read the material on the city’s website about Washington Street (deadline Dec. 2) and the Climate Vulnerability assessment and to comment. You can comment on the Washington Street Vision via the city website. There’s a public hearing on the Climate Vulnerability Assessment Dec. 10 at 7 pm in City Hall. The links are here: 1.Washington Street 2. Climate Vulnerability:
While new school buildings and large paving projects certainly command attention, some of the less visible and less expensive items can represent a disproportionate improvement in quality of life. This month, I am focusing on these.
pedestrian refuges and other traffic islands
lines on the street
Friends of Cold Spring Park
1. Islands A project dear to my heart was the shortening of pedestrian refuges (a protected island between lanes where pedestrians can safely wait for a break in traffic) in several parts of Newton. Why? Some posed an obstacle to people in wheelchairs. A glaring and dangerous example was the pedestrian refuge island at the intersection of Washington and Beacon streets in Lower Falls. I had seen a man in a motorized wheelchair, heading to the hospital, who had to cross Beacon by rolling into the traffic lane on Washington! This island is now shortened, so the crosswalk is uninterrupted by curb, as is the one at Lowell and Commonwealth.
More expensive, but unusually effective—the upgrade of pedestrian crossings in Newton Corner at the circle. Just a little extra curb—sometimes with a grass berm—audible signals, and—most visibly—the removal of yews that blocked motorists' view of each other. Something more lovely still needs to be planted in these islands, but already it looks much better—and is safer for all!
2. Lines As part of the reconstruction of Beacon Street—this year's section was Walnut to Centre—has included the painting of generous “fog lines”--the white lines on either side of the road. These already function as de-facto bike lanes, but more importantly, they encourage drivers to slow down to the speed limit. I've noticed it on my own drives, and I'm sure pedestrians appreciate the additional distance as well as the new sidewalks.
3. Park Off pavement, the newly-formed Friends of Cold Spring Park (on Facebook @FriendsofColdSpringPark; FriendsofColdspringPark@gmail.com) helped and publicized Alex Rivero's Eagle Scout project—several raised board walks across some of the muddy sections of the fitness path there. The Friends are raising money for more trail improvements, and are working with Parks & Recreation staff, to prioritize other sections. It's worth it to follow the page just for the quirky events, artifacts, animal sightings (weasels!) and history trivia. Donate (tax-deductible) for trail improvements with a check to Newton Conservators with “Friends of CSP” on the memo line: PO Box 610023, Newton 02461.
4. Trees: Join the Newton Tree Conservancy to plant over 100 new street trees Nov. 17th. I'm signed up, and you can too—this is a wonderful way to improve air quality, mitigate climate change and enhance the beauty of Newton streets. The link to join them is https://www.signupgenius.com/go/60b084ca9aa2fa1fc1-fall
5. Office Hours: After I clean up from the tree planting, I'm holding office hours at the family-owned Grape Leaf, 6 Lincoln St, Newton Highlands from 11 am – 12:30. Come to find out more about zoning, the city's two big climate plans, or anything else on your mind. You won't regret trying the gyros!
6. Zoning, Ward 5 Edition: If you live or own in Ward 5, save the evening of November 29th. We don't have a venue confirmed yet, but it looks like that's the evening the Planning Department will join us to talk Zoning Redesign as it affects our ward
What is Inclusionary Zoning? Since 2003, Newton has required developers who create 6 or more new units of housing to provide 15% of that project’s units at rents or selling prices within the reach of low- to moderate-income households (households with gross annual incomes at or below 80% of area median income, AMI). This ordinance is called Inclusionary Zoning (IZ). It is a common method to encourage the private production of affordable housing. A full description, and details are here: http://www.newtonma.gov/gov/planning/lrplan/inclusionary_zoning.asp)
Problem was, from April 2003 until this year, only 14 affordable units were built in Newton under this ordinance (more were built under the anti-snob zoning state law we refer to as 40B).
Newton’s Housing Strategy (2016) proposed amending the IZ ordinance to see if the production of affordable units could be enhanced, and Mayor Warren docketed a request to increase the IZ requirement. Several councilors docketed a request then to study the question.
Last March, the consultant, RKG Associates, presented their analysis of the proposed update to the ordinance - what it costs to build a unit in the city, and at what point the IZ requirement is too high--meaning no new housing units.
All developers—few can finance purchase and construction with cash—need to meet the requirements of lenders to move forward with development. Once they factor in probable income, minus cost of land, cost of construction, cost of permitting and other soft costs (architects, lawyers, etc.), the costs of affordable units, operation costs, and debt service, their rate of return has to hit those financial requirements to get funded.
RKG calculated the tipping point between building vs. abandoning housing investments in various scenarios for Newton, and provided the Planning Department with their financial feasibility model, so that staff can now calculate the tipping point themselves.
The resulting recommendation is that the new IZ requirement first apply with the addition of 7 or more units; that the number of required IZ units vary between 15-17.5% of total units in the project, depending on the size and constitution of the development (rental or ownership); and that the required IZ units include a mix of affordability levels (up to 120% of AMI).
In addition, developers of any project that consists of 100% affordable units will be allowed to choose the mix of affordability, rather than comply with the city’s required mix. This may allow, for instance, a 100% middle-income senior-friendly apartment or condo building (with units affordable to households with incomes between 81% and 120% AMI).
Currently, our ordinance applies to projects with a net increase of 6 or more units under a special permit application, but not to any by-right construction. Newton also has a “density bonus” for projects that provide greater affordability than what is required, but the proposed ordinance removes that, since this incentive has resulted in very few new affordable units.
One of the factors that I found most interesting in RKG’s financial analysis of the proposed update was what happened with parking. In all of the scenarios explored by RKG, the consultant assumed multi-family housing would be built near transit, allowing Newton’s lowest parking minimum of 1.25 spaces/unit. As the number of units grows—over 35 units—the assumption is that the parking moves underground.
The number of affordable units is contingent on how much the developer subsidizes parking (and thus driving). And because underground parking is so expensive (I’ve heard estimates between $50-$100,000/space), the percentage of required affordable units has to be significantly lower once underground parking kicks in to make the project viable.
(Newton has some of the most generous parking minimums within the 128 area. Clearly, the City needs to decide whether it wants to continue to subsidize driving or housing, and to what extent.)
So currently, the committee is looking at changing the IZ ordinance to allow for more affordable units across various sizes and types of development. But we also need to decide whether to aim for fewer overall affordable units with deeper levels of affordability or a greater number of affordable units at higher levels of affordability (middle-income or “work force housing” for instance).
Lately, there has been some talk about putting a moratorium on certain kinds of development. While the message this sends is well-taken, the effect may be more uncontrolled development. Here’s some background:
City Council is currently working on modernizing our Zoning Code—we and the mayor heard clearly that the current code wasn’t working well—mansions instead of cottages, special permits for dormers and porches. Phase 1 zoning redesign was completed several years ago and we are in the midst of a multi-year process with multiple opportunities for community input right now.
You may have noticed some building going on near Washington Street in Newtonville. There is more proposed for West Newton and probably Needham Street.
Also, the city has just completed a week of Washington Street Visioning, which came hard upon the heels of a Needham Street Vision.
I sit on the Zoning and Planning subcommittee of the Council, and our meetings have been, to put it mildly, action-packed.
It’s a lot to digest, and I understand the appeal of a moratorium on development along Washington Street. And to blame a certain zoning designation for the two holes in the ground that may or may not turn out to be great buildings for Newtonville.
Three docket items related to this are pending before City Council.
1.Removing MU4 from the zoning code.
MU4, or Mixed Use 4, is an optional zoning district. It is only applied by special permit. So removing it from the mix of tools the Council can use only removes Council discretion. We can independently not vote for any more MU4 designations without passing an ordinance forcing ourselves to do so.
Moreover, MU4 was crafted to mimic the very village centers most of us like—first floor retail or walk-in services, second floor office or residential, homes above. The mix makes sense when people want to walk, rather than drive, for most trips. It is prevalent in those historic villages built before 1950—when street cars and feet got us most places. 2. Moratorium on building projects more than 10,000 sq. feet along Washington Street. Again, any large projects going in along any of Newton’s streets will need a special permit—which gives Council discretion and allows us to work with a developer to improve the project—making it more sustainable, sturdy, lovely, pedestrian-friendly, etc.
Voting in either #1 or #2 would make it more, not less, likely that a developer would instead opt for a 40B, or anti-snob, development—all housing, some of it affordable, that circumvents most of a municipality’s zoning. I chose to keep some control for the city. 3. Restricting residential uses in mixed-use projects to no more than 50%. The concern I hear from the authors of this item are that housing will be filled with children, who will use our schools and increase Newton’s debts. Newton is rightly proud of its public schools and the desire of many outside of Newton to avail themselves of them is real.
But it’s far from proven that housing will fill predominately with parents and children. Regional studies show otherwise. Mayor Fuller has hired a consultant to check Newton’s own history against the region’s on this.
In the meantime, between big-box stores and online shopping, our commercial centers are struggling. To add more commercial without housing is a non-starter for many developers because the financing isn’t there—it’s too risky. So to vote for this item would be to vote to stop most mixed-use development. Again, a rational developer might well opt for the 40B development, leaving the City with an even more-residential project.
To be clear, voting for these three items would have meant Newton would be MORE likely, not less, to see large residential (40B) projects proposed, over which City Council and residents have little control.
I welcome your thoughts on the above, and on other creative ways to make our city more sustainable, more lovely and more inclusive. Feel free to email me at adowns -AT- newtonma.gov. And if you haven’t already, sign up for my occasional email updates