In Newtonville, smart growth is taking hold

Stability is great, but sometimes change is good

Photos from 1984 by Bill Dain; photos from 2015 by Amy Dain.

TAKE OUT YOUR MAGNIFYING GLASS for a moment. You might need it to see some of changes in Newtonville since I was a kid. The annual jazzy Newtonville Day that takes over part of Walnut Street for an afternoon is new. Carolyn’s Sweets Shoppe, where I used to buy blue slush puppies, is long gone. Newtonville Fabrics, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Ken Kaye Krafts are gone; Down Under Yoga, George Howell Coffee, Rox Diner, and the Boston Ballet School are new. The Newtonville branch library is now a senior center.

The Newton Art Center was renamed the New Art Center. Newton North’s infamously expensive building is relatively new. Next to Cabot Park, a five-story senior-housing complex was built on a lot where there had been a shuttered factory. There are noticeably more kids in the neighborhood now. Cabot Elementary School added modular rooms to address overcrowding, and plans are underway to renovate and expand the whole facility.

One significant change is that house prices and rents have gone up a lot, much faster than inflation. Newtonville is in demand; the whole region is in demand.

All in all, though, the neighborhood looks and feels the same as it has for decades. Only a handful of houses across Newtonville have been replaced with new construction. We still have the fabulously varied single-family and two-family homes that were always here (in my lifetime): farmhouses, Victorians, colonials, brick side-by-side two-family units, wood upstairs/downstairs two-family houses, etc. There are also a few rows of two-story townhouses. The trees, yards, and sidewalks with granite curbs look the same.

The commuter rail that my dad has always taken to work has the same Newtonville stop. While many stores and restaurants have turned over, the village center that my family affectionately refers to as “downtown Newtonville” remains as vital as it was in my childhood. CVS, the laundromat, and Newtonville Pizza are still there, and the supermarket still stretches over the Mass Pike. Overall, parking and traffic have remained manageable throughout Newtonville.

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Cabot kids still go to Cabot’s Ice Cream to celebrate school milestones. The annual Cabot Fair is still a thing, with games and prizes like in my childhood. Parents have successfully passed the baton year after year to organize the event for decades now (pretty neat).

Although the price of the housing has increased, squeezing out some of the economic diversity of the neighborhood, it feels like the same people live in Newtonville. Some are literally the same, like my folks and me. My impression is that the new residents are a close cultural fit with the people who have been here since my childhood; Newtonville’s residents are highly educated and generally liberal. Newtonville remains a close-knit community where neighbors know each other and look out for each other. Many people who could afford single-family houses further out choose to live in Newtonville’s numerous two-families for the great schools, community, commuter train, village center, and quality of life.

I first took note of Newton’s stability in the 1990s. I visited Moscow in 1990, 1992, and 1994, returning to Newton after each trip. Every two years, Moscow was dramatically different; Newton was not. Relative to Newton, Boston has also changed considerably, even sprouting a whole new neighborhood on the South Boston waterfront.

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All of this is a preface to talk about housing policy and the Austin Street project in Newtonville. In December, Newton’s Board of Aldermen voted 17-6 to approve the development of a four-story apartment building with 68 units on Austin Street, right behind the shops on Walnut Street in the village center. The development will rise above a city-owned parking lot, across the street from the Mass Pike and the supermarket-over-the-Pike. The projects approval is striking because no developer has ever been able to get past go with a 60-plus unit apartment building in Newtonville.

 

Typically, the people who turn out to hearings about multifamily housing, in Newton and anywhere else in the state are the opponents. Since many homeowners’ houses are both their single-largest investment and their homes, anything that might affect the value of their property and the quality of their neighborhood can appear threatening. Zoning was invented largely to stabilize the value of real estate so that people would be willing to invest money in it. The potential headaches for neighbors associated with new multifamily development are many: parking issues, increased traffic, noise, a clash of cultures between old and new residents, strain on infrastructure and city services, ugly architecture, and more school kids moving in than the local schools have capacity to accommodate. Some of the risks might be imagined or exaggerated, but some problems could turn out to be real, and the neighboring homeowners get no compensation for any indirect loss of value to their own properties or for any reduction in the quality of their lives. They have many reasons to turn out in opposition to such projects, and they do.

So, who turns out to support multifamily projects? The owners and developers of the properties are the obvious proponents, but they cannot speak credibly to the public good in the eyes of decision-makers, as they have a profit motive. They will be outnumbered at hearings. Potential residents of the new housing are dispersed and unknown; they do not mobilize in support of their future residences.

Ten years ago, I did research that confirmed that this dynamic has led to significant restrictions on multifamily development across the whole region. I conducted a survey of local zoning regulations in the 187 communities within 50 miles of Boston (not including Boston). I wanted to find out if our region was allowing for diverse types of housing to be built, as single-family homes are not for everyone.IMG_0019

At first review, things did not look so bad. I found that only 10 communities did not allow any multifamily housing (defined as three or more units in a building). These communities tended to be rural areas on the outskirts, such as Lakeville and Littleton. Another nine (Boxford, Carlisle, Marshfield, etc.) only allowed multifamily housing restricted to residents 55 years or older. So, only 10 percent of communities did not allow any multifamily housing for families and young adults. It was better than I had expected.

When I looked deeper, though, I found:

  • At least another eight communities listed multifamily as an allowed “use” but had no multifamily zone on the map, so the permitting of a project would involve approval by two-thirds of Town Meeting – which effectively prohibits it. Weston, Dover, Chelmsford, Northborough and others were in this category.
  • Several communities restricted the density of apartments per acre to four, two, or even one. That would be low density for single-family houses, forget about multifamily. Easton required one-half acre per bedroom.
  • Some communities required land parcels bigger than a developer could likely assemble in the community.
  • Most of the remaining communities allowed multifamily projects in districts drawn around existing multifamily housing, zoned at the density already built, so you could not squeeze in new units.

The takeaway is that communities are not allowing much multifamily housing to be built via local zoning. Much of the multifamily housing built in the region in recent decades has been permitted via 40B, the “anti-snob zoning act” passed in 1969 that lets developers sidestep local planning and zoning altogether as long as a number of units are deed-restricted as affordable in the project. Multifamily housing that does get approved through the local zoning mechanisms is often age-restricted (55-plus), with some units deed-restricted affordable so that the building units can count towards the threshold that gets communities off the hook of 40B.

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I went to a hearing for Newtonville’s proposed Austin Street development this fall at Newton City Hall. Based on my research, I commented about the state of zoning for multifamily housing in the region. My message was: if you agree that multifamily housing in principle should be built somewhere, then please do allow it here in Newtonville.

Local policymakers too often conclude that multifamily housing should be built, but “somewhere else.” In urban areas, they say “we have enough dense housing, it is time for the suburbs to build more.” In suburban areas, they say “that housing belongs in Boston or Somerville, it is out of character here.” In charming, historic neighborhoods, they say “put it in a less attractive place, do not ruin what we have.” In less attractive strips, they say “put it where the transit options are better, our traffic jams are terrible.” Truly, not every location is appropriate for dense housing. Yet, some locations must be. To my mind, downtown Newtonville is ideal.

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The large hearing room at Newton City Hall was packed with people overflowing into the hall. The opponents were there in force, expressing many legitimate concerns. The supporters were there in force, too. A large coalition of Newton-based organizations mobilized to advocate for the project, including Green Newton, League of Women Voters of Newton, Newton Council on Aging, Newton Fair Housing Committee, Newton Housing Authority, Progressive Newton, and others. My parents were there, wearing their pro-Austin Street buttons; this was not their first time at an Austin Street hearing.

Why were residents turning out in force to support a big housing development, larger than any residential building within a mile radius (other than the senior housing by Cabot Park)? The residents supporting the project had no financial stake in its success. These are people who already love Newtonville the way it is. Why would they want to see it change? What motivated them to turn out in favor of this project, even risking conflict with their neighbors who opposed it?

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My read is that the movement for smart growth is taking hold. Its message is resonating. The work of many organizations and community leaders over the last 20 years to promote smart growth is starting to bear fruit.

Smart growth means building in ways that reduce impact on the environment, with less new development sprawling over former open-space, and more development around existing transportation nodes and near schools, workplaces, and stores. Smart growth should support economic development and provide diverse types of housing to meet the housing needs of diverse residents.

Advocates for smart growth recognize that population growth and economic growth bring increased demand for housing. If you do not allow for increased density in developed areas, then suburban sprawl will result. If you prohibit building in developed and undeveloped areas, you will stifle economic growth, and people will bid up the prices of the scarce housing. And, if you only allow single-family houses to be built, you will not have enough diversity in your housing stock to meet everyone’s needs. The movement for smart growth addresses all of these issues.

Downtown Newtonville is the textbook location for smart growth. It has a commuter rail stop and it is at the intersection of a few bus routes that head downtown and to various suburbs. It has a couple of supermarkets, lots of stores and restaurants, places to exercise, and excellent schools. The entrance to the Mass Pike is nearby in Newton Corner. All of Newtonville is highly walkable, with great sidewalks.

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The smart growth movement has been growing nationwide for years now. In Massachusetts, a little over a decade ago seven organizations that focus on housing, planning, design, and the environment joined forces to establish the Smart Growth Alliance: the Boston Society of Architects, Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, Conservation Law Foundation, Environmental League of Massachusetts, Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston, Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations. Each of those organizations has devoted significant staff time and money to advancing the principles of smart growth in Massachusetts.

In addition, the Boston Foundation has been funding an annual housing report card for Greater Boston, produced by the Dukakis Center at Northeastern. Think tanks such as the Pioneer Institute, where I worked to produce the zoning study, and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard University have also been out front on the issue. The Audubon Society published its famous report Losing Ground on the loss of open space in Massachusetts due to development. State leaders have also been carrying the banner.

Their efforts have started to change popular opinion about housing development. Now, the prevailing ethos is not only “let us protect our wonderful neighborhoods from development,” but also “let’s promote smart growth – for the environment, the economy, and diversity.” And hence, neighbors, in a historic move, turned out to support a large development in a beloved neighborhood, Newtonville.

In December, the Board of Aldermen approved the project, with more than two thirds of the aldermen in favor. It was a well-earned victory – for the smart growth movement.

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Our regional planning agency, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, has looked into the crystal ball and concluded that the region needs to build 435,000 new units, many of those in multifamily developments, by 2040. With a target that big, a project with 68 units is hardly enough to change the market. This one project took almost a decade of planning. Building many thousands of additional units in the region will take a lot of planning, organizing, and campaigning – for changes both in local zoning regulations and state laws. So, if you visit downtown Newtonville, you might just overhear people making plans for more smart growth, over coffee at George Howell.

Amy Dain runs a consulting business in Newton that focuses on public policy research. She can be reached at dainresearch@gmail.com 

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For another take on affordable housing in Newton, check out Jack Sullivan’s piece here.