In this season of reckoning with racial injustice, it seems there’s a growing movement to make our zoning more inclusive … within a short walk of the T.

The good news is that there is a growing awareness among our city councilors that Newton’s exclusionary zoning constitutes systemic racial bias. The bad news is that few of those councilors who recognize the racial injustice of exclusionary zoning are willing to go to the logical next step and call for its simple elimination. (Change the existing zoning code to make two- and three-family homes legal on every lot in the city.) 

Instead, councilors have hit on a weird compromise. More density, for sure, because density is necessary for addressing the inequity of our exclusionary zoning. But, let’s not go too far. Let’s limit the density to the immediate neighborhoods around transit. Transit-oriented development, but as a limiting factor on equality.

Exhibit A is from a discussion of zoning reform* in Councilor Jake Auchincloss’s most recent constituent letter. (The full text of the letter follows.)

  1. We need to build more ‘missing middle’ housing – especially within walking distance of transit. Newton cannot meet its aspirations of environmental sustainability and diversity & inclusion until and unless we make it much easier to build more 2-to-4-unit housing near transit.

Admirably, Councilor Auchincloss understands the need for multi-family homes to address our lack of diversity, but oddly limits the cure to “near transit.” It’s really no different than saying, we need to make places for more people of color to live. But, only certain places.

This is how we got to this point in the first place. Councilor Auchincloss is proposing segregation through land-use regulation. It’s redlining.

If you recognize we need to be more inclusive, we need to be more inclusive in every neighborhood. Any other option is curing segregation with more segregation.

To be fair to Councilor Auchincloss, he’s not alone. Councilor Josh Krintzman has this as his Zoom background for Zoning and Planning meetings. (Councilor Krintzman is a ZAP committee member.) But, he too is only in favor of more density near transit.

Black Lives Matter … but only within .5 miles (or maybe just .25 miles) of a Green Line stop.

* Councilor Auchincloss has a typically crisp analysis of the zoning reform landscape, but curiously doesn’t address the option to eliminate single-family-only zoning across the city. I’ve helped him:

 

Good morning,

I’m one of your city councilors and I write monthly to keep you apprised of local affairs.

Here’s what’s important in Newton right now (non-COVID):

  1. Residential zoning under debate: where do you stand?
  2. Development updates:
    • Riverside near a vote
    • 40B approved in West Newton Square
    • Northland proceeding despite pandemic
    • NewCAL likely sited in Newtonville
  3. Schools looking at hybrid or remote re-opening
  4. Vote by mail: instructions & link
 

Residential zoning under debate: where do you stand?

For the last decade, the city council has been reviewing the zoning code. The last complete rewrite was in 1953, when the city added a lot of housing spread out, in a car-centric suburb. The trend now, with broad support as a theory (less support in practice), is towards building smaller housing units near transit.

When writing about zoning redesign a year-and-half ago, I said the two most controversial aspects would be whether to expand 2-4-unit development near transit and to what degree the city council should cede authority over its permitting. We are now entering the thick of that debate.

Right now, about 70% of the residential lots in Newton are zoned single-family. For the other 30%, owners can build two units, though they do not have to. Zoning codifies what landowners are permitted to do, not what they must do. Both single-family and two-family development often triggers city council review, and 3-4-unit development always does. This review, to issue a ‘special permit‘, is the opposite of by-right development.

Zoning and development in Newton sort of looks like this:

Newton zoning debate
There’s a saying that all models are wrong, but some are useful. This above model is wrong – it oversimplifies. But I do think it’s useful to understand the dimensions of debate for residential zoning. There are advocates for shifting towards each of the four quadrants.

Below is my fairest framing for the argument behind each quadrant:

  1. Don’t fix what’s not broken. Newton is a wonderful city to live in, and increasing density could undermine the infrastructure and services that support that.
  2. Newton’s zoning code should be streamlined, not overturned. There are too many non-conforming properties and too many tripwires for families trying to make reasonable improvements. So, make the code easier to navigate and more reflective of on-the-ground reality, but don’t turn single-family zones into 2-4-unit zones. 
  3. We need to build more ‘missing middle’ housing – especially within walking distance of transit. Newton cannot meet its aspirations of environmental sustainability and diversity & inclusion until and unless we make it much easier to build more 2-to-4-unit housing near transit.
  4. Yes, we need to build more missing middle housing near transit. However, City Hall needs leverage over developers to protect neighbors’ interest and secure public goods, like affordable housing and infrastructure improvements. Tougher permitting affords that leverage.

The city council’s Zoning and Planning Committee plans to take a straw vote on residential zoning this fall. They will be informed by a public hearing. Last term, constituents offered input through ward-by-ward meetings, as well, and architects and designers offered technical feedback.

 

Development updates

Riverside near a vote
The mixed-use project at the Riverside MBTA terminus should be up for a vote early this fall. It would have 524 units of housing, a new hotel to replace the Hotel Indigo, and significant office and retail space. Improvements to the original proposal include reducing congestion, increasing the affordability of housing, and securing a pilot for a shuttle to the Auburndale commuter rail station.

40B approved near West Newton Square
The Riverside developer, Mark Development, is also building outside West Newton Square (near the Barn’s former location). The Zoning Board of Appeals recently approved three buildings with 234 apartments and ground-floor retail. Fifty-nine of the apartments will be permanently affordable; all parking will be underground. The developer will provide $3.3M in funding for infrastructure and for deepening the affordability of eight of the units.

Northland proceeding despite pandemic
Though it feels like eons ago, the referendum on Northland was on Super Tuesday in March. It passed. Then, coronavirus. The developer recently stated that they are proceeding with their design phase and do not expect significant disruption or delays.

NewCAL likely sited in Newtonville
A new senior center would likely be at the current location in Newtonville, not in the Newton Center triangle lot. The Public Buildings Commissioner reported that both sites could accommodate the project. It would be faster and cheaper in Newtonville, though. The Newton Center parking lot option would also cause disruption to businesses. For these reasons, advisory groups have been tilting heavily towards Newtonville.

There are sufficient funds to continue basic design in 2020. The mayor and city council will need to evaluate fully funding the project in light of the city’s post-COVID finances.

 

Schools looking at hybrid or remote re-opening

The state asked local school districts to prepare three plans for returning to school in the fall: in-person, fully remote, and hybrid. It also asked districts to announce their chosen plan no earlier than August.

Newton Public Schools considered the fully in-person scenario, but realized that under local health and human services guidance for six feet of separation, it would not be feasible. So, NPS is focusing on the remote and hybrid models. Here’s its timeline:

  • June: Establish planning teams for development of return to school scenarios
  • July: Survey families on return to school options, concerns, questions. (Survey revealed that 75% of families would send their children to school in a hybrid model)
  • Early August: Detailed update on Distance and Hybrid models
  • By mid August: Decision on school-opening model
 

Vote by mail: instructions & link

If you are a registered voter, you should have received an application to vote by mail in both the primary (Sept 1) and general (Nov 3) elections. If not, you can download one here (don’t forget to sign it) and mail it to

City of Newton Clerk’s Office
1000 Commonwealth Avenue
Newton, MA 02459

The city clerk will start mailing out ballots for the primary in early August. You will be able to mail your ballot back to the clerk.

There will also be early in-person voting in August for the primary. It begins on Saturday, Aug 22 and continues through Friday, Aug 28 at Drucker Auditorium at the Newton Free Library. The polls will also be open for election-day voting on Tuesday, Sept 1.

 

Onwards,

Jake

p.s. speaking of voting & schools: read School Committee Vice-Chair Bridget Ray-Canada’s letter to the TAB on why she’s supporting me for Congress. Honored to have Bridget’s support







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