From our 13 unique village centers, numerous commercial corridors, and residential neighborhoods, Newton has a diverse range of community landscapes. Let’s preserve the character of our residential areas and improve our village centers, while understanding there should not be a one-size-fits-all approach. Through proactive planning and effective zoning, we can make Newton more livable, walkable, and vibrant.
Newton is at a crossroads. We have seen strong market forces altering the character of our community and the scale of our residential neighborhoods. As past president of my local neighborhood association, I understand the importance of a robust community process that gives residents a voice in planning, zoning and development. And, as City Councilor, I know the necessity of proactive planning for Newton’s future.
A Diverse Range of Housing Stock
Newton should be a diverse and inclusive community and a place of opportunity. To achieve these goals, the City needs a range of housing types and housing prices. Affordable housing, thus, must be an integral part of the broader discussion of our housing plan for the City.
The limited availability of developable land coupled with high demand for housing has led to escalating housing values and increasingly limited housing stock diversity. Notably, there is strong demand for luxury housing and the high cost of land reinforces building high-end homes. Housing separation along lines of income has grown in the past decades in Newton with the fastest growth between 2000 and 2009. Newton has always been a diverse city, yet we are rapidly losing low to moderate-income residents. It is imperative that we commit to economically diverse housing stock.
Yet, the City cannot build its way to affordability; we cannot add sufficient housing to affect pricing in a substantial manner. But, to have some level of housing price diversity in Newton, we have the opportunity to ensure any redevelopment in village centers with mass transit includes affordable units. Current demographic trends indicate that there are more households with fewer people, so even as we add housing in village centers, the city’s population may stay fairly steady.
Our Village Centers
In certain village centers, I support mixed-use, transit-oriented development that is appropriately scaled and designed for that individual village’s context. Retail, office and housing that enhance lively, human-scaled and walkable village centers support community life and the local economy. Buildings should have active first floor uses with the upper stories being office and/or residential. We must attract a broader range of small businesses to provide a more varied range of amenities. Including the arts and cultural organizations in our village centers also will lead to increased vibrancy. The answer to commercial and retail space needs to be more than different bank branches coming to Newton. In addition to fostering more thriving village centers and commercial corridors for residents to enjoy, new office space is helpful for our tax base.
New housing developments should include living units in a range of prices, sizes, and layouts for people of various means and interests, fostering a diversity of housing options and thus a mix of residents. Let’s make sure that our older population has options when they want to downsize and remain in the city that they love and helped build. Similarly, Newton should not be prohibitively expensive for young professionals and young families looking to make a life in one of our 13 villages.
Before approving redevelopment in village centers, we have to pay particular attention to traffic and parking impacts, as most people in these buildings will continue to want some use of a car, even if the village has mass transit. The scale of our villages (we are not and should not be Brookline or Boston) and the lack of a full range of stores in walking distance from most of our village centers (a grocery store, hardware store, drug store, etc.) will continue to make most Newtonians car owners. Zipcar, Uber and bikes will help, but car ownership is likely to remain high.
The Importance of Planning
Proactively, we should be creating individual village center and commercial corridor plans. Such plans will serve as the blueprint for the short-term updates and long-term goals for each of these areas, and can only be achieved by working collaboratively with residents, business owners, elected officials, and other stakeholders.
By focusing on the vitality and evolution of our village centers, especially those with public transportation, we can encourage walkability. Walkability involves having the right retail and business mix, a variety of housing options, appropriate parking requirements, and the right street and sidewalk network. Those individual village plans need to be created with significant input and consensus from the residents and business owners in those villages, and the plans also need to include a sensitive interface of the village’s commercial area with the abutting residential uses by having graduated height and density limits that scale downward closer to homes.
In our residential neighborhoods, we need new homes and additions to respect the existing forms and patterns. When smaller, single-family homes are demolished, they shouldn’t be replaced by substantially larger houses or townhouses that are out of context with the rest of the homes on the block. Revising our zoning ordinances to respect the pattern of existing housing in residential neighborhoods is critical.
Reforming our Zoning Codes
Notably, redoing our zoning ordinance is key to preserving our residential neighborhoods and making sure our village centers and commercial corridors evolve in the way we want. We are currently developing a new context-based zoning ordinance that holds promise. Only after substantial community input and a vote by the City Council, it will provide guidance and rules for the development and redevelopment of Newton’s neighborhoods and village centers. It will identify areas for neighborhood preservation and locations appropriate for residential, commercial and institutional growth. Simultaneously, it will allow for soft transitions between village centers and residential neighborhoods. A great byproduct of the new ordinance will be that housing will be more regulated by ordinance rather than by special permit or variance. Clear rules will mean more predictability and less red tape.
Accessory apartments may also serve as a piece of Newton’s housing strategy. The City Council is currently wrestling with the ordinance that would clarify regulations on accessory apartments, while respecting the character of our residential neighborhoods. A better ordinance will help us eliminate illegal accessory apartments with safety issues. With careful rules and a clearer, more streamlined approval process for accessory apartments in existing homes and existing detached buildings, we have the opportunity to diversify housing choices in Newton. For new detached buildings, we need careful rules, and perhaps a special permit process, about the size and scale so we respect the look and scale of existing neighborhoods.
We are also losing some of our affordable housing units, as some were not permanently deeded as affordable. We should provide technical and financial support to non-profit and for-profit developers seeking to acquire “expiring use” properties. The City should also actively seek outside funding to support the preservation of these properties.
I am convinced that we can both preserve the quality of life that we love here in the Newton with the historic character of our neighborhoods and be an inclusive community with income diversity and a diverse housing stock. I will lead us as a community to preserve neighborhood character and, simultaneously, our city’s diversity and our villages’ economic vitality.
Note: I have used documents created by and for the City of Newton, sometimes word-for-word, when writing this position paper.