I write this August update to put the current draft of Zoning Redesign into perspective, including new proposals to allow two or more units in more parts of Newton.
Briefly, Council is looking to preserve Newton’s leafy look and feel while adding resilience and diversity.
Draft Zoning--A Question of Size
Council has been working to improve the rules that control what we may or may not build on our property (zoning ordinances) since 2011, but have been more intensely focused since 2018 (my first update on it is March of that year).
After many meetings, and public input from each ward, the Zoning and Planning committee (ZAP), decided to establish some rules controlling the size of new structures according to a detailed accounting of the scale and style of the neighborhood (aka the Pattern Book).
As I explained in April 2019, this is in part to reduce the number of tear-downs—ensuring that all new structures “fit” within the existing neighborhood.
To be clear: right now, current zoning, prefers BIG houses on BIG lots with room for lots of cars. And that’s part what makes tearing down perfectly good homes on spec so attractive—keeping the existing structure is less profitable under these rules.
The massive 2-4 unit structures that replaced torn-down modest housing in West Newton, Newtonville and other neighborhoods are allowed under our CURRENT zoning.
What Council is considering is allowing the kind of multi-family housing now existing in single-family-only zones—like Lincoln Street in Newton Highlands (yes, many of those majestic Victorians have more than one unit of housing, and could not be built—or altered—today by-right).
After all, if the exterior looks and feels the same, what do we care if the building contains two or more units? (Health and safety issues are covered in the building code)
Newton zoning already allows granny flats, but with many controls. The above proposal would also ease some of these controls, giving homeowners a few more options, and perhaps the wherewithal to stay or move.
Could a developer still choose to tear down a home and rebuild something big? Yes—but only in the right neighborhood (one with big houses), and within the environmental controls in the draft (to prevent flooding of neighboring properties, the draft zoning limits on how much of a lot can be covered with structures and pavement).
But as I reported from the Planning Department’s 2019 analysis of what makes for a tear-down, most developers won’t take that step if they can’t make a substantial profit (usually by exceeding 3,000 square feet per unit!). The draft makes it less profitable to tear down a home, and much easier for a family needing to reconfigure a property to do so.
As I’ve written before (February 2019), we had more people in fewer homes in the 1970s than we do now. As Newton has become richer, older and less dense, our village center businesses declined.
Smaller units are also easier to maintain, heat, and cool—even before new building codes add insulation and leak-sealing.
By allowing more, smaller housing units near transit and village centers, we create more of the 15-minute neighborhoods that add resiliency to our city in crises like pandemics or blizzards.
But doesn’t density increase the spread of disease? Some continue to argue this, but there’s little science to back it up. What we know is that when multiple families crowd into one unit, diseases can spread. What this zoning draft would do is enable Newton to add more housing units, and reduce crowding across the region.
By the way, riding public transit may be safer than thought, according to this NYT article.
As always, call or email if you want to chat.
Stay well; stay cool; and mask up!