We have invited all candidates running for contested seats in the upcoming Newton election to submit a guest post to Village 14. The format and content of the post is entirely up to them.
City Council candidate Pam Wright, who is running for the Ward 3 at large seat, has submitted the following post.
Thank you for the opportunity to present myself. I’m a first time candidate, an engineer and a visual thinker. I have different ideas and mindset from my opponents (and I thank them for keeping this race civil).
Development is a big issue. The city has many vision plans, zoning codes and development proposals in the pipeline. Newton’s Councilors need to be able to critically analyze dense building code proposals and voluminous development plans efficiently. The sheer volume of this reading and analysis will be like no other time.
Newton’s 2020 councilors need to come ready to dig deep into this data and think like engineers with an eye on all costs, not just money but also social and environmental quality of life issues. There are no short cuts. Councilors won’t be able to rely on executive summaries. They are going to need the time and the mindset to dive into these documents. There is no margin for error because this is the future of our city. I have read and understand all 860 pages of 6 revisions of the Washington Vision plan, 434 pages of 2 Wash St zoning code revisions, plus thousands of pages for the Pattern Book, city zoning code, fiscal analysis on vision plans, other vision plans, developer plans and many others. This work comes naturally to me.
I want reasonable development. What does that mean? It’s different in different areas of the city. The Washington Street zoning plan would allow 10 story buildings just west of the The Local. The consultant, Principal Group, said in 2 miles it would bring in 2500 to over 3000 apartments with 1000 school age children and a new elementary school would be needed. What is the plan for this? The city’s plan is to simply remove this information from the documents. Yes, it’s true such development won’t happen overnight but we must have a plan for traffic, infrastructure and schools – a plan that can change with time. And if the plan doesn’t work then the zoning needs to change. I want reasonable, thoughtful development.
Residents are very concerned about the traffic from these developments. Some councilors recommend less parking with the expectation that the units will become self-selected with fewer cars, and car ownership will drop. As a parent I know it’s very difficult not to have a car – especially if you want to go anywhere else but Boston. Yes, I believe younger people have less cars and car ownership will drop, but we’re not there yet. In the Washington Street Vision plan the planning department wants to remove all parking requirements and the overnight parking ban. They want to let the developers decide how much parking to build. If renters don’t want to pay for parking or there is not enough parking in the development, then the surrounding neighborhoods would have to accept the additional cars. Many of the side streets in our neighborhoods are narrow. Reducing the capacity of these streets will have far-reaching effects with potentially catastrophic effects. For example, one winter we had a medical emergency in our home and the fire truck could not come to our house. The ambulance barely made it there after a big nerve-wracking delay and multiple calls to 911. This would have been even worse if the street was full of cars.
Next year the city wide zoning will be updated. There is a lot of good intent like trying to limit teardowns with McMansion replacements and increasing density throughout the city. However, I have concerns on some aspects of courtyard cluster housing density. Areas like West Newton Hill could allow nine 1800sf (square foot) homes on an acre. In more typical neighborhoods an acre could allow thirteen 3000sf homes. Dense neighborhoods could allow seventeen 3600sf 2 families. I have a friend who has a half acre lot. Her neighbor has a similar lot. Since the initial zoning announcement, she receives 4 to 6 offers on her house per week from developers. They can’t wait for the change.
In much the same way that the scale of developments in the various vision plans are too big, these proposals for cluster housing are also bigger than many of the existing streets and neighborhoods can handle. I agree that cluster housing could be a way to spread density throughout the city, but these too must be weighed against the costs associated with increased traffic, schools and other infrastructure impacts.
I support a city-wide referendum on the proposed zoning code. I understand that, by law, such a referendum is non-binding, but with huge changes in store, I believe the city council should hear from the residents before finalizing the zoning code.
We also need to stay within our financial budget. The city has a 1 billion dollar pension and retirement insurance liability (OPEB). It has been kicked down the road for many years and now there is a plan for it. The pension is planned to be fully funded by 2030 and OPEB by 2043. $31 million is budgeted in the FY20 budget with 9.6% increases per year. Our revenues grow only 3.2%. Hard decisions will have to be made down the road unless new revenue is found. Many residential developments actually increase budget issues. Avalon on Needham Street paid $914K in 2018 taxes. They had 107 students in Newton Public Schools resulting in a city cost to educate those children of $1.9 million. So, the city incurs a deficit of $1,000,000 while the developer of Avalon makes a profit. That $1,000,000 is coming from you and me in the form of higher taxes. Commercial development brings in roughly twice as much in taxes with less services from the city. The downside is commercial development increases traffic. We need to find the right mix that works for Newton and the residents but we can’t dig ourselves out of our monetary issues by development alone.
I will advocate for Climate Change Resiliency. Dense development near transit will contribute to climate change resiliency but we need real transit that isn’t just a few trains downtown during commuting hours. If the T is so overcrowded people will drive in. There are also many actions that we can take as a community and as individuals that are far more effective at reducing climate change impacts and improving climate change resiliency from signing up for 100% solar and wind electricity, insulating our homes, eating less meat, reducing food waste, and more. An informative website explaining these actions: https://www.drawdown.org/solutions-summary-by-rank.
We will get new developments and climate change resiliency actions need to be incorporated in every project. In big projects initiatives like solar panels, electric vehicle charging capacity, and passive house standards can be required via special permit. New or renovated homes or smaller projects don’t have to follow climate change initiatives because it’s not in the state building code. I would like to see a two page informational sheet that all architects and builders that work in Newton must read and sign. The document would describe how a project could include climate change resiliency, including passive house standards, in its design. The architects and builders, in turn, must give this to their clients at the planning stage. Before the building permit is issued, the owner would need to sign that they received and understood the document. Although we can’t require climate change mitigation techniques in the projects due to present state law and building code, at least it will get the information to residents at the beginning of their projects so that some, and hopefully most, will refine their projects.
I want to increase affordable housing but we need to have more ideas. I would like to see detached garages allowed by right to be converted to accessory apartments per our updated zoning code. These would be more naturally affordable because they are smaller and residents won’t be scared away by special permits. Some say naturally affordable is a myth. I own naturally affordable apartments in Watertown. Since I’ve owned them for many years, I don’t have to charge outrageous rents. Most of my long term tenants buy a home or condo when they leave. Does this make me a poor business women or a better citizen for the community? And let’s try to work with non profits for more really affordable housing. Maybe the city can help purchase the land for new projects or partner in other ways with non-profits to increase our affordable housing stock.
I want to protect green spaces and I support a new senior center for our ever-increasing senior population. We need to get creative where the senior center will be located. Ideally it would be in one place but we may need to place it in more buildings. I can go on but this is already long.
I believe I have a different voice than my other two opponents. Please visit my website https://wrightfornewton.org/. Our city council needs my skills and it would be my distinct honor to serve. I respectfully ask for your support. If you believe in me and my ideas, please vote for me on November 5th.
Candidate for Ward 3 City Councilor At Large