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I received a campaign email newsletter from Newton Councilor Emily Norton and was disappointed to read her misleading take on the Washington Street Vision plan. In her letter she references the second draft of the plan, writing:

The final version of the Vision Plan for Washington Street was presented to the City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee on Monday, April 22. (See memo about it here) The plan has some elements I like including incentives for historic preservation, tree canopy and other environmental benefits, and setting aside space for art in new commercial buildings. I was dismayed however that the previous version of the plan called for allowing ten story buildings at the Newtonville Whole Foods site and in West Newton – I do not support that as I believe that is out of scale for our Newton’s village model.

Councilor Norton doesn’t seem to understand that a 10-story building could be built right now on the Whole Foods site, contingent on the approval of a special permit. This is also the case with the new plan. In the third draft of the vision plan, a building on the Whole Foods site, and along the Mass Pike in West Newton, could be up to 6 stories by right, two more than allowable by right currently. The only way to build as high as 10 stories would be through a special permit.

Importantly, the maximum height for a residential building would be 6 stories, with maximum of 9 for labs and 10 for offices. Anything over 6 feet would be subject to an additional layer of special permit review, where residents would have the opportunity to voice their opinions.

What she also fails to see is that less than a mile from the Whole Foods is the 12-story Crowne Plaza hotel and a 10-story office building. Saying that a potential ten story building at Washington and Crafts is out of scale with Newton’s village model is disingenuous and fails to take into account the reality of Newton’s built environment and potential for improved commercial space.

As the price of lab space in Kendall Square continues to soar, now on par with lease rates in parts of Manhattan, companies are looking for more affordable options for office space. Along a commuter rail line and served by express buses, the Whole Foods site and West Newton along the pike are well positioned for some more dense development. Commuters from the west or east could arrive in Newton via the commuter rail or express bus and take a short walk to work. Newton residents could bike or even walk to their jobs.

Plus, as part of a special permit approval, Newton could mandate that any new development above 6 stories on the site come with plans for enhancing the Newtonville and West Newton commuter rail stops. When New Balance moved into their new headquarters in Allston, they financed construction of a brand- new commuter rail stop that has spurred development in the area and provided amenities for residents and employees.

Councilor Norton also does not seem to understand the difference between a requirement and a limit. In her newsletter she also wrote:

I also am concerned that the Plan calls for limiting parking in new developments, while also eliminating the overnight winter parking ban; it seems to me new residents would simply store their cars on the street year round, so limiting parking in new developments would not achieve the goal of limiting car ownership and congestion. 

While the vision plan does call for eliminating the winter overnight on-street parking ban, it does not limit the amount of parking that can be built. Currently, zoning regulations mandate how much parking must be built for new development. This increases the cost of new development and encourages people to drive. What the vision plan calls for is eliminating this requirement in the zoning. This would let developers decide how much parking they want to build.

Would some developers choose to not build any parking? Probably. But someone building an office tower or an apartment building would still likely include some parking.Developers would let market analysis dictate how much parking they should build, rather than city zoning code.

Councilor Norton should carefully read draft three of the plan and speak with her colleagues and planning staff to better understand its provisions. She should stop spreading misinformation meant to scare people into denying their support for a plan that has the potential to enhance Washington St. for the benefit of all who live and work in Newton.