The following is an annotated transcript of a portion of the February 11, 2019, meeting of the Newton City Council’s Zoning and Planning (ZAP) Committee. The agenda was the Washington St. Visioning Plan. The portion selected is Councilor Lisle Baker’s complete second set of remarks at the meeting.
There are two speakers: At-large Councilor and ZAP Chair Susan Albright, who calls on Councilor Baker at the very beginning and a recognizes his remarks at the very end, and Councilor Baker. Their uncut and unedited verbatim remarks are in regular text. The annotations are additions to their comments and are rendered in italics and are indented.
The 6:14 recording is here. The recording of the full meeting is here. I have made every attempt to transcribe accurately. I did not transcribe “uhs” and “ums” and the like. If I have made an error or errors, please let me know in the comments and I will update.
Councilor Albright: Councilor Baker, finally.
Councilor Baker had been recognized earlier, but had to wait a few councilors to speak.
Councilor Baker: Thank you Madame Chair.
I want to sort of focus on three dimensions of what you’ve been saying and I appreciate by the way all the work that has gone in here, because the premise of doing this work is to get ahead of the development process, which basically says show up and we’ll look at what you have. So, again, this is the idea that planning matters and matters if you can do it right.
Iron fist, velvet glove. Spoiler alert: Councilor Baker doesn’t think it’s been done right.
But, I want to ask you to reflect as you go forward on three dimensions of this where I’m not sure I could vote for this and I’ll tell you why. First, I was trying to get a sense of the change that is being proposed here. And, what it looks like to me, frankly, is we’re trading a suburban environment for an urban environment. Now, maybe we want an urban environment in Newton.
It’s 2019. Perhaps Councilor Baker should be a little more attentive to the possibility that people will understand “urban” as code.
But, if you look at the comparison between pages 100 and 101 as an example in the plan that’s showing some trees next to the Pike and some lower rise buildings and parking spaces. And, if you go and look at page 101 it looks like a lot more building. If you go back and look at another place in the corridor. If you look at page 148 where the existing Whole Foods and the Chatham Center and all of that. And, then we look at page 149 where there’s a whole lot more building. And, this is … while it says graphic in production, these are the type of character buildings being envisioned. And I think that this illustrates for me that part of the challenge is that you’ve got a zoning map and you’ve got a zoning code but what we really need for the next round to pick up on what Mr. Heath had talked about is sort of a vision of going down the street and saying okay this is what’s there now, this is what could be there next. Because, unless we know what could be there next under the plan, it’s going to be hard to vote for it.
This doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request, but having observed Councilor Baker in the wild for years, I suspect he wants more process as a matter of delay.
At least I am. I’m not willing to trade something for a prospect that I’m not sure is a wise upgrade even with all the ideas that you’ve articulated, many of which I think are quite valuable.
And, there you have it. This is the real issue: not process, but substance. Councilor Baker is not aligned with this vision and isn’t that interested in compromising. If his vote is not necessary to get the vision passed, he should be ignored.
By the way, Councilor Baker is very good at legislating. What he’s doing here many of the councilors on the more progressive end of the spectrum almost never do (and should): clearly articulating his opening requirements and threaten to vote no without changes that meet those requirements. What the more progressive councilors are beginning to do better is stand up to him and say, fine, vote no.
A second premise that I want to come back to Councilor Laredo’s point about should we do something about Washington St.
Councilor Baker is citing his colleague to support an argument his colleague didn’t make. Councilor Laredo wants a holistic design approach for the corridor. It’s tricky without full details of the planned-for development. Development design is tricky without knowing the holistic design of the corridor. An interesting chicken-and-egg problem.
Councilor Baker argues against a specific kind of change. His and Councilor Laredo’s points are not the same.
We want to look at Washington St on page … Let me come back to where the beginning of this. Page 23. There’s an image of Washington Street. Now, why Washington St was so wide to begin with may be because of the trolley system. My understanding for example that in New York City the avenues in New York City were wide because they had to be wide enough for a carriage to turn around, literally, by going forward and then coming back the other way because you couldn’t obviously back up a carriage.
Weird history journey that promised trolleys, switched to horse-drawn carriages, and went exactly nowhere. What are we supposed to draw from this? Washington St. should remain wide because … carriages?
I don’t know how that happened with Washington St but then I look at the visions of Washington St over on page 170 and the other pages which basically look like Washington St and this goes back to a point that Mr. Heath made, that Washington St. somehow [inaudible] thoroughfare.
Again, pretending to build on one person’s argument, but actually making a different argument.
Well, frankly, I’m over on the other end of town and I come to Washington St because I want to go to West Newton. But, if I can’t get there because I gotta drive through all of this maze, I’m not going to come.
What kind of post-apocalyptic hellscape are they planning on Washington St. that a high-minded gentleman from Chestnut Hill cannot, of an afternoon, hop into his motor carriage, enjoy a journey to the other side of the tracks, and partake of the many fine amusements they offer there, before returning to the safety of his estate by aforementioned motor carriage.
Seriously, what’s being proposed is not dramatically different than Harvard St. between Boylston St. (Rte. 9) and Commonwealth Ave. Hardly a barren commercial wasteland inaccessible to those in Chestnut Hill who insist on driving.
Now, maybe you don’t want me to come because I’m coming in a single-family car. I mean a single-passenger car.
This is the strawest of straw arguments and borders on bad faith. Nobody is proposing making West Newton inaccessible to people in cars. It’s about balance. The evidence is overwhelming. Oversupplying cheap parking drains the commercial centers of vitality and promotes more driving. Those operating in good faith are arguing for restraint on parking, not none. The good-faith conversation here is how to strike a balance.
But, I bet you most of the people in this room came in one car, by themselves. I did tonight. Most of us in the City Council came here tonight.
Where to start? If the City did a better job accommodating folks on bicycles, fewer people would drive. Also, the council is arranged by geographical districts — wards — which should make it easy for councilors to carpool.
But, who sets policy on parking in mixed-use districts based on the driving behavior of city councilors and others going to a night-time meeting in a stand-alone building?
And, I think to build a premise of a plan on the idea that we’re going to take people out of their cars and out of single-occupancy cars in the city of Newton and say somehow this plan is going to work is a grave error.
They’re coming for our cars!!!!
Again, nobody is suggesting that the Washington St. corridor and West Newton be inaccessible by car, only that there be a much more sustainable mix of transportation modes. Our commercial areas will not be sustainable if they are car-centric. Our city will not be sustainable if we don’t cut car volume. The planet is going to boil* if we don’t do our share to reduce car use.
And, I think that the problem I’m concerned about I raised this earlier in the whole design on the Washington St. corridor is when you start having people use ride-sharing and pull over and stop while they wait for somebody to get picked up the kind of dislocation that causes in just the traffic flow.
Red herring. No ride-sharing pickup outside designated areas. Problem solved. Also, impose much higher fees on ride-sharing, to capture their externalities. Problem reduced.
You don’t want to trade something that looks like … certainly you’re saying it’s too much of a highway. I don’t want to trade it for a hardened artery either. Somebody once said that for national land use policy we ought to have a national land use policy and then I think it was Senator Pat Moynihan, who used to be an urban planner, said yes we have one, it’s called the Interstate Highway System.
Patrick Moynihan was an academic with a sociology degree. He was never a trained or practicing urban planner. I could not find the quotation Councilor Baker attributes to him.
I also have no idea what the relevance is to this particular conversation.
And, we did that back in the ‘60s. But what I want to be careful about in thinking about what we do here that we don’t take people like me and say you’ve effectively got to have a passport to get from East Newton to West Newton in order to come shop.
Okay. This is a weird metaphor. Not having cheap, abundant parking is like a border crossing? People like Councilor Baker who drive from Chestnut Hill are probably just going to have to pay more to park than they are used to. No armed checkpoint.
Also, East Newton? You’re from Chestnut Hill, Councilor Baker. Chestnut Hill. Own it.
That’s not a trade up as far as I’m concerned.
The third dimension of this and I think it’s really important to understand is that implicit in this to me is an idea that in order to make this work you got to give everybody a little more development opportunity than they have now. Because if you look at it now and they say well I prefer what I got now to what you’re going to tell me i can do, they don’t have to go very far to file a subdivision plan, freeze the zoning for eight years, and this whole process is a waste of time.
This sounds like go big or go home. Which is what he’s arguing against, right?
Also, very emphatic delivery of “waste of time.” Worth the listen just for it. Waste. Of. Time.
So, I think that it’s really important for us to understand what kind of community we want.
Who does he mean by “we”?
Might be a good time to note that Councilor Baker historically gets the lowest vote totals for unopposed ward councilors and often gets fewer votes than the winner splitting votes in a contested election. “We” is not so big.
Are we really incentivizing this the way we want to incentivize it and is it going to be something that people in my part of the world can vote for because is it going to close them off from opportunities to visit parts of Newton they’d like to but they can’t because there’s no parking.
This is the most fulsome apology for parking I may have ever heard. We have killed our city and our country with an oversupply of cheap parking. So, now folks want to dial it back. Less parking. Without a huge subsidy for those who choose to drive. The way he goes on, it sounds like they’re not going to build a spot in the entire corridor.
Also, the geographical dynamic is wonderful. He doesn’t care one bit about the vitality of West Newton for the folks in West Newton. He doesn’t care about making development along the Washington St. corridor human-scaled for the people who live nearby. If folks from his enclave — his “part of the world” — can’t hop in the car and create traffic to and through the corridor, he’s going to block the plan.
I think the idea of taking parking minimums out is something I will not be yet persuaded will be a good idea.
Let me translate: I’m not voting to take out parking minimums. Ever.
I know that my wonderful colleague thinks this is swell.
This is just straight-up sexism. Patronizing. Condescending. Old-school. Chauvinism.
You can hear the sneer.
But, this is a city where people drive.
The planet is boiling*, but you’re going to have to pry the steering wheel from his cold, dead hands. (With apologies to the NRA.)
I don’t see that changing.
Let me translate: I’m not going to be a leader on sustainable transportation in Newton.
If you’re saying that we’re going to shift to a different kind of city because of this vision, I really can’t buy that.
These are the words of a climate-change-denying dead-ender.
And so, I think a premise that builds on the idea that we shouldn’t have parking minimums and we shouldn’t have parking requirements, is one I’m not yet persuaded is a good idea. And, I don’t buy the idea of induced demand.
This is just straight-up know-nothingness in service of a lifestyle — car-dependency — that has failed us and continues to fail us.
I buy the idea that people are going to drive and they need some place to park and if they’re not going to find it in the center of the city they’re going to find it in the neighborhoods. So, that’s my concern.
By “in the neighborhoods,” he means on public property. Resident parking is not necessarily the best use of the space. Indeed parking might not be the best use for the space. In any case, the city can manage access to that public space through regulation, including meters and residential parking permits.
Susan Albright: Councilor Baker, from my perspective, you’ll always be welcome on the north side of the city.
Councilor Albright, he does not appear to care one whit for you or your constituents. Let him stay in Chestnut Hill.
I expect that folks in the comments are going to take me to task for the sneering contempt of a beloved public servant. Be more respectful. Try to persuade. Councilor Baker has some valid points and reflects the equally valid concerns of his constituents and folks city-wide.
Horse hooey. Councilor Baker has staked out an extremist position and wrapped it in honey-sweet, baritone reasonableness. He should be called out for his car-centric, climate-change-denying extremism.
Ward 7 can do better. The city deserves better.
*This is an intentional exaggeration for dramatic affect. The planet is not literally boiling. But, if we don’t reduce carbon emission by 45% globally, the global temperature will rise by 1.5 ℃, with catastrophic effect.