To listen to the Right Size argument in Newton is to hear a lot about the heights of buildings. Right Sizers living near the Northland property think it has too many apartments, while those over near Riverside fretted (until recently) that it had too few housing units and too much commercial. In both cases, building heights became a primary issue with words like “towers” thrown around left, right and center. Those towers, we’re told, will take away from the character of nearby neighborhoods.
During the last election cycle, I asked a few candidates what they feel is the ideal height for Washington Street and the answer I got back was 3 to 4 stories. When I asked why, I was told by one city councilor “I don’t know, it’s just what I feel is right.”
In West Newton it’s almost all about height. When I went canvassing with Alicia Bowman I heard worried residents complain that Washington Street would be “lined with 11 story buildings.” That’s never been proposed and is an entirely false narrative, but somehow it’s what people are hearing. Unfortunately, when the Principle Group came up with its draft of the Washington Street Vision Plan it mentioned two possible 10 story buildings (about a mile apart), both dependent upon a developer meeting certain qualifications and givebacks. I say “unfortunately” not because it’s a bad idea, but because it’s all anyone seems to have heard. Height began to dominate a discussion that should have been about so much more. I attended many of the Hello Washington Street sessions and felt they did a great job of trying to understand what we as a community wanted. They returned a plan that aimed to give us the walkable, interesting, vibrant village we asked for within the realities of the regional real estate and development market.
What the current discussion about height misses is that height is more a function of other factors over which we may or may not have control. Sure, we can put zoning limits on height, but if we make things too short then we risk not having any development at all (which I’m sure will satisfy some) or we risk encouraging the types of over-priced developments that we may not want.
In a recent Twitter argument between Ward 2 City Councilor Emily Norton and resident Brendan Keegan, Norton noted that she wants to use height as the negotiation point, saying: “I would have voted for Washington Place if they had reduced to 4 stories. I have been clear I support up to 4 stories on Washington St. That would be a LOT more density than is there now. I was pleased to get EV charging & reduced cost MBTA passes into the Washington Place… Special Permit. My opponent wants to allow 5 stories by right on Washington St. That would have given City Council NO SAY in Austin Street or Washington Place – ie no EV charging, no cheaper MBTA passes. Conversations with developers should be negotiations not rubber stamp.”
She’s right that we need to have conversations with developers, but we need those to be consistent. The idea of setting up a limit by right and then a max with conditions makes sense, but today the process feels arbitrary and unpredictable.
Overall, the argument we should be having is: what do we want as a community?
During that last election cycle I also asked candidates around Newtonville what they thought of the current mix of stores and how we can bring in the type of retail that drives life and foot traffic. At least one City Councilor told me that what we had there was all we were getting, we weren’t getting better stores. Yet, when 28 Austin opens up it’ll have both a Caffe Nero and a Henry Bear’s Park, both of which add to the vitality of Newtonville. When Washington Place opens yes it’ll have a bank, but it will also have The Barn and affordable space for other local retailers. Sometimes it takes a new property to attract what we truly want. It’s not without cost (see: Newtonville Camera) but we also need to look at the benefit.
As for what the citizens of Newton want, I’ve heard people say that they want to move freely through the city, that they want better school buildings, affordable housing, a new senior center, a recreation or teen center, a skating rink, theater, arts center, and a series of splash parks. We want a new pool to replace the Gath and a better experience that connects Albermarle to the Charles River. We should be asking: how can we use our inherent desirability to encourage development that will give us what we want? How do we make our streets safer for everyone, or pay for bus systems so we can move freely through the city? Who can build us a theater? Or a new senior center? Or a skating rink? How do we get money for our schools or even new educational opportunities? How do we build in a way that encourages both Affordable Housing and housing that is affordable?
As a community, we can have everything we want, but not if we randomly chip away at the developments. We need to focus on what’s important to the people of Newton and be consistent in our process. The bottom line is that it’s our people who make up our character, not the height of the buildings they live in.