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.
I’m one of your at-large city councilors. To help me do my job better, I will be sending out occasional emails about issues facing the city. I’m hoping these emails will inform you and that you will help me get a fuller picture.
In this post, I cover three things:
On Wednesday, January 3, the Public Facilities Committee heard about the Department of Public Works’ plans to repair Newton’s roads. While I’m not a member of this committee, the chair, Councilor Deb Crossley, invited all councilors to attend.
DPW Commissioner Jim McGonagle explained that one reason—besides underfunding—that so many of Newton’s roads are currently in rough shape is that the City used to do a full “mill & pave” every 12-15 years (or longer), instead of lower-cost maintenance that prolongs pavement life.
Road maintenance ranges from “crack sealing” (those squiggly lines of asphalt that fill in the small holes before they become big holes), through to reclamation. The former is relatively inexpensive and quick, the latter is almost the most expensive road repair we do. (Tops for expense is concrete panel overlay—which is what much of Watertown St, some of Centre St, and upper Lowell Ave need—at $4million/mile.)*
DPW decides on which roads to fix based on several factors:
DPW Commissioner McGonagle provided this chart -->
I’m not going to replicate Jake’s good work, but I generally support saving money and preserving our public assets. Based on this metric, it often makes more sense to prioritize a “fair” street rather than one in worse repair.
*For those of you who use Lowell Ave, the northern section was scheduled for resurfacing this summer.
Summer work 2018
For 2018, DPW has a short list of streets it is working on—and will also continue 2017 work, like Beacon from Walnut to Centre, which was not completed before the snow. This list only includes major work—not maintenance work (cape sealing and less expensive).
Here's what struck me:
I live on Chestnut St, one of the city’s few north-south routes. My street is 24 feet wide in most places—which is just big enough for two 10-foot lanes and two shoulders for snow, drainage, etc. Whatever else you may say about Chestnut, it goes places and a lot of people use it.
So, as I was reviewing the above chart, what struck me was how wide some of the streets in the “reclaim” chart are—these are roads in such bad shape that they will need the most expensive repairs. But none of these roads has the kind of usage that my street does. They are residential, and serve a few dozen homes at most. They SHOULD be quiet and safe. Some are dead ends.
Research on street design has shown that drivers don’t feel comfortable speeding on curvy, narrow roads lined with trees or other vertical objects (buildings, poles). Years of engineering wide, straight, highway-like streets with few roadside obstacles has proven the concept—people drive faster on wider, straighter roads. And faster is deadlier. So if you want side streets to be quiet, you make them curvilinear and NARROW.
Many of the streets to be reconstructed are WIDER than 24’. And, as the top chart shows, these newly-reconstructed roads will last us about 15 years with good maintenance. The more pavement we have, the higher our repaving and maintenance costs—even with the Commissioner's wise maintenance plans.
I’m not arguing that these streets shouldn’t be nice and smooth. But our city faces serious fiscal challenges, which Mayor Fuller outlined during the campaign this year. So we need to think carefully about our priorities—new school buildings or new fire stations? Maintain parks or pay police officers?
Newton also will soon have to remove pollution from the water that drains to the lake and river. This is done most cheaply by letting water soak into the ground rather than treating it after it runs off pavement or buildings. In fact, in Franklin, MA, DPW Commissioner Brutus Cantoreggi is currently removing sidewalk and pavement on every cul-de-sac he can to meet a court order to keep pollution from entering the Charles River via runoff.
So, my question is: does it make sense for Newton taxpayers to reconstruct ALL of these side streets at widths greater than 24 feet? In some cases, the width may be needed for parking—but most of the homes on South Newton streets, built after 1945, have ample off-street parking. Kids who want to bike or roller-skate will need a smooth surface, but if the street is wide, doing so is less safe, since wider streets encourage speeding. Do we need pedestrian access on these roads? A quick look at Google Street View shows Cynthia Road (30’, South Newton), for instance, has sidewalks on both sides.
Reconstruction, as I heard the Commissioner explain it, involves re-setting curb. Would it be more financially and environmentally sustainable to narrow the paved part of the road, widening the strip of land between sidewalk and street? Would the trees planted there be able to grow larger, given more root room? Would there be more room for snow storage?
What do you think?
Everyone loves free parking.
We’d love free ice cream, too. But the effect on our waistlines (and the waste cans outside of ice cream stores) would be ugly.
America has experimented with free parking, and the result was similarly ugly—cars were parked everywhere, and nobody could find a space.
Some places tore down buildings to create parking lots and garages—take that solution far enough and you have few stores, lots of parking—but it’s hardly a vibrant, walkable area—too many cars, too much asphalt between destinations.
Other places added parking meters. A small cost meant that drivers thought a little harder about where they needed to park in order to run an errand or get into work.
But in Newton, we haven’t changed the price of parking at a meter for so long, the cost is hardly a deterrent. On Friday, wanting to take my mother (87) to lunch, I circled Newton Centre looking for a spot close enough to an open lunch locale for us to get in and out in an hour. No luck.
From my email inbox and conversations, I know that a good number of spaces are taken by employees—feeding meters, moving cars on time-limited streets every few hours by a few feet—and this limits the number of spaces available for other uses.
City Council has heard that the time-limiting ordinance, which is applied to meters and residential streets with no meters and high demand, has a wording loophole that allows savvy drivers to successfully appeal. We tried to adjust that language recently.
I agree with many of those who emailed in opposition to the changes—time limits are a crude method for achieving parking turnover.
To achieve the desired behaviors that will make finding parking in our most valuable commercial locales easier, we need better policies. Public parking spaces are a common resource, and should benefit everyone. The balance between commuters, employees and customers is difficult, as City Council just heard. Who should occupy the most-convenient most valuable spaces? The owner/employee, the customer, the commuter?
Ideally, those who need spaces for several hours (owners, employees, commuters) can find the space they need further from the center of the action—and can leave the car there all day for a reasonable cost. Then customers can find parking convenient to their destinations for short periods, and a little further away for longer visits. But in Newton Centre in particular, that’s not happening now.
As I write this, the City is working to open up some long-term spaces on private property for employees and others using an app—there are a number of nearly-empty private lots near most of our village centers.
But these spaces won’t alleviate the parking issue in the village center unless the City better manages the public spaces that are most in demand by customers. After all, if the space in front is cheap enough, why park further away?
Councilors Jake Auchincloss, Alison Leary, Vicki Danberg and I are working on a pilot parking management tool that has worked in other cities, and which Newton-Needham Chamber President Greg Reibman called “congestion pricing,” to keep some highly valuable spaces available at peak times for short-term uses.
Developed by UCLA economics professor Donald Shoup (http://www.streetfilms.org/illustrating-parking-reform-with-dr-shoup/), “demand based” or “dynamic” parking pricing has two components:
Time & Return: Before City Council Now
The proposal to clean up Newton’s ordinance on time limits remains before the council. Dynamic pricing isn’t appropriate for the whole city, but residents have been coming to Traffic Council for decades asking for relief from all-day commuter or employee parking, and the common result has been some form of time limit. So we need to have an ordinance that is enforceable. I will be voting again to tighten the language in the ordinance to make it more effective.
However, I did hear that the 24-hours is too long a prohibition on return (which was added to help the parking control officers, who don’t yet have the technology to know whether a car has left a lot/block and then returned or whether it was just moved a few spaces). On a two-hour space, clearly two hours is too short. So what is the right amount of time? I look forward to hearing your suggestions.
In this post, I cover three things:
In a 2016 referendum, Massachusetts voted to legalize recreational marijuana (details on what that means here). The Newton vote was 55 percent in favor and 44 percent against. Because Newton voters favored legalization, Newton’s government cannot ban the sale, cultivation, testing, or processing of cannabis without a local referendum approving such a ban.
Also according to the law, Newton will have to allow at least 7, maybe 8 retail outlets for recreational marijuana (the uncertainty is due to regulations not being final). These can’t be located within 500 feet of a childcare center or school for grades K-12 unless City Council votes to change that. If, as may be the case, so few suitable retail locations are far enough from schools and daycares that all 7 or 8 retail marijuana stores are concentrated in one area of Newton, City Council may wish to reduce the “buffer zone.”
Possession of up to 1 oz. and growing up to 10 oz. of marijuana is already legal as of December 2016. Delivery services can start operations in July 2018.
But while applications for retail locations can begin April 1, and sales in retail locations can begin in July, the state’s regulations won’t be final until March 15. That makes it difficult for City staff, who are already stretched thin with work on Zoning Redesign, the Needham Street Visioning and other City priorities, to act quickly.
The role of Newton’s City Council
There are two parts of the state law that need or could involve City Council action: adopting the local sales tax option on cannabis, and zoning for the industry.
City Council is docketing the sales tax in time for July 1 implementation.
On February 12, the Zoning and Planning committee took up the question of whether to put a temporary moratorium on recreational cannabis licenses to allow City staff time to work on zoning regulations.
Despite the state not having regulations out, some cities, like Salem, have gone ahead and adopted zoning, but they do so at the risk of having to revisit these ordinances after the regulations are final.
Because of this, most of our neighboring communities have already passed temporary moratoria. Brookline will vote on zoning for recreational marijuana at Town Meeting in May, and then will lift its moratorium.
Arguments for a moratorium include:
I personally prefer to see marijuana taxed, tested and regulated rather than have City Council try to ban it.
I am co-docketing the adoption of the recreational marijuana sales tax. I think Newton should benefit to the maximum possible from recreational sales.
As for the moratorium—I’m planning to vote for it, with an exemption for Garden Remedies.
I don’t think adding time and expense to opening stores serves the public good—marijuana will be sold in neighboring communities. In those states that already have legal marijuana widely available, the price drops, crime drops, opioid deaths drop and sales tax revenue rises. I do not want to harm current businesses by temporarily preventing them from expanding into the recreational market while their competition ramps up. I don’t want to lose potential revenue for the city.
However, I see good reason to ensure that Newton is following state law and has enough locations for at least the minimum required number of stores. We may not want to see a “cannabis row” in any one village. And we may need to reduce the buffer zone.
And there are other marijuana uses that I haven’t really addressed, but which Newton may want to zone for: cultivation, processing, testing, on-site consumption in cafes, yoga studios, cinemas, etc.
Given the above, what do you think?
If you’re like me, almost every time you pick up the phone, it’s a robo-call trying to sell you cheaper, “greener” energy.
Many of us want to sign up for renewable electricity, but it’s difficult to sift through the fine print and know that you are dealing with a reputable seller.
While the City can’t stop the robo-callers, it can take the uncertainty away.
By pulling the entire rate-paying population together as a single market—called aggregation—the City can purchase energy as a unit.
This effort, called Newton Power Choice, will ensure Newton ratepayers are getting a good deal, a stable energy price, and no tricky fine print.
It is also the largest single opportunity to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
For over a decade now, the City has chipped away at its energy budget with conservation measures—insulating buildings, adding solar panels, switching out light bulbs. Trouble is—the City represents a tiny fraction of the energy used in Newton-about 3%.
Another huge, and growing, source of emissions is transportation (30-40%). That’s why I’ve been championing safer walking and biking infrastructure, good connections to transit, and the good work of Safe Routes to School (https://www.facebook.com/NewtonSafeRoutes/).
But switching the source of electricity for ALL ratepayers in Newton is one of the biggest single actions the City can take.
A survey by Green Newton showed that over 86% of us agree—two thirds of these respondents would pay between $8 and $15/month to significantly increase the renewable energy in our electricity supply.
That’s why City Council—in October of last year—voted to adopt the Newton Power Choice program. Sometime next fall, Newton rate payers will have the option to accept the “default” mix of energy—which will have a higher mix than the state-mandated 13% of renewables.
You will also be able to opt for:
She has said that the “right” number will be the highest percentage of renewables acceptable to the highest number of residents—in other words, the percentage that will have the most impact on our planet’s future.
For an average household spending $150 a month on electricity an extra $8/month would mean that Newton’s percentage could be as high as 40% in addition to the state-mandated 13%. For a household spending $100 a month on electricity an extra $5/month would support 40% green electricity.
Moving to 53% renewable (the 40% + 13%), would put Newton ahead of EVERY other aggregated community in the state (there are more than 125 now). The next highest, Brookline, opted for 25%.
And anyone who currently gets a low-income discount would still get that price relief. (Anyone who gets net metering credits because of solar panels will also continue to see that savings).
To find that “right” percentage, Mayor Fuller is considering a poll of Newton ratepayers. I like and support that idea. While the Green Newton survey was good, having more people participate would be even better.
You can influence the final choice by participating in the poll, if and when it happens, or by contacting the City here: https://masspowerchoice.com/newton/support. You can also tell the mayor directly that you'd like the poll to happen (firstname.lastname@example.org)
More details on the program can be found here: https://masspowerchoice.com/newton. You may also check the website of Newton Coalition for Climate Action: http://newtonclimateaction.org/newton-power-choice/.