“The Planning Department’s Zoning Reform Kick-Off Event was held Wednesday night at Second Church in West Newton. There were somewhere around 50–70 people there, although I didn’t actually count heads. All the usual suspects were in the audience. A healthy representation of City Councilors, Area Councilors, architects, developers, the entire City Planning Department, ordinary interested citizens and Phil Herr. Judith’s Kitchen catered tasty light refreshments.

The theme, repeated several times, was that this is the beginning of the gathering of input from the residents of Newton as to what they see as areas for possible development within their Village borders. The term “context-based zoning” was introduced and will certainly be followed by a lot of future discussion to explain its meaning. Residents were asked to give input to a computer database of the various types of architecture within their neighborhoods. Someone from Planning said: “If a neighborhood is 80% non-conforming, perhaps the zoning designation should change to make that neighborhood “conform” to an alternative zoning designation!”

Guiding principles will be those articulated in the Comprehensive Plan of which Phil Herr is the architect.

There were three stations to visit after a short power-point presentation by Sasaki Associates. The first was Zoning 101. What we have now…what we can have when zoning has been reformed. The second station was the site of several desktop computers that allowed sign-up and sign-in to the zoning identification database. The third station was a set of “patterns” that could be applied to designate properties with similar characteristics in a given area or Village. Pattern books…overlays…these are two terms I noted in passing, whose meaning and application I have yet to ascertain.

I don’t really know what it all means yet. I didn’t have the opportunity to read the posters, since people were standing in front of them, but spent my time talking with various people from Planning. I heard that Village Centers are where the opportunities are for economic and residential growth and that areas adjacent to these Village Centers would allow soft transitions from the Centers into our residential neighborhoods.

We were asked to pose our questions on Post-Its. Since I didn’t post anything, I will pose a few here:

1.       What size increase in Newton’s population and commercial/retail operations would the Planning Department anticipate occurring in ten years’ time with no revised Zoning Regulation? With a revised, context-based Zoning Regulation?

2.       Would Newton consider, promote and invest in a “Grand Un-Dig,” the burial of the Mass Turnpike artery beneath a swath of surgically re-sewn Newton neighborhoods, re-joined with playgrounds, parks and, yes, residences for highly-subsidized, moderately-subsidized, moderately-priced, market-rate and luxury apartments and condos, mixed in with retail establishments like grocery stores, theaters, and restaurants? All it will take is some very strong no-rust steel beams and a Mayor with foresight and a Governor who wants it to happen. If it can happen at Fenway, why not here?”  


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