In this update, I summarize the recently-completed Fiscal 2020 city budget
Energy Efficiency & Environment
Good to Know
One of the most important tasks of City Council is to pass the city’s annual budget. Where we put our resources tells you what the community values. I think most of us know that the public schools get the largest portion of city revenue (more than 55%). To my thinking, that’s appropriate.
The rest is municipal (30%), retiree pension & benefits (10%) and debt service.
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:
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:
Energy Efficiency & Environment
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.
Enjoy the early summer!
In this update, I want to give everyone some background on the criteria for granting or denying a special permit.
Fair Housing rules
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.
Best practices are here.
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.
The special permit criteria are outlined in Newton’s zoning ordinance. A project should, in Council’s judgement:
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:
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:
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.
I will also be holding regular office hours at the Newton Innovation Center, 124 Vernon St., Newton Corner, from 3-5 pm Saturday, May 25th. And, you get more: Councilors Alison Leary and Maria Greenberg, both of Ward 1, will also be there.
Hoping spring arrives soon!
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Copyright © 2019 Newton City Councilor Andreae Downs, All rights reserved.
In this update, I want to share some of the insights that the February build-out analysis gave Council on the second draft of Zoning Redesign, which I summarized earlier.
In this update, I outline how my city legislative priorities are tied to Climate Change
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.”
In this update, answer common questions about the first draft of Zoning Redesign for Newton:
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:
3. Common questions, claims
4. Office Hours
Still have questions? So do I. Come share them at my office hours! Or tell me what I need to know!
It’s the Parking. Really.
In this update, I talk about the unexpected ways that parking affects:
Parking turns 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.”
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.
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:
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.
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
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).
What do you think?
In other developments:
The Northland project for Oak and Needham streets started public hearings Sept. 24. Details here: http://www.newtonma.gov/gov/planning/current/devrev/hip/northland.asp I am particularly interested in how the project will address the transportation needs of those inside and coming to the site.
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
In this post, I will:
The draft, which is already undergoing further modification, is here.
It’s exciting to see the City starting to move in this direction. Many of us want to be able cut our greenhouse gas emissions at home—and allow the same for our neighbors.
The stormwater rules will also help us keep the Charles River and Crystal Lake cleaner—by removing the dirtiest “first flush” of a rainstorm and treating it—and by building in retention of rainwater so it is less likely to contribute to flooding (and recharges the local groundwater!). As the climate changes, New England is likely to see more intense storms (and flash droughts), so these rules can contribute to local resiliency.
Volunteers are what make Newton a great city to live in—and they keep making our community even better.
Marian Knapp is certainly one of those. Even as she plans to step back from the intensity of her work making Newton an “All Age-friendly” community, she is planning for the next wave. The Council on Aging (CoA) has outlined six “domains” which constitute and define an age-friendly community, and already has “Action Teams” set up to plan for:
The CoA is looking for team members for the Civic Participation, Policy & Politics domain and for the Communications domain. If you are interested, send me an email, and I’ll connect you!
Speaking of transportation, Ted Chapman has been coordinating the successful application for a study grant to look into connecting his neighborhood of Lower Falls with the Charles River Lake District parks and the Riverside T stop via off-road trails. He’s put together a wonderful vision and some enthusiastic volunteers and elected officials (including Rep. Kay Khan and a few city councilors) to see this become reality. He does a good job of mapping out this idea in the Newton Conservators newsletter.