As an appointed member of the Commission on Economic Development, I try to stay well-informed on the issues and challenges Newton faces, particularly if they impact our local economy. No surprise, one of the most relevant and “hot button” topics is tied to new development in our city.
Several proposed developments are winding their way through the City Council’s special permitting process – to mixed reviews. I fundamentally believe that dense, transit-oriented, mixed-use development helps address several challenges our city is facing, including: increased housing options, to climate change, and public transportation to economic development in our village centers. The City Council is tasked with reviewing these projects, typically via both extensive Committee and full City Council review that includes much public commentary, frequent third party studies and the opportunity to directly address important City priorities with the project proponent. The end-result of this process is typically a project that balances the needs and goals of Newton overall with the economic realities of creating new projects in greater Boston. This is how a productive land use process should work.
That is why I’m very disappointed to learn in today’s Boston Globe that a small but vocal group of Lower Falls residents are considering usurping this important piece of the City Council’s authority. The Lower Falls Improvement Association is actively preparing for a ballot question that would overturn any zoning change passed by the City Council that would enable the Riverside MBTA project to move forward. This ballot question would likely be presented to Newton voters in a citywide, low-turnout, special election. It makes political sense for some in the Lower Falls to promote this strategy: the “angry” side always has an advantage in a special election, even if they are in the minority. But I believe a ballot question like this makes no sense for the rest of our city and sets a terrible and dangerous precedent.
The Riverside project offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a mixed-use development that checks all the boxes that Newton needs it to – and in a site that is bordered by a major highway and currently home to an ugly parking lot. To date, Mark Development has been transparent with the city and local stakeholders. Newton only has a few parcels of land left suitable for this type of development, including along Needham Street in the Upper Falls. The density of the project as proposed economically creates some critically important benefits for Newton, including new affordable housing units, new commercial and retail space which will expand our property tax base, and acres of new outdoor recreational space along the Charles River.
On the merits, this is a good project and I’m confident the City Council’s input will only make it better. But the threat of this ballot question gets at something even more important for our city: should the voice of a few stubborn people, who are averse to change in their neighborhood, outweigh the solemn responsibilities of our elected representatives and the City of Newton as a whole?
I urge those behind this effort in the Lower Falls to reconsider their harmful approach. This divisive ballot question would be a major black eye for Newton and a serious threat to our shared obligations as a community to make our city better. Nothing worth doing has ever been easy.