The four area councils held candidate debates for contested races. There was a debate for the Ward 1 ward race (sort of), both Ward 2 races, both Ward 3 races, and the Ward 4 school committee race. (There may have been one more before I got there.)
There wasn’t a single question about climate change. Tells you all you need to know about the area councils.
Asking others questions
The debate wrapped up with each candidate having the opportunity to ask the other or another a question. Great feature. Led to some really interesting discussions.
The area councils, through moderator Paul Breen, asked twelve candidates for city councilor what the ideal population of Newton is. And, one, maybe two of the twelve candidates had the backbone to give an answer. Neither of the Ward 2 ward candidates: Emily Norton or Bryan Barash. None of the Ward 2 at-large candidates: Tarik Lucas, Jennifer Brenner, Jake Auchincloss, or Susan Albright. Neither of the Ward 3 ward candidates: Carolina Ventura or Julia Malackie. And, not Ward 3 at-large candidates Pam Wright or Andrea Kelly.
Some of the candidates ignored that part of a multi-part question. Some gave lame answers about it’s a theoretical question and there isn’t a magic number. One candidate says you’d need a master plan to answer it, which seems backwards, because you’d want to know the goal population you were trying to house before you planned for how to house them.
Ward 3 at-large candidate Jim Cote said 100K was about right. Ward 1 candidate Allan Ciccone basically said no more.
What is the ideal population of Newton is a very reasonable question. It is a much better indicator of a candidate’s appetite for development than building heights, housing around transit, and spreading density across the city, which are the three factors most discussed today.
Fortunately for the candidates, there’s a good reference point that any of them could have used to come up with an answer. Fifteen area mayors, including Newton’s, have set a goal to add 158,000 new housing units to the area by 2030. Newton’s pro rata share would be 11,000 new units, on top of the existing 33,000 or so. Kinda sets a range: add zero to 33% more housing units (or residents). Current 90,000 population to about 120,000.
There is no excuse for the candidates not having an answer. A candidate for city council in 2019, when the focus is so heavily on housing, zoning, and development, should be able to say roughly how much housing Newton should have. Adding housing is a matter of social, economic, and environmental justice. Commit to your sense of how much justice is required.
In the candidates partial defense, the question was too open ended. It should have had a time frame. And, rather than ask for a specific number out of the air, the moderator should have provided ranges.
So, candidates, here’s a second chance. By 2030, how much greater should Newton’s population be? Less than 10,000 more? 10,000 to 20,000 higher? 20,000 to 30,000? More than 30,000? Please keep in mind the regional housing crisis, the global climate crisis, and the wealth inequality created by exclusionary zoning like ours. And, feel free to answer with as many qualifications as you’d like. Just start with a number.
There was widespread agreement among almost all the candidates that any density should be in village centers and near transit and that density should be spread out across the city. None of the candidates seemed to proposes changing single-family-only zoning to multi-family. Candidates, please drop us a comment or an email if you think there should be more areas of the city changed from single-family-only to multi-family.
Allan Ciccone is hilarious
Maria Scibelli Greenberg was not able to make the event today, due to circumstances beyond her control, so her challenger for the Ward 1 ward councilor seat, Allan Ciccone, first waited to go until the other panels had finished. Then did what amounted to an interview with Moderator Breen.
And, he was hilarious. Had the stalwarts who stuck out the entire four hours in stitches. He had a great anecdote about encouraging drivers who got pothole damage to sue the city.
He also has incoherent policies. And, he basically said that he was not going to run again.
But, he killed.
Jake Auchincloss is impressive
I’m basically aligned with most of Councilor Auchincloss’s policy positions. But, that’s true of a bunch of the candidates up today. Independent of his policy positions, he was just super impressive with his command of policies and his ability to respond to the conversation in real time. His best moment was pushing back on the assumption that 40B is bad, noting that 40B is the legislative response to the kind of limits on housing growth that was historically racist. He was consistently clear explaining how projects need to balance the needs of developers, the city, and immediate abutters. And, he was also very clear pointing out the inconsistency of the two challengers both wanting smaller developments and wanting to extract more concessions from developers.
His second best moment of the afternoon was saying clearly that immediate abutters have an outside influence in our special permit process, citing the sideline negotiations on Riverside that have cost the city millions. The Lenny Tax.
Note: Councilor Albright also had a good moment on 40B, telling Candidate Bentley that the concerns that she’s raised — stress on schools, traffic, &c. — are exactly the local concerns that have led to insufficient affordable housing that led to the need for 40B.
Julie Malakie is super sharp
The other stand out was Candidate Malakie. I wish I agreed with her on the major issues. And, I continue to cringe at the not Cambridge, Somerville, or Brookline construction. But, she knows her facts. She has a coherent world view. And, she’s very effective in these forums.
She also had the best line of the afternoon: Parks aren’t free just because the city owns them. (From notes, not transcribed.)
Candidates should be disqualified from pointing, as a few of the challengers did, to Wells Ave. as a meaningful opportunity to significantly increase commercial tax revenue. The fundamentals of Wells Ave. have not changed for decades. Despite a very healthy commercial real estate market along 128, there’s been only one significant new commercial tenant going into Wells and a few have left. It’s possible that Wells Ave. can be revitalized, but likely with a substantial residential component, which will diminish the commercial tax opportunity.
Commercial taxes, generally
Each group of candidates got a question about the diminishing proportion of our tax base that’s commercial. Councilor Norton was the clearest about this: expanding the commercial tax base isn’t going to solve the problem. She also said that we’re cannibalizing the commercial tax base rezoning land, like Northland, for mixed-use. She’s absolutely right. We’re an essentially residential city that is losing the little bit of commercial base that we have. And, it’s not coming back.
As Candidate Wright pointed out in her question to Councilor Kelley, a heavily residential tax base is structurally unsustainable. Residential tax rate is lower than commercial, and residences often come with children that need to be educated, a costly endeavor. What do we do?
The response from a lot of the candidates, especially the more pro-development candidates is more mixed use. According to the argument, mixed use provides commercial tax revenue to offset the residential on the same property. But, mixed-use commercial use is primarily retail, except on the biggest sites, not office or light industrial. Just how much retail can the city absorb?
At some point, we’ve got to come to grips with the fact that we’re a super-wealthy city-sized bedroom community that, despite our staggering wealth, can’t figure out a sustainable tax revenue model that taps the wealth while protecting the less wealthy that manage to not get priced out. Maybe a transfer tax. Wells Ave. certainly isn’t the answer.
Councilor Kelley, in her answer to Candidate Wright was pointed. While she didn’t like the Avalon project on Needham St. (because no retail element), we shouldn’t think of educating the extra children as a burden. We just have to figure out how to do it.
Candidate Wright did make the best point of the afternoon. She said that the demographer’s report predicting the school population won’t increase. How can it not, in light of even just planned development? Turns out, she asked the demographer. And, the demographer said they hadn’t factored in even the Washington St. planned development.
We need to start planning to build schools. (I’ve been saying this since the Avalon project on Boylston St., if anyone cares.)
Pro- and anti-development
Within a couple of minutes, Candidate Bentley revealed a bit of the nuttiness of the development-skeptical position. On the one hand, she complained about being labelled anti-development; she says she’s for reasonable development. On the other hand, she said that just “building, building, building” is not good policy, suggesting that the more pro-development forces are for unleashed development.
There’s a solid argument that the number of conditions that development-skeptical candidates put on development makes the candidates essentially anti-development. And, if you’re going to put your opponents on one end of the spectrum — building, building, building — expect the same in return.
Naturally affordable housing
There is no such thing. Candidate Bentley talked about it. Candidate Malackie talked about it. It’s the land that’s driving housing costs, not the size of the house.
Councilor Kelley asked Candidate Wright what specifically she wanted to preserve when she (Candidate Wright) says she wants to preserve the character of our neighborhoods. Candidate Wright replied that it wasn’t really any specific attributes of a neighborhood, she just doesn’t want more density.
Points for honesty. Demerits for wanting to exclude others.
There was a lot more in the four hours. NewTV was there. Watch the tapes when they come out. Start with Candidate Ciccone.