After spending a few years working to bring economic activity to Newton, I’ve come to the conclusion that, while we’re doing a lot of good things, we’re not doing enough in some areas that have been proven to work in other communities. While Newton has some unique challenges, much of what works elsewhere can work here. Our villages, which most of us see as a key part of our identity, are actually a challenge when it comes to economic activity, as they don’t concentrate enough businesses in a single area to encourage growth.
All that said, I believe we should start seeing Newton as the destination, not an exit on the highway, not just a place you run through for marathon training, and not just a place you leave from in the morning and return to at night. So in the spirit of the holiday season, I’m giving you all of the ideas that I’ve floated and/ or tried, but need additional help to make happen. Feel free to run with any of them.
- The alley project — Every village has an alley or two. Newtonville has two that cut from Walnut Street to Bram Way, Newton Centre has one that connects Union and Beacon, while another goes from Centre to
the parking lots in the back. Then there is the one in W. Newton that gives you access from Washington Street to L’Aroma. I would love to see the city work with the property owners to turn these from weed-strewn afterthoughts into inviting pedestrian pathways. Different cities have done things with sculpture, wall art or lights, and they bring life and joy to an area.
- Village Signage — Each village is unique, so what about giving each village the chance to showcase that? Again, this is a collaboration between property owners and the city, but I would love to see large signs painted that welcome people to a village. We’ve seen some of these murals around (Nonantum has had some great ones in Pelligrini Park) but we don’t encourage them. If we gave some money and some encouragement to the area councils as well as to the residents, the villages may start a bit of friendly competition to become the most-photographed.
- Activate Comm Ave. — Comm Ave is one of the top running destinations in the area, so let’s use that to our advantage. First, I’d love to see huge block letters that, over the course of the Newton Hills, spell out “Heartbreak”. Another is putting a large “#Newton” sign at just as you reach the peak, or maybe even in front of City Hall. That is, a place for runners to stop and photograph. We’ve seen this work with the Johnny Kelley statue, which is often decorated, photographed and used as a gathering point. The other thing I’d love to see is food trucks on Comm. Ave on Sundays. Again, the runners are there, but how about we invite in their families to wait or watch them? Or a place to sit and get coffee or a snack when they’re done with their workout?
- Food Trucks — Building on the idea above, we tried food trucks at Wells Ave and they essentially failed, but that doesn’t mean it was a bad idea. Food trucks are where innovation in food happens as it allows people to experiment with food concepts and locations with relatively little cost. They also need foot traffic to survive so they can achieve a minimum amount of sales. Suburban locations tend to subsidize trucks to bring in their vitality. The Wells Ave. program was built without subsidies, so when the trucks received better, more lucrative offers/ locations, they simply rolled away. I propose that we allow food trucks in places that are already active, like Newton Centre, as a way to become food destinations. We then promote those areas through a marketing program to attract a bigger lunch crowd. The goal is to attract more innovative restaurant ideas to the city.
- Art in the Environment — I loved doing the Greenway Arts project, but it now needs to be entirely rebuilt. The woman who had directed our partnership with Studios without Walls moved west, and the project needs a new direction to proceed. That said, I’d love to see a larger program from the city that extends this same idea into parks and paths around the area. Imagine finding sculpture in the park near the Cove, or discovering an inspiring sculpture in Cold Spring Park? With maps, scavenger hunts, and promotions, we could make this a way for people to rediscover the area parks. Throw in some celebrations, the farmer’s markets, and a few other things and we have new ways to engage our citizenry.
- Come and Climb — The D-line happens to slow down as it cuts through Hammond Pond, but what if we make that a flag stop? I know, it sounds odd, but hear me out. Hammond Pond Reservation is a major destination for rock climbers, as it offers a ton of great climbing close to Boston. Rock climbing is also a fast-growing sport with a huge following and one that will likely get bigger since it has a debut in the 2020 Olympic Games. So let’s encourage climbers to get on the T and come to Newton. We could do the same thing with timed shuttles that run either from Chestnut Hill or Newton Centre. My instinct is to choose the Centre just because of the ability to cross-sell with commerce. This is also a chance to work with WS Development, owners of the Street, and use their marketing muscle.
- Pedestrian Villages — Each village has a street that we can close for an entire weekend, or at least a full day, and not really miss. Some that come to mind: Union Street in Newton Centre (Langley also works); Elm St. in West Newton; West Street in Nonantum (maybe even Washington Street); Lincoln Street in Newton Highlands; Windsor Road (at Beacon) in Waban; and Walnut Street in Newtonville. Each of these streets has adjacent commerce and alternatives for through car traffic. And before everyone starts saying “but how am I supposed to drive through?” that’s exactly the point. You aren’t supposed to drive through, you’re supposed to stop, get out of your car and spend both your time and your money. Everywhere we try this it works, from Newbury Street in Boston to Times Square in Manhattan. Also, this isn’t about a street fair, though it will have some similar features, it’s about giving room to the existing vendors to open their doors and do things like serve food outside. We want more commerce, not less, we want vendors, we want people selling things. Let it build over time, like every Saturday or Sunday for an entire summer, morning to night, with things like morning yoga and evening music.
- Parklets — Right now, we don’t allow these, but they work. If we took away just a few on-street parking spaces we could give some of our restaurants better outdoor seating and also allow for better gathering points. Places like Nonantum, Newtonville and Newton Centre come to mind as key locations for this concept. These have proven to work around the Boston area including in Lexington where one sits right in front of Ride Studio Cafe.