When the Hello Washington Street event kicked off at Newton North on Wednesday night, the room was packed. By the time public comment started at a little after 8pm, and the first pitch had been thrown at Fenway, the room was far emptier and, from the sounds of those few who (before I left myself) it sounded like the majority of those who stuck around were opposed to much of what they saw.
The true test will come online, where people can leave comments without having to attend a meeting that happens to run concurrently with the Red Sox, daycare pickup time, and dinner. Video from the meeting as well as the plans will be online soon, as well an online platform allowing for comments.
This meeting focused on a few major concepts, but most came back to the tension between the car and the human.
First is the road diet that Principle Group has suggested before, only this time they noted that we people have been loud and clear: we want protected bike lanes. Along with the road diet, they suggested ways to incorporate more trees and greenery along the road, which are there not just to give Newton back its “Garden City” feel, but also to help clean the air coming off of the adjacent highway, and to provide a more human scale to the area.
Along with that, they suggested traffic calming measures on side streets to avoid the issue of traffic increasing in nearby neighborhoods. I overheard complaints about the number of cars on Washington Street and the fear of traffic getting horrible. One commenter pointed to Needham Street as a failed road diet. (Side note: Given how differently both streets are designed it’s difficult to compare the two. Needham Street is plagued with curb cuts and streets that don’t line up, it’s all being rebuilt by the state.)
They also pointed out that we can make some of these changes immediately with paint and potted plants to test them out.
Another key feature of the plan is what they call “courtyards” for development, which is built around parking. The idea here is to create shared underground parking for a block or area and then divide the lots into smaller parcels. Zoning can handle the rest, creating humanly scaled neighborhoods that allow for new development that would look more like what we have now. The process is to excavate, build a platform, then build the properties on the platform. I know that developers talk about the high cost of underground parking, so I’m curious how this process works from a financial perspective.
They also showed alternatives to that, which included either reducing parking requirements or letting the market simply build what it wants. The last option, they pointed out, often results in what they call “vertical sprawl.” That’s when a developer builds a multi-family or commercial building around the parking, essentially wrapping a parking deck in a building.
In the ending comments, I did hear people complain that some of the drawings showed buildings that were 6 to 8 stories, and this had many, including those from Newton Village Alliance, up in arms. The buildings, they say, should be no more than 4 stories. Another commenter accused the Principle Group of imposing its vision on Newton.
The challenge here is balancing people’s real desires with the economic realities of both Newton and the region. This is like the old adage about getting a job done fast, cheap and good. You can only pick two.
If you want a neighborhood that is walkable, human in scale, with local shops, and somewhat affordable, you may need to allow for taller buildings or for more parking, or for other things that you personally think are out of character. You can’t demand public transportation and then restrict the number of people who move in, it doesn’t work. You can’t ask for a walkable area and then demand a four-lane road, it doesn’t work.
The consultant’s job is to identify what the aspects of “character” the people most want and then return to us a path for getting there. Not everything is going to align with the specific vision each of us has, we will all need to give up a little something. The hope is that in 30 years, this is a city that our children not only want to live in but can still afford to do so. And one that, as an aging population, we can too.