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