Campaign Week in Review - 3/22/19: What we heard from voters this week; climate action planning; economic development and fiscal impacts

by Irina Costache, Campaign Organizer

This week, Bill was able to knock doors in Ward 5 every day of the week except Sunday, knocking over 300 more since last week’s newsletter. Bill has now covered 40% of the ward. Some of the key issues brought up by voters this week included road repairs and parking in their communities as well as expanding fair, affordable housing in the city and making Newton welcoming to everyone. One voter also expressed concern about AirBnB-type services taking over family housing in some parts of Newton for permanent short-term renting, rather than occupancy. That’s an issue Bill would like to look into more.

Last Friday, Bill attended the St. Patrick’s Day Political Breakfast at Dunn Gaherin’s!

On Thursday afternoon, when Bill was knocking in the Saco-Lowell Shops Housing Historic District neighborhood, almost every voter expressed their concern about the proposed Northland project entrance/exit onto Oak St (directly across from that neighborhood), saying that it would add to traffic backups during rush hour (so they can't get out of their neighborhood) and to cut-through car traffic in the village center. Bill shares this concern, and has therefore been asking the developers and city councilors about it at every opportunity (such as during this week’s Upper Falls Area Council meeting).

Fiscal Impact Analysis

On Tuesday, Bill attended the ZAP-led Committee of the Whole City Council briefing on the fiscal impact projection of the Washington St vision. (Originally, the meeting was intended to also cover the citywide zoning redesign impact and other development, because the consultant has been developing a citywide model. The zoning redesign timeline has recently been extended into 2020, however, so the meeting focus narrowed to use Washington St as a test case for the new fiscal impact model). This has been a hot topic lately because constituents want to know how much tax money the city can expect to collect from – or be required to spend to support – new commercial and residential developments with schools and services. Here is a recap of key takeaways:

  • The lead consultant from TischlerBise, Carson Bise, spoke on the difference between fiscal impact and economic impact, stressing that these are two different things and that much of the economic activity generated by new development is not taxable activity for municipal authorities.

  • Fiscal impact analysis starts with expenditure levels necessary to maintain current service levels if the city grows in one area and then moves on to identify if there is a need to find more sources of revenue.

  • Bise continued that there is a myth from the municipality fiscal balance perspective that residential projects don’t pay for themselves while all commercial projects do. Bise presented examples from other communities around the US where different tax structures and different residential types led to different outcomes on tax revenue and expenditure burdens

  • The consultant has generated a new model specifically for Newton so that city officials can project the fiscal benefits and costs for all sizes and kinds of development proposals, as well as take into account different possible scenarios (such as a project being built slower than planned), capital resources, and various operational costs. City planners will be trained to use this model, which will be available to them with full transparency

  • Bise’s slideshow also featured a heat map of current tax revenues per acre in Newton

  • The Washington St corridor was analyzed during the meeting. One interesting finding is that there is a huge market demand for small commercial pavilions along the Mass Pike side of Washington in lieu of big, blank sound barriers.

  • There was also an assumption made that the MBTA Commuter rail service and stations in this corridor would be preserved and improved, something that many people may be skeptical about. Chair Albright also pointed out that the three recent elementary schools cost a great deal more than the numbers this model assumed.

  • Councilor Downs (Ward 5-at-large) questioned whether the model is a buildout scenario (the maximum possible construction and redevelopment) for Washington St, or, rather, a projection of what is actually likely to be redeveloped and built given the new zoning options.

  • The Schools Department briefly spoke about their own separate process for modelling enrollment projections by looking at potential projects in specific locations, moving beyond their traditional mandate that had only included approved projects.

  • Councilor Krintzman (Ward 4-at-large) asked if the model could account for various scenarios where developers might adjust their building pace in order to take advantage of the revised zoning in the corridor. He was assured that it could.

  • Many councilors also expressed a desire to look at the full list of variables going into the model.

  • Council President Laredo inquired about whether the firm had looked back at past projection models done for other cities in previous years. They answered that, yes, they are in touch with past clients and that revenue projections are generally pretty close, but that costs are harder to project because of budget choices.

  • One other caution by the consultants: The model cannot forecast or predict what public policy choices the city will decide to do (for example, if a municipality chose not to build a new school or chose to build a new one instead of just an expansion) because those aren’t technocratic imperatives that can be modeled.

Climate Action Planning

After knocking doors on Thursday, Bill headed to the Newton Climate Action Plan development workshop held at the Price Center on Christina St. During this meeting, Mayor Fuller urged attendees to figure out which climate action items are at the highest priority with the greatest impact, as well as how to creatively implement them. Other points that came up in the latest presentation: City residents have an unusually high continued use of heating oil (as opposed to natural gas), so MAPC advisors suggested targeting that first (for electrification). One minor announcement is that 850 trees per year are being planted along the streets of Newton per the new budget. Bill remains concerned that the draft Climate Action Plan is not on a timetable ambitious enough to meet the scientific realities of climate change; target dates like 2050 are too late and not in line with the scientific consensus. There’s also no accountability for any elected officials or staff when the targets are that far away. (However, it was encouraging to see City Council finish approving Solar panels in phase 3 this week!)

Upper Falls Area Council

Thursday evening, Bill attended the Upper Falls Area Council monthly meeting. On the agenda was a greenway project, a discussion with Newton’s Economic Development Director (Kathryn Ellis), and a recap on Northland. Here are the most noteworthy points:

  • Kathryn Ellis spoke and introduced her past 2 years of work for the city and some prospects coming into the Upper Falls area. One challenge that she highlighted was the issue of nonprofits growing out of their small starting spaces and not being able to afford the market rates of office space in Newton. Another challenge is helping legacy retailers to create an online ecommerce presence. Ellis also said that the city is still in negotiation with National Lumber regarding greenway access points. She confirmed that there is currently no proposal or discussion about what Northland is considering using their land across Needham St for after their project on the land on the west side is done. She also mentioned that the City Council had previously approved food trucks on Well Ave office park, which helped to reduce lunchtime traffic congestion last summer. This, however, is seasonal (and more brick & mortar food service needs to be built there).

  • Some community updates/reminders from the meeting:

    • The Upper Falls Soup Social is Saturday at the Emerson community building at 5pm. Many restaurants from around Newton are donating their best soups for attendees to eat for free. See you there!

    • Greenway art will be coming back this summer!