Campaign Week in Review - 3/8/19: Zoning and Affordability, Buses and Shuttles, Local Business Challenges

by Irina Costache, Campaign Organizer

This past Sunday, Bill got a bit more door-knocking done despite the continued winter weather and this week he attended a number of community meetings. Some of the many issues voters brought up this week were renewable energy, the need for improvements to public transportation, the problem of outsourcing of certain city services, and (as usual) road repair after all the winter potholes this season.

So-called Better Bus Project

On Monday night, Bill attended a rescheduled MBTA community meeting regarding possible bus route changes that Mayor Fuller has been speaking out against, some of which would affect Ward 5 (more info further below). Held at the Watertown Police Department, the presentation mainly consisted of posters placed around the room repeating information from online, so disappointingly there wasn’t much new info. Bill was able to submit comments on Route 59 changes and speak with various Newton and Watertown residents, including former Watertown City Councilor Aaron Dushku who talked about the new dedicated bus lanes in Watertown. Because of how much space single-occupancy vehicles take up, a lot of the time there are more people riding the bus in the dedicated bus lanes than all the people driving by themselves in their cars in the adjacent lanes. Former Newton Alderman George Mansfield also expressed concern to Bill that the Route 52 bus serves people with disabilities and elderly riders who would otherwise have no easy transit access if their part of the route was eliminated under the current proposal. More on that later in this recap.

Local Businesses

On Tuesday morning, Bill met with Greg Reibman, head of the Newton Needham Regional Chamber, in order to hear about the challenges faced by our local businesses. One such challenge that Greg highlighted was landlord absenteeism and storefront vacancies. Bill asked a number of questions about the role of the government to intervene in some of these problems. We’ll be following up more with local businesses to hear about what is and is not working for them in Newton, as well as their ideas for solutions.


Tuesday evening, Bill went to the monthly Engine 6/Liveable Newton meeting of affordable housing activists held at Union Church in Waban. The agenda covered zoning reform, Washington Street, Riverside, inclusionary zoning, and Northland. Here is a quick recap of the key points:

  • Zoning reform impacts on housing affordability

    • A key concern among attendees regarding zoning reform was that the current proposal doesn’t zone density along all public transit lines. Another voiced concern was that small homes (which tend to be more affordable than large ones) aren’t buildable by right in many of the areas where there are mostly large homes.

    • Another comment concerned equity in the proposal, posing questions about why some neighborhoods were being preserved as-is while other, already dense neighborhoods, were only adding density.

    • One other point was brought up by Sean Roche, a community activist who often writes at Village 14 and on twitter, who argued that multi-family homes should not be prohibited in any lots, as the current zoning reform draft suggests. Zoning for exclusively single-family homes should be eliminated, he argued, so that every residential lot would allow by-right construction of at least two- and three-family housing. (Single-family homes would still be permissible under this idea, just not the only thing allowed.) Another member noted that the support in Newton for climate action and environmental sustainability is more widely backed than the support for housing affordability, saying that this is likely the best way to argue against exclusively single-family zoning for new construction.

    • The full City Council will be meeting on March 19 to hear a new model for projecting the fiscal impacts of future development. March 12 is the deadline for public comments on the 2nd draft of the Washington Street Vision.

  • One final housing-related item, which Bill promised to follow up on at the Engine 6 meeting – On March 4, the Department of Planning and Development released a Development Review Team Meeting Snapshot. One mentioned submission was in regards to 20 Kinmonth Road, the recently closed nursing home behind Waban Market. The submission for review was described as a special permit to extend the nonconforming use to allow a multi-family dwelling. We contacted the Planning Department staff this week to inquire more about this proposal, but the Department stated that they had no additional information from the developer yet. We’ll keep following it.

Newton Highlands Area Council: Northland, MBTA Buses, Charter Revisions

On Thursday night, Bill attended the Newton Highlands Area Council monthly meeting, which addressed the Highlands impacts of the Northland project, the MBTA Better Bus Project, and Charter revision proposals, among other things. These are the most noteworthy points from the night:

  • Northland’s team was there to address questions, focusing on the Highlands, in a small group setting ahead of their next Land Use Committee hearing next week. The Northland site is in Upper Falls, but Needham Street marks the border with Newton Highlands and the project site is close to the Newton Highlands’ village center, so both neighborhoods would be greatly affected.

    • Thursday’s discussion touched on some recent changes to the plan, such as the reduction in Building 6, which had the largest mass due to a large, above-ground parking garage. The building is now getting smaller as parking goes underground. This undergrounding of parking, along with reduced total parking (and retail and a bit of housing), made possible the split of Buildings 5 & 6 into several buildings trisected by greenspace walkways and courtyards.

    • Street parking around Northland’s central green has been eliminated in order to promote pedestrian safety and accessibility.

    • On the issue of parking requirements broadly, Northland’s team spoke about evolving away from the 1970s approach to parking planning (which was to build parking capacity for the peak days of the year around Christmas) and rather towards building parking based on more typical year-round needs.

    • The transportation hub building has now been moved onto Needham Street, which helps to add walkthrough permeability along the street and probably makes it more convenient for pedestrians and vehicles to get to.

    • In response to a question from Bill, they said that undergrounding the parking wouldn’t affect the culvert for the brook being restored above ground in other places, as they are building around it.

    • Shuttle fares continue to not be disclosed, but it was stated that those prices would be based on levels low enough to encourage ridership at the levels they’re aiming for to manage transportation demand and get enough people to avoid driving.

    • Councilor Rice inquired if the shuttles could run to the Eliot T station in order to avoid every shuttle dropping at Newton Highlands. Northland said that this route doesn’t work, but that they have been considering a routing to the village center in Newton Center.

    • Northland also commented that  the shuttle is primarily being designed for commuting, which is their explanation for the relatively unimpressive frequency of service proposed.

    • Bob Burke expressed concerns about whether the Green Line could handle the increase in ridership from the Northland and Riverside projects. Northland responded by saying that this concern was one of the reasons for why they planned shuttle routes into Boston or Cambridge, instead of just to the nearby Green Line and commuter rail stops.

    • Building on that, Nathaniel Lichtin asked if Northland had conducted a capacity study for ridership on T lines similar to traffic impact studies. It did not sound like they had.

    • Northland also said that they met with the Newton Council on Aging, which they report is opposing the concept of segregated senior-only housing blocks for the site. This is something that some city councilors had been pushing for.

    • Proposed reduction in retail space in the current plan revision would reduce projected Saturday traffic by 50% compared to the earlier version

    • Bill also asked some additional questions about the project, inquiring about tax revenue projections before and after the reductions in retail square footage (somewhat decreased, though still a net gain, but at least less likely to add further commercial vacancies) and also about the controversial Oak St entrance/exit (no further proposed changes since they added some street bends and other speed-reduction measures to discourage heavy usage, but they remain convinced it is necessary to have at least a minor entrance/exit there, despite concerns raised by some Upper Falls residents)

  • The Area Council meeting also addressed the MBTA Better Bus Project, where the Route 59 and 52 changes would affect Newton Highlands. Both of these routes are long with low ridership. The change to 52 would eliminate the alternative route over Nahanton/Winchester and just maintain the middle schools route. The 59 would eliminate the Elliot St Lincoln St alternative route.

    • By eliminating these routes, frequency on the main routes would increase, but negatively impact those who don’t live or work near the main routes.

    • Another concern is in regards to some elimination of Route 60 service around the Chestnut Hill Towers housing project and service westward from there into Newton.

    • The Area Council voted to send an official letter to the T containing comments opposing service cuts, consistent with the mayor’s letter on the Better Bus Project

  • Charter Revision updates from Councilor Rice:

    • Following extensive comments from the public in a hearing this week, the City Council Programs & Services Committee voted to eliminate any charter changes to Area Council. These changes would be pushed to a next round of possible revision.

    • The Committee pushed making a decision on the question of a minimum voter turnout threshold to validate ballot referendum results to next month.

  • The Walnut and Pinecrest townhouse project by Four Corners was voluntarily reviewed by the Fair Housing Commission this week for accessibility, affordability, and other fair housing questions. Nothing was flagged by the Commission, but the developers were reminded that any affordable units must include utilities and other such costs in the pricing of affordability. (One affordable unit is proposed at the moment.)