Arguably, the upcoming changes to the zoning ordinance — the rules and the map — is the most consequential change to Newton in a generation. (Charter change would have been a contender, had it succeeded.)

For that reason, I strongly encourage anyone who can to go to their ward’s first-draft review meeting. The next meeting is Ward 3’s on 1/24, followed by Ward 1 on 2/7. If you missed your ward’s meeting (5, 6, 7), crash another ward’s. Full schedule.

I went to the Ward 6 meeting on Thursday. It was really well planned and executed. You check in, city staff looks up your address, and the helpful staffer provides materials on how your lot would be classified and what would be allowed on that lot. James Freas, Deputy Director of Planning & Development, and Rachel Blatt Nadkarni, Long Range Planner, gave a fascinating* and informative presentation on the nuts and bolts of the first draft of the proposed zoning ordinance and the extensive process to date. (If you go, have a cup of coffee beforehand and pay attention! James covers a lot of material in a very short time.) And, then questions, during which you learn about what (some of) your neighbors care about.

My top three takeaways:

  • The crowd was overwhelmingly older and white. I counted around just over 100 people. All but two were white. And, the median age appeared to be north of 60. This is not a surprise. The unrepresentative demographics of civic participation are pretty well understood. But, in a meeting this big on a topic — zoning — that has such significant racial history and impact, the whiteness was notable. In a meeting this big on a topic — zoning — that has such significant impact on younger generation, the median age was notable. I hope that city staff and elected officials consider the narrow representation when making decisions.
  • The underlying assumptions and the direction of this zoning reform don’t appear to have changed since 2011, when the effort first kicked off. Our understanding of climate change is radically different. The regional housing crisis is much worse than expected. The approach to zoning reform should change to reflect these realities. I’ll have more on this in later posts.
  • Shockingly, most of the crowd seemed most concerned about the increased density the draft zoning would bring to their neighborhoods. Kidding. Not shocked at all. There were some voices in favor of increased density, but they were a notable minority. (See my first point.) What was a little surprising was the intensity of frustration that Waban seems to have escaped the prospects of increased density.

If you went to the Ward 5, 6, or 7 meetings, what did you think?

Full zoning reform materials are posted on the city’s Zoning Redesign page.

* Your mileage may vary. I find land use fascinating.

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