Let me say this up front: Newton Planning Director Barney Heath makes a great veggie chili. Though, I could do with a bit more spice (my version will make you sweat). Yes, the “Hello Washington Street” pop-up portion of the design and review process ended with a chili cookoff in the auditorium at the Jackson Street School.
Unfortunately, I was out of town for most of this portion of the process, so I missed the block party and the pop-up itself. I heard mixed reviews on the storefront. Some thought it was very interesting to see how Principle Group handled the input sessions, while others felt it was easy to game. Given the barrage of posts and emails I saw from the Newton Villages Alliance, I’m guessing that a lot of their members came out.
I’m not going to try to summarize everything from the presentation that Principle Group founder Russell Preston gave to the mostly gray-haired people assembled in the auditorium (the woman sitting behind me commented on the overabundance of white hair; I’m included in that group), but I want to hit the high points. The slides are now online at the city portal and I encourage you to review them even if some are confusing. There is some great information here.
A lot of Preston’s discussion set up the idea that Newton has a look and feel in regards to its villages, pointing out how, as a society, we used to know how to build in human scale but have forgotten over time. But the big idea here was that Newton likes the human interactions that happen within its villages and, according to feedback, wants to retain that. As a community we like running into our neighbors and having conversations, we like getting to know shop owners and like supporting small businesses.
He showed this image of Eden Ave, but what he pointed out wasn’t the street or the houses or the greenery, but how the church steeple rising from the end of the street is positioned to let us know that a village is there, just beyond view. This, Preston told us, is intentional and something that we used to know how to build into our cities.
However, what we built over the second half of the 20th century doesn’t square with this desire for human scale. We must rethink the idea of the car. That is, the 4-lane road of Washington Street, while great for driving 40+mph in a 35 mph zone, isn’t conducive to human experience. Preston pointed out that many people are in fear when they are on Washington Street. He showed an image of a person crossing the street in Newtonville from the shops on the north side of Washington to a car parked next to the tracks, we all know what that feels like. He pointed to sidewalks that gave pedestrians a scant 3 feet of broken asphalt (with a pole stuck in the middle) as their only little lane. He showed the cyclists on the road who cower on the side or ride on the sidewalk. These are all signs of us as humans operating in fear of our own environment.
His message: we can fix that.
One of the big ideas that I personally loved is the concept of smaller buildings on the south side of the street abutting a sound barrier that should be bulit to block the Pike. A sound barrier is the easiest solution to the noise and grime problem of a major highway, but it’s ugly. The concept as laid out is a series of smaller, flexible, rentable storefronts that are much like you would see in Europe but unlike anything available in the Boston region today. It would allow for experimental retail, crafts stores and maker concepts that aren’t conducive to the 5 or 10 year leases that the current retail locations demand. It could also make the area a destination that would bring in foot traffic and encourage more rentals in the villages themselves. We already have one building like this across from Whole Foods (a jeweler is in it now).
Another key part of the proposal was a road diet. I know that many people don’t understand how this will work, but the concept here was carefully laid out. Right now, with 4 lanes, drivers simply don’t know where to go. You see this when people are in left lanes, then swerving into right lanes, etc. By creating a 3-lane situation with a turning lane and multiple bike lanes, you clarify that issue. They showed some wonderful designs that offer parks and landscaping closer to the Pike, and when you combine that with the small shops, you end up transforming a 4-lane wasteland (6, if you include the parking lanes) into a world-class outdoor location. More aggressive forms turned Washington Street into a two-lane road that is more pedestrian friendly while still maintaining the current speeds and traffic volumes.
It was pointed out that we can test those changes today with paint in a way that is much cheaper than a full traffic study. We just repaint the road, try it out for a time, then assess what happens.
Then there is the issue of parking. When they looked around, the planners realized that there is plenty of parking in a place like West Newton or Newton Corner, it’s just not well identified and, in some cases, underutilized. We have entire parking decks that go unused most of the time because they’re private. As a city, we should look for ways to use those more effectively. But as a society, we also need to get ourselves out of this idea that you will always be able to park right in front of where you want to go. If we park and walk, even a block or two, we’re more likely to see the people who make our lives rich.
A few additional points: Trees and greenery played a huge role in their discussion. The tree canopy, it was pointed out, slows down traffic and should have a place in poking out through whatever infrastructure we build. Also, the variety of building types that make up the area should be factored into the streetscape, so not every building starts to look the same. Yes, we will need more dense housing to make this work and if we choose to build over the pike, we will need larger/ taller structures to help offset the costs associated with that kind of build. Also, our parks are often designed in such a way that discourages use. For example, Captain Ryan Park has benches that are positioned to look at nothing but could be positioned to look at other people, making them more usable.
I’m sure everyone has opinions on this and not all of them line up. But the good news is that you can still get your voice heard.