Architects: Newton rezoning is “driven by ideology” and an attempt to “unzone” the city

Lots of people have reached out after my post last week, “Upzoning” in Newton: A tool to turn over the city from one class of people to another? In addition to reading comments by various city councilors on the Newton rezoning process, someone also shared with me a letter to the Newton City Council Planning and Zoning Committee. The letter was written by a group of architects who were originally recruited by the mayor, the city’s planning department, and some city councilors to help review the rezoning proposals and add their professional opinions and recommendations.

It appears rezoning in Newton has been severely undermined. I am going to post the public document in its entirety, as the committee chair has yet to post the PDF on the official city website (even if it were available, it would be hard to read, especially on mobile devices – a chronic problem for most official city documentation, incidentally). The letter is long, but I have bolded some parts which I believe are particularly important, and encourage people to leave comments at the bottom of this page:

September 30 2020

Members of the Newton City Council Planning and Zoning Committee:

Over the past several months, many of us have been providing assistance to the Planning Department with analysis of the impact of its proposed rezoning plan. We have been encouraged to provide this assistance by planning department staff, many city councilors and the Mayor in recognition of the detailed knowledge and expertise we bring to evaluating the effects of zoning on housing development from design, construction cost and home owner perspectives. As architects, builders and residents of Newton, we are committed to help maintain the quality of life in our city as zoning is being reconsidered. Despite challenges to our businesses and personal lives caused by the pandemic, we have provided significant time and effort to analyze both the macro effects of the rezoning plan as well as its impact on homeowners by applying the proposed rezoning to numerous renovation and new construction projects which we have worked on for Newton residents over the past several years.

During numerous online meetings, we have presented detailed analysis of built projects to planning staff and we have shown that the vast majority of these projects would not be permissible under the current rezoning proposal. The projects we analyzed reflect a diverse range of improvements and building programs which are typical across the City. Specifically, we have presented projects that reflect renovation and additions undertaken by homeowners as well as projects that involve restoration of historic properties. In addition to the analysis of specific projects, we have also provided many examples where the proposed zoning would on a broad scale increase the number of homes that would not conform to the new dimensional requirements. Despite our efforts to help inform decisions regarding the impact of the proposed zoning, we have seen no evidence that our work is being considered. In fact, changes to the proposal that have been made over the past few months have ignored issues demonstrated by our project analysis and have instead made some elements of the plan more prescriptive and restrictive. In view of the Planning Department’s failure over several months to meaningfully answer questions and concerns, respond to evidence provided by numerous building professionals or provide its own probative analysis, we reluctantly have concluded that the proponents of rezoning have no intention of considering facts and evidence of the potentially broad, negative impact that this plan could have on homeowners, the aesthetic character of the city and potentially on property values. In short we feel our time and expertise is being wasted. 

Many of us have been concerned about this process from the outset given that no detailed analysis was undertaken to identify specific issues with current zoning so that the new “form based“ approach could be properly evaluated. Form-based zoning imposes a highly prescriptive approach to housing design and has been adopted predominantly in dense urban communities like Somerville. It is clearly ill suited to communities like Newton with a very diverse housing stock and varied lot sizes. Given the drive to force fit form-based zoning to the actual built environment, the Planning Department is now calling it a “hybrid” of form based zoning. Nonetheless, we made a genuine effort to improve on the original proposal rather than reject it summarily given the many problems that were obvious from its inception. The problems with the metrics of the rezoning proposal are only exacerbated by the most recent change that would allow multi family development by right across the city. Combined with the elimination of minimum lot sizes and allowing some additions in setbacks by right, the lack of restrictions on multi-family seems to effectively “unzone” the city, rather than reduce non conformity, make development more predictable, or retain the character of neighborhoods. The Zoning and Planning Committee’s “3rd straw vote goal” approved at its April 27, 2020 meeting was as follows: “Context: Preserve and protect what we like in our neighborhoods. Encourage new development to fit in the context of our neighborhoods and villages.” The current plan clearly conflicts in many important ways with the objectives the Committee adopted just a few months ago.

With this background in mind, these are our primary concerns with the current proposal:

  • We have examined numerous built and proposed projects and find these new proposed controls are significantly more restrictive and more complex than current controls. New side and rear yard setbacks will create more non-conformity in existing structures. For example, the side yard requirements imposed by the new R1 zone for much of Waban results in most homes being non-conforming. The new lot coverage definition that now includes driveways compounds the problems. The resulting non conformity will severely restrict and discourage homeowners across the city from improving their homes with additions that reflect contemporary living requirements and market expectations to retain property value. Such projects also facilitate improved energy conservation as well.
  • The proposal to remedy increased non-conforming conditions by allowing certain additions by right in the new more restrictive setbacks would likely be struck down in the courts and defies the most basic purpose of zoning in the first place. Shouldn’t property owners at least be able to expect that there will be no construction allowed in setbacks, at least not without a variance?
  • The elimination of FAR in favor of foot print restrictions is another significant issue. The footprint restrictions are based on the median of what currently exists in contrived neighborhood zones based on the pattern book prepared by Sasaki. The problem with this methodology is that over 90% of homes in Newton were built before 1960 which means that this most critical standard of footprint limits is based on characteristics of housing built over the last hundred years, not current and future housing requirements. In many the data used reflects homes [text missing]
  • The removal of minimum lot size is an enormous and unnecessary paradigm shift that promotes more vertical than horizontal homes. As is the case with all the dramatic changes in this plan, no study has been presented which evaluates the impact of such a significant change to land use in the city. If we want a mechanism to allow existing non conforming lots to be buildable, we can simply add a provision to our existing code with whatever stipulations we find appropriate and subject the approval to issuance of a special permit.
  • Minimum lot frontage has also been significantly reduced. Combined with the removal of minimum lot size, this one change could allow certain neighborhoods in our city to be significantly transformed. If this is adopted, developers as of right could more easily take down a house on a larger property, subdivide that land, and put up two houses on lots that do not meet current requirements. In fact, subdivision of existing lots should not be the primary concern. The incentives under lower frontage requirements without lot size minimums to assemble adjacent conforming and non-conforming lots to create two legal lots will certainly spur property speculation and encourage more demolition of homes, a central problem that rezoning was supposed to address. 
  • One of the late additions to this proposal was the global change to eliminate single family zones. As proposed, existing homes could be subdivided into up to six units by right. This would certainly affect density, green space, and parking issues. It could also create new infrastructure demands on schools, streets and sanitation. If there is a desire to increase housing options through such a change, its adoption should require extensive community discussion, and an independent review of legal issues and its and economic impact. We also believe that abutters should be able to weigh in on multi family conversions by requiring a special permit when such conversions are proposed . 

We believe that based on the evidence we and others have presented, the proposed zoning plan disregards many of the original goals of the City Council for updating the city’s zoning code. As the proposal has evolved, it has become increasingly clear that it is being driven by ideology and not an evidence-based approach to updating and improving the city’s land use policies. The lack of objective quantitative analysis of issues with current zoning by the Planning Department is unacceptable in a city which touts its high standards for transparency and professionalism. 

Moreover, to advance such dramatic changes to our neighborhoods at a time when the public cannot effectively participate because of the pandemic is divisive, cynical and unnecessary. Is this what we envisioned for a process toward improved zoning? There are simply too many changes in this proposal that are so diametrically opposed to the controls currently in place. Does such unstudied dramatic change to land use make sense now? 

We believe that strategically-targeted incremental modifications to the Zoning Code would be a much more effective way to improve and rectify problems on the ground. Changing all the controls will create chaos, driven by conflicting policy objectives and too many unforeseen consequences. Conversely, if we improve the current code based on clear objectives and analysis, the results are likely to be far better. We can modify the Code to strategically improve what is on the ground with modest modifications that help preserve neighborhoods and can allow for reasonable and controlled growth. 

We hereby request an opportunity to present our analysis and conclusions at a ZAP meeting as soon as it can be scheduled. Such a presentation will allow a more detailed and dynamic discussion of the many substantive concerns that have been raised by us and many other residents with the proposed rezoning. We encourage other professionals who may be working privately with members of the Committee to make their views public and participate.

Thank you for your consideration.

Respectfully,

Steven Garfinkle

Peter Sachs, Architect

Marc Hershman, Architect

Robert Fizek, Architect

Stephan Hamilton, Architect

Schuyler Larrabee, Architect

William Roesner, Architect

About one week after this group sent the letter, three city councilors (Marc Laredo, Lisle Baker and Pamela Wright) sent a memo to Deborah Crossley (the committee chair) and cc’ing the mayor, senior city planners, and the city solicitor. It requests the following:

  1. The Zoning and Planning Committee should hear dissenting views directly from a group of local architects who recently wrote that they have been excluded from the group advising the Planning Department about its zoning proposals;

  2. The Zoning and Planning Committee should be advised by the Law Department how homes which might become nonconforming under the proposed new zoning can be protected or find relief if changes need to be made;

  3. The Zoning and Planning Committee should have an opportunity to discuss the current Planning Department proposals, including whether alternatives involving our current zoning code should be considered.

More details are in the memo, which is available on the city website (in PDF form). But one section of the memo from the three councilors stood out (emphasis mine):

As an institutional matter, we remain troubled by the manner in which this entire process is proceeding. While we appreciate the expertise that the Planning Department brings to this effort, it is the City Council, and not the Planning Department, that needs to debate the merits of any proposal and decide how to proceed. Instead, we have had repeated presentations by staff with questions that they want answered in order for them to work on their proposals.

The decision whether to continue to use Floor Area Ratio (FAR) as a check on oversized residential construction is a good example. While the Department offered a brief written response about FAR in the attachment A to its last memorandum dated September 25, the Committee itself has not had a chance to discuss whether to discard this tool that originated from a prior Planning Department’s advice. If FAR it does not work well presently, are there ways to modify it so it can be improved? What are the experiences of other communities that use FAR? Have any other communities adopted FAR and then abandoned it? If so, why?

The same types of questions need to be asked of other elements discussed in the September 30 architects’ memorandum. These are key policy decisions that need to be made by the Council initially through the Committee, not by staff, with thoughtful deliberation after considering all points of view. Instead, what we appear to be doing is assuming the new framework is sound, and responding to questions about the details. This strikes us as backwards, especially since the original idea of fixing some specific issues such as oversized construction and front-facing garages has been superseded by this grand redesign for Newton zoning that the Department, but not yet the Council itself, has endorsed.

In summary, policy about zoning ends and means should be explicitly decided by the Council, not implicitly by the Planning Department. A way to begin frame that decision is to provide the members of the Zoning and Planning Committee, on behalf of the Council, some time to discuss the current Planning Department proposals, including whether alternatives involving our current zoning code should be considered.

I alluded in my last post to some of the tactics used by developers to undermine local democracy in Newton, such as providing huge cash injections to “grassroots” groups that support high-density housing. The developers (Northland) won the vote as a result.

Another side of this trend is the tactics used by some of our own elected officials and the city planning department to steamroll opposition and discussion. A few years back, it was holding neighborhood feedback sessions (“Hello Washington Street“) in which the mayor, planning department officials, and highly paid consultants made a big show of listening to local residents in West Newton and Newtonville about the plans. After the sessions were over, they promptly turned around proceeded to ram through the high-density plan that they and big developers wanted all along.

Now we’re seeing a situation in which architects have been invited to participate in the discussion. Guess what: their well-articulated concerns have also been ignored. Does anyone see the pattern here?

What’s going on now should be setting off alarm bells across the city, in every neighborhood. “Upzoning” or “unzoning” (or whatever you want to call it) will primarily benefit developers, not residents. Any house that can be torn down, chopped up, and divided into overpriced multifamily units will be. The result: more luxury apartments, condos, and townhouses that are out of reach to all kinds of ordinary people, including:

  • Seniors and disabled people living on fixed incomes
  • Teachers, firefighters and other public workers
  • Recent immigrants
  • Young people who grew up in Newton trying to move back to their hometown
  • Anyone earning the Massachusetts median income of ~$77,000 per year or less

Just as we’ve seen at Trio Newton (studio rentals starting at $2,600 per month) and 28 Austin Street (rents starting at $3,700/month for a 2-bedroom apartment), a sheen of affordable housing will be tacked on to these projects to give the appearance that officials are, as Councilor Jake Auchincloss once claimed in an election flyer, “holding developers’ feet to the fire.”

I’ll close with the same excerpt from The Newton Villages Alliance newsletter that I quoted last week:

The proposed overhaul of Newton’s zoning code for higher density will lead to a transformation of Newton to a much more expensive, congested, urban environment. In the process, well-financed property speculators will be the winners and existing residents the losers as investment capital pours into our community for the sole purpose of extracting as much profit as possible.

Comments are welcome below.

“Upzoning” in Newton: A tool to turn over the city from one class of people to another?

Rezoning is in the news again in Newton. I have deliberately avoided most of the coverage. Developer kingpins aided by pliant politicians and high-density CODS housing activists always seem to get what they want around here. Local elections are undermined by millions in developer-funded PR campaigns and outright cash injections to pro-development activist groups, while local residents protesting the luxury developments are ignored, demonized, and even publicly bullied by an elected city councilor.

After the dust settles, we’re inevitably left with thousands of units of luxury housing that do nothing to bring down housing costs in the city of Newton.

Hundreds of luxury apartments have already been thrown up in Newtonville. They include 28 Austin Street, the parcel across from the Newtonville Star Market which the former mayor and city councilors agreed to lease to the developer for just $1,050,000 for 99 years, over the protests of Newtonville residents. The 28 Austin Street website now boasts “luxury boutique living,” starting at $3,700 to rent a 1,050 square feet apartment:

28 Austin Street Newtonville apartment priceAcross the Pike, developer Robert Korff of Mark Development didn’t have to rip up a signed agreement with neighbors and local councillors like he did for Riverside. Instead, the former mayor and the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce helped get him what he demanded, again over the objections of neighbors.

This piece of commentary in the local newspaper summed up what everyone now knows: Dumping thousands of units of luxury housing is a tool of wealth creation for developers. It does nothing to reduce housing costs in Newton:

The belief that more housing will add affordability for Newton is a false premise as well. A look at Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, South Boston, East Boston, Charlestown, Waltham, Watertown tells us all we need to know: large developments drive up land prices, drive up rents and make naturally affordable housing less available and less affordable. It creates a tiered class with subsidized housing for those who qualify, and expensive housing for everyone else. These are the facts and wishful thinking doesn’t change this reality.

Here are the facts concerning the former Orr block. The low-cost apartments and small businesses on Washington Street in Newtonville were quickly demolished to make way for Korff’s new replacement for the Orr block, Trio Newton. The work is wrapping up now. Have housing prices dropped as high-density housing activists have promised, because hundreds of new units are now being added to the supply?

No! If anything, it’s gotten more expensive to live in Newtonville. The facts are in the numbers. On Google, Trio promotes “luxury apartments in Newton.” Click through to the Trio website, where the least expensive option is apparently $2,600 per month to rent a 600 square foot studio!

Good luck if you’re a senior on a fixed income, a new immigrant, disabled, or a young person who grew up in Newton and wants to move back to your home town. Using the 30% rule of thumb for housing costs, excluding utility costs, and generously assuming Korff isn’t stacking additional fees on top of the listed rental prices at Trio Newton, you would need an annual income of $104,000 to afford the least expensive studio apartment.

At nearby 28 Austin Street, a young family would need an income of at least $144,000 to rent the cheapest 2-bedroom apartment (1,050 square feet). The most expensive (1,365 square feet) 2 bedroom unit, at $7,500 per month, would require an annual income of $300,000.

Note that the median household income in Massachusetts is $77,378, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The development battle has now turned to single-family housing. The mayor, city planners, developers, and some city councilors want to abolish single-family housing, by “upzoning” wide swathes of neighborhoods currently filled with existing single-family homes and convert them to luxury condos and townhouses by right.

It will happen in Newton Corner. The Lake. Newtonville. West Newton. Auburndale. Newton Lower Falls. Newton Upper Falls. And so on.

If you thought the first wave of Newton tear-downs that eviscerated the stock of older, small single-family homes in the city was bad, wait until the new plan gets underway. Don’t think for a second that the vast majority of multifamily units under such a scheme would be built for anyone other than those who can afford, as 28 Austin puts it, “luxury boutique living.” The remaining working class and middle class households in the city of Newton will be pushed out, while the developer class will be left laughing all the way to the bank.

The Newton Villages Alliance got things right in its latest newsletter, noting:

The proposed overhaul of Newton’s zoning code for higher density will lead to a transformation of Newton to a much more expensive, congested, urban environment. In the process, well-financed property speculators will be the winners and existing residents the losers as investment capital pours into our community for the sole purpose of extracting as much profit as possible.

For a taste of what’s to come, check out this video which chronicles the failure of upzoning in Austin.

Response to “Before coronavirus, Newton development was booming. Now what?”

I sent the following letter to The Boston Globe and editor Brian McGrory after this article by John Hilliard was published on March 24, 2020. The Globe didn’t publish the letter, so I am publishing it here.

The world is facing a devastating health and economic disaster. But for Newton developer Robert Korff, everything remains “on track” for a summer 2020 opening for his Trio apartment complex, with its wine bar, dog-washing stations, and other luxury amenities.

Let’s ask some hard questions about the spate of high-end developments planned for Newton, which were not addressed in the article:

  • Now that entire sectors of the local economy have collapsed, what are the implications for jobs, salaries, and retail activity, and by extension, demand for expensive residential and commercial real estate?
  • Will the rents at these developments be lowered, or more affordable housing be made available to the legions of people who have lost their jobs?
  • What are Mayor Fuller and the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce doing to encourage landlords, banks, and developers to reduce rent and mortgage payments for residents and small businesses directly impacted by sickness or layoffs?

Longer term, Newton’s political leaders need to stand firm to prevent developers from exploiting changed economic conditions to demand additional concessions and benefits. Korff and his development partners have a track record in this regard, ripping up the negotiated 2013 Riverside agreement with the city and local residents after claiming the original plan wasn’t profitable enough. This gambit, encouraged by the mayor and many city councilors, more than doubled the size of the planned development over the objections of local residents.

It’s precedents like this that open the door for developers to extract even more favorable rights in a post-coronavirus world.

As sole donor of the “Yes” campaign, Northland’s deep pockets try to steamroll Newton’s democracy

I’d never thought I’d see this happen: Washington-style corporate donations sleazing their way into Newton’s grassroots democratic processes. The Northland Investment Corporation’s approach to getting its way on Needham Street in Upper Falls sets a terrible precedent for all future elections in Newton, in which winners may be decided by which side (or which candidate) has the biggest corporate sponsor.

Signs that something amiss in Newton came in the mail starting in January. Thousands of local residents have been sent multiple copies of glossy fliers like this one:

Northland Newton vote flier

There have also been sizable ads in the Newton Tab and on social media. My wife even received a text message urging her to vote yes to support Northland Investment Corporation’s proposed luxury development on Needham Street.

Our home received a half-dozen such fliers. I am a publisher, and know that full-color mailers printed on glossy card stock are not cheap. I wondered how “Yes for Newton’s future,” the ostensibly grassroots group supporting the developer’s vision, was able to pay for all of that printing. Could the group have that many ordinary citizens mailing in checks?

Nope. It turns out that nearly $320,000 came directly from Northland Investment Corporation. The Boston Globe has more details. In fact, as noted by the Globe, Northland Investment Corporation is “Yes for Newton’s Future” sole donor.

Northland’s atrocious record in New Haven

It must be noted that Northland Investment Corporation does not have a good record of behaving like a friendly corporate neighbor. According to media reports, it played dirty — real dirty — in another real estate deal where outsized profits were on the table.

In 2008, Northland purchased a 301-unit development in New Haven. By 2016, Northland had managed the property so badly it was condemned by both HUD & the city. HUD inspections of the Northland-managed housing found 1,015 health & safety violations. More than half were life-threatening violations, including broken smoke detectors.

In a lawsuit filed on behalf of residents, a Yale expert found that poor conditions at the Northland-managed property in New Haven led to asthma in nearly half of children living there.

How could any company in good conscience do something like this to ordinary people living in the units it controlled? According to the lawsuit, Northland Investment Corporation deliberately carried out “demolition by neglect” of the property with the goal of razing the site and turning it into a profitable venture.

In a way, it should come as no surprise that Northland Investment Corporation is demanding special rights to build 800 units — most of them luxury apartments — on an old industrial parcel adjacent to an already overcrowded Needham Street. Just as in New Haven, outsized profits are at stake. If a $320,000 corporate cash injection translates into enough “Yes” votes, Northland Investment Corporation stands to make tens of millions of dollars in additional profit on its Needham Street plans. Maybe even more.

The ROI for Northland will be off the charts. The damage to Newton’s democracy will be irreparable.

 

The map that shows how Newton will vote on the Northland development

I spotted this in my Facebook feed earlier today: A map (created by Rightsize Newton) showing the location of the more than 5,000 Newton voters who signed the petition late last year which is leading to the upcoming Northland referendum. The map is almost certain to reflect voting patterns on March 3:

northland referendum newton map 2020

Northland is a 22-acre development project planned for Newton Upper Falls, adjacent to the heavily used Needham Street commercial area. It represents a massive profit opportunity for the developer, Northland Investment Corp., which wants to maximize the value of its land by squeezing as much high-rent, luxury real estate into the parcel as possible.

Northland represents something else entirely to people who live, work, and attend nearby schools.

The area has long-standing traffic problems going back many decades. It’s been that way since I was growing up in Newton in the 1970s, and still is today when I pass through for shopping or business. The addition of 800 additional units of mostly luxury housing and more than 100,000 square feet of new retail space will make the situation far worse for anyone using Needham Street/Highland Avenue or living/working nearby.

The impact on local public schools will also be significant, despite promises from Northland Investment Corp. and its political allies — the mayor and the following city councillors (this image is being circulated by a pro-developer group, Yes for Newton’s Future. Note that it was paid for by Northland Investment Corp.):

Does anyone remember the debacle with Avalon Bay on Needham Street? Hundreds of units were built, with the developer and political supporters (including some names in the list above) promising minimal impact on Newton Public Schools — perhaps a few dozen additional students, they said.

What actually happened: Countryside Elementary grew to more than 500 students. It was bad. Crowded classrooms, hallways used for aftercare and music class, and added costs to hire staff, spend more on maintenance, and carry out the inevitable school redistricting.

Increases in traffic and school enrollment as well as other infrastructure investments required to satisfy Northland Investment Corp.’s profit motives represent real costs for Newton. This is not only something for thousands of households in Newton Upper Falls and the Highlands to worry about, either. It will impact every taxpayer in the city, as school budgets rise, delays impact businesses and residents, and the costs of maintaining more heavily used public infrastructure rise sharply.

It should therefore come as no surprise that support for the anti-Northland petition was so strong city-wide. Some might think that this is a “local village” issue, with most people against Northland Investment Corp.’s development plans hailing mostly from Upper Falls and Newton Highlands, and perhaps a smaller number from north side neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by the massive developments planned for Riverside and “Hello Washington Street.”

The map shows that support for “No to Northland” actually extends across the city, including Newton Center, Oak Hill, Newton Corner, and Chestnut Hill.

Incidentally, announcing that you oppose the current plans by Northland Investment Corp. is not pleasant. You get called names on social media (see Newton NIMBY vs. CODS). The deck is stacked against you in supposedly neutral debates. It’s even possible to get bullied in public by an elected city councillor in the pro-Northland Investment Corp. “Yes” camp.

Despite these attacks and misrepresentations, it should be noted that not one of the “No to Northland” supporters cares about preserving disused industrial and commercial lots. What they’re rightly concerned about is the scale of the project, its impact on an already overwhelmed village, and the costs that households across the city will be forced to bear if a politically connected developer is yet again allowed to profit at the expense of Newton residents.

New post:

As sole donor of the “Yes” campaign, Northland’s deep pockets try to steamroll Newton’s democracy

 

2019 Newton City Council Elections: Won’t get fooled again

It’s election season here in Newton, and residents have had lots of people knocking on their doors to ask for their votes in the 2019 Newton City Council elections.

Before I share my recommendations, I would like to share a short tale about elections in Newton.

I learned a lesson some years ago after voting for a local mayoral candidate who had a great ground game and engaging style. While his opponent assumed victory would be easy, this candidate actually pounded the pavement, knocked on doors in every one of Newton’s 13 villages, and talked with thousands of potential voters. He was earnest, and knew how to say encouraging things about issues that mattered.

I trusted him, and gave him my vote, as did more than 10,000 other voters.

However, as soon as he was elected, he went out of his way to accommodate developers like Robert Korff in their bids to get special treatment and outsized profits from the parcels they had purchased or leased.

Case in point: the 28 Austin Street project, leased to a developer for the equivalent of just over $10,000 per year. The cost to rent a 1 bedroom apartment there: between $2800 and $3700 per month:

28 Austin Street prices

I learned my lesson. I did not vote for him when he was up for re-election, and I’m far more careful now when it comes to selecting candidates for mayor or city councillors. For the candidates who knock on my door, I will ask hard questions about local issues that matter to me, especially around development:

  • Where do they stand on the Riverside development? Do they agree that the developers — Robert Korff and B.H. Normandy — should be allowed to rip up a signed agreement negotiated with residents and the city to build about 300 new units, and instead build a vastly oversized luxury compound on a small, two-way street connecting Auburndale and Newton Lower Falls?
  • Where do they stand on Northland, another oversized development planned for the chronically gridlocked Needham Street in Newton Upper Falls?
  • Are they acting on residents’ concerns about rezoning Washington Street? Do they support the current mayor’s plan for high density, 5-10 story buildings running from West Newton Square all the way down to the Lake, even though a Newtonville Area Council survey found that more than 90% of city residents do not want this?
  • Do they use the term “NIMBY”? This patronizing acronym is intended to steamroll all arguments against massive development. Paradoxically, “Newton NIMBY” lumps in people who are concerned about a lack of affordable housing in proposed “market rate” developments with zealots who don’t want ANY affordable housing in Newton. Any candidate, elected official, or activist who casually uses this insult to describe any resident who dare to voice objections to high-density luxury developments and teardowns of modest single family homes to build McMansions don’t deserve support, in my opinion.

Of course, not every candidate for Newton City Council knocks on my door, or even makes their proposed platforms publicly available. Some outright refuse to state where they stand on Riverside, at least in part because of questionable advice from Alissa Ocasio Giuliani, a lawyer who reports to Mayor Ruthanne Fuller at Newton City Hall.

Fortunately, there are several local organizations that are vetting candidates, and this list of recommended city council candidates, from NewtonVotes.org is the one I will use as a starting point (links to candidates’ websites can be found on that page).

  • Ward 1 – Allan Ciccone Sr
  • Ward 2 – Emily Norton
  • Ward 2 – At Large – Tarik Lucas
  • Ward 2 – At Large – Jennifer Bentley
  • Ward 3 – Julia Malakie
  • Ward 3 – At Large – Pamela Wright
  • Ward 5 – Rena Getz
  • Ward 5 – At Large – Paul Coletti
  • Ward 6 – Lisa Gordon
  • Ward 6 – At Large – Greg Schwartz

NewtonVotes.org, incidentally, has a statement on its front page that I totally agree with:

“We are residents who think the City Council should work on behalf of voters, rather than for large, for-profit developers. We support village-scale development, affordable housing rather than luxury units, and small, local businesses, not national chains.”

NewtonVotes.Org website

For the full list of candidates in the 2019 Newton City Council elections, and to see sample ballots, visit the city’s official election website.

Newton NIMBY, meet Newton CODS

Cods in Newton? Licensed from Depositphotos

Someone recently asked me how to handle a Twitter troll account that attacked anyone opposed to development at Riverside, regardless of the merit of the concern, as a “Newton NIMBY.”

Dealing with the troll is easy, I said. Just block them on Twitter. They won’t see your tweets, and you won’t see theirs. If the person behind the account elevates name-calling to harassment or threats, it’s possible to report that account.

But there’s another issue to address here: The use of the terms “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard”) and “NIMBYism” by people other than trolls, including activists, some Newton city councilors, and even the former mayor.

As I told this person, “Newton NIMBY” is a patronizing, insulting acronym meant to steamroll all arguments (good or bad) against massive development and put local residents on the defensive. It’s employed as a shrill battering ram against people who dare to raise questions about earlier agreements being abandoned by developers and politicians, increased traffic on small roads like Grove Street or large thoroughfares like Washington Street, the impact on school enrollment and education budgets, and how other infrastructure costs will be paid for in the years to come. Paradoxically, “Newton NIMBY” lumps in people who are concerned about a lack of affordable housing in proposed “market rate”/luxury developments with zealots who don’t want ANY affordable housing in Newton.

While it’s possible to block the Twitter trolls who use the term, I would instead suggest attempting to engage normal people and politicians with a polite question:

If you want to call me a NIMBY, would you mind if I referred to you as a CODS (Co-Opted Developer Stooge) in all conversations going forward?

If a sputtering, indignant reply is the answer (“but I haven’t been co-opted by developers!”) then he or she should understand why others might object to being called a “NIMBY.”

At that point, honest discussions can begin on the basis of mutual respect and a willingness to listen to the other side’s legitimate concerns, as opposed to starting off with condescending, sneering labels that aim to ridicule the other side and silence the debate about development in Newton.

Image licensed from Depositphotos

Thoughts on draft #3 of the Hello Washington Street zoning plan

The city of Newton is soliciting responses from residents about draft #3 of the Hello Washington Street zoning plan. The area they are talking about stretches from West Newton to Newtonville to the edge of Nonantum. Certainly no one wants to preserve run-down commercial properties, but what the mayor is trying to force on local residents (while trying to portray “Hello Washington Street” as a community-driven plan) is a massive developer giveaway worth hundreds of millions of dollars that burden the city with massive school, traffic, and infrastructure costs for decades to come. City Councilor Emily Norton was absolutely right when she said a few months back that the mayor is “bending over backwards” to accommodate developers.

Personally, I’m extremely skeptical of the way this is being handled (see Riverside and Newton’s draft zoning plans for Washington Street reveal “visioning” for what it really is) but remaining silent is not an option. Here’s the letter I sent to city councilors (residents can email the council at citycouncil@newtonma.gov).


Dear City Councillors,

I am responding to draft #3 of the vision and zoning documents for Washington Street. I have no idea if anyone will read this or any of the other comments I have made, let alone incorporate feedback from residents like me who are greatly alarmed by what’s being proposed. [UPDATE: The council president and several councilors acknowledged receipt] I have seen little change in the core concepts outlined in the successive drafts for Washington Street, despite widespread, vocal opposition from many city residents. Honestly, it seems that the current administration and some councilors would rather take their cues from developers, blogs, and the demands of activists, instead of from the ordinary residents who will be directly and irreversibly affected by this plan. Nevertheless, I want my voice to be heard, even if it is likely to be ignored.

The Zoning Document says:

“There is a strong interest in having varied building heights and cornice lines along Washington Street.”

Judging by the results of the Newtonville Area Council survey and the written comments left in the pop-up community centers when “Hello Washington Street” was launched, the above statement and similar claims made about buildings five or more stories in height are false at least where voters are concerned (from the NAC survey: “There is a strong preference for lower building heights: three or four stories.”). Conclusions in the draft plan that are based on such statements in the zoning document are therefore flawed.

The vision document says:

“Newton needs to create new housing at all levels of affordability in order to protect and promote one of the community’s core values – diversity. The city needs to expand its supply of low-income, middle-income, and even high-income housing choices.”

We have enough high-income housing choices, thanks to the relentless teardown phenomenon and desire of developers to squeeze as much profit as possible at the expense of options for ordinary middle class people, low-income households, seniors, and public workers. The above statement codifies the idea that “luxury”/”market rate” housing *must* be included in planning, which developers will be only too happy to provide en masse – with a mere sliver of options for everyone else. How about inserting language that minimizes or even eliminates the requirement that high-income housing be part of future developments?

The vision document says:

“If Newton is fortunate enough to see congestion because people are coming to shop, dine, work in, and explore the village centers, that is a sign of economic success.”

No resident sitting in a traffic jam on Washington Street in West Newton or Nonantum, let alone Needham Street in Upper Falls, Commonwealth Avenue in Newton Center, Grove Street in Auburndale, or any other thoroughfare, will be thanking city planners for enabling “economic success” at the expense of their time, effort, and other costs associated with driving to work or getting things done.

Many of the comments I have made elsewhere about Washington Street, including letters to the council and using online tools, still stand. Below, I am including my comment from March 10, 2019, which I submitted online but never got any response to and may not have been registered.

Sincerely,

Ian Lamont


My March 10 comment:

I appreciate the work that the planning dept has put into this plan, and the opportunity to redo some of the dilapidated sections of Washington Street. However, I and many other residents of Newton strongly object to the new “Village Gateway” (W-VY), “Station Area Central” (W-SC), and “Station Area Commercial” (W-SM) zoning designations. I have to ask how this was slipped into the plan considering the widespread public opposition to giant buildings expressed in surveys and the city’s own feedback-gathering process in the past year.

According to the draft, the maximum height *by right* for all of these zones will be 5 stories. If developers successfully apply for special permits at any of those sites (a requirement to maximize the value of their investments) they will be able to place gigantic buildings between 6 and 10 stories tall throughout West Newton. Village Gateway also appears in Newtonville to the edge of the Lake.

I’m sure developers and the tax office loves this prospect, but it’s not what residents asked for according to the Newtonville Area Council survey in October and the comments left in the pop-up community centers.

I participated in the early “Hello Washington Street” visioning process. The following comments were left by citizens on one of the “pop-up” centers in West Newton to collect feedback about Washington Street. Here’s what residents wrote when presented with a poster of large buildings:

“Too tall”
“Too big”
“Bad shadows”
“Big buildings ugly”
“Too urban”
“Air rights over pike”
“This doesn’t look like a suburb. Where are the trees?”
“No trees. Towers destroy neighborhood feel”
“Too tall. Too many people for the space. Too many cars. Overshadows existing homes. Overcrowding of the school system.”
“Seniors have few school age children and many no longer drive.”
“This is bogus. So unappealing I;m sure it’s only offered to make the other scenarios look better by comparison. West Newton resident.”
“No. This is not Boston. We do not have to agree to make Korff rich.”
“Never. We don’t wan’t Manhattan. “
“Have you been to Manhattan?”
“I love Manhattan and Tokyo.”
“No high rises in Newton!”
“Be careful. You will drive away all of the [] who make Newton a magnet.”
“No one who wants to make Newton a magnet can afford to live here now.”
“Underground parking is good. But these cars will still be driving around the city.”
“Way too tall. Big shadows on small houses.”
“Large number of affordable units”
“Build this over the pike”
“What about the existing residents who cannot unfortunately [] this monstrosity”
“Boston? MGH?”

In summary, almost NO ONE who lives in the city asked for developers to be granted 5 stories by right, or 10 stories by special permit. Even 4 stories is a stretch, considering the major impact on traffic, schools, and other infrastructure.

 

 

 

 

Riverside and Newton’s draft zoning plans for Washington Street reveal “visioning” for what it really is

Recently, the Newton Tab published an article about the massive new development proposed for the MBTA Riverside T stop. The Tab article, titled “Crowd offers feedback about Newton’s Riverside site,” quoted Mayor Ruthanne Fuller describing the visioning process for Riverside:

“‘This process, in part, is trying to figure out what is the right size,’ said Fuller.”

I have news for Mayor Fuller: The “right size” of the Riverside development is already known.

The last time local residents were asked for input to right-size development at Riverside, discussions took more than five years. The resulting agreement, finalized in 2013, determined that the right size for Riverside was 580,000 square feet, including nearly 300 hundred new housing units.

It’s not local residents who want to go through this process all over again. It’s being driven by developer Robert Korff and his business partner BH Normandy (who negotiated the 2013 agreement). Instead of the agreed-upon 580,000 square feet, they are demanding 1.5 million square feet, including two 200+ foot tall towers, and many hundreds of additional units of luxury housing. They stand to add hundreds of millions of dollars in additional value to their project, while residents of Auburndale, Newton Lower Falls, Waban, West Newton, and other parts of Newton are saddled with massive costs related to traffic, schools, infrastructure, planning, and more.

And despite the mayor’s insistence that she is listening to local residents, the evidence that we see in the actions and policies of her administration is that while we may be heard, the preferences of Newton Voters are largely ignored.

For example, the Newtonville Area Council’s recent survey of Newton residents found that only 12% (Per NAC email: “Actually, it was 4% of all respondents, and 5% of those with a height preference”) were receptive to buildings five or more storeys tall along Washington Street. Of those who expressed an opinion about the number of housing units, 86% supported 500 or less.

Similar opinions were articulated during the long “Hello Washington Street” visioning process. The following comments were left by citizens on one of the “pop-up” centers in West Newton to collect feedback about Washington Street:

Hello Washington Street Visioning Process pop up center Newton

The comments include:

“Too tall”
“Too big”
“Bad shadows”
“Big buildings ugly”
“Too urban”
“Air rights over pike”
“This doesn’t look like a suburb. Where are the trees?”
“No trees. Towers destroy neighborhood feel”
“Too tall. Too many people for the space. Too many cars. Overshadows existing homes. Overcrowding of the school system.”
“Seniors have few school age children and many no longer drive.”
“This is bogus. So unappealing I;m sure it’s only offered to make the other scenarios look better by comparison. West Newton resident.”
“No. This is not Boston. We do not have to agree to make Korff rich.”
“Never. We don’t wan’t Manhattan. “
“Have you been to Manhattan?”
“I love Manhattan and Tokyo.”
“No high rises in Newton!”
“Be careful. You will drive away all of the [] who make Newton a magnet.”
“No one who wants to make Newton a magnet can afford to live here now.”
“Underground parking is good. But these cars will still be driving around the city.”
“Way too tall. Big shadows on small houses.”
“Large number of affordable units”
“Build this over the pike”
“What about the existing residents who cannot unfortunately [] this monstrosity”
“Boston? MGH?”

Now that the second draft of the vision and zoning plans for Washington Street have been published, it’s clear that there is a huge gap in what residents asked for and what we will be getting. Huge tracts of land from West Newton Square to the Armory/Trader Joes, parts of Newtonville on either side of the Pike, the lots where Marty’s and Whole Foods now stand, and the commercial parcels diagonally opposite Our Lady’s church in the Lake, will fall under the new “Village Gateway” (W-VY), “Station Area Central” (W-SC), and “Station Area Commercial” (W-SM) zoning designations:

draft washington Street zoning map feb 2019

According to the draft, the maximum height by right for all of these designations will be 5 stories. If developers successfully apply for special permits at any of those sites (a requirement to maximize the value of their investments) they will be able to place gigantic buildings between 6 and 10 stories tall.

This represents thousands of new units of housing (most of it market rate/luxury), and millions of new square feet of office and lab space. That’s not what residents asked for, but that’s what we’ll be getting if city councilors approve the plans for Washington Street. Similar zoning designations will likely be applied in other neighborhoods all over the city — a handout to developers worth billions of dollars, and a nightmare of traffic, massive infrastructure and school costs, and lost quality of life for the residents of Newton for decades to come.

Nobody cares about preserving an MBTA parking lot (or, for that matter, run-down commercial properties along Washington Street). But when it comes to replacing what’s there now, the people of Newton are tired of negotiating deals that are later ripped up because developers insist on getting more, and participating in acts of political theater in which their opinions are solicited and subsequently ignored. Any new vision for Riverside should align with what we asked for — and the city, the MBTA, and developers agreed to — six years ago.

If you are a Newton resident, please contact ALL Newton City councilors TODAY (easy way: EMAIL THEM ALL AT ONCE via citycouncil@newtonma.gov) and let them know what you think about the Riverside development. Even if you don’t live in Auburndale or Newton Lower Falls, your taxes will end up paying for developers’ profits through increased road, school, infrastructure, and other costs. The developers’ tactics to rip up a signed agreement also sets a precedent for similar tricks in the future all over Newton, including Washington Street, Newton Upper Falls, Newtonville, and elsewhere.

Riverside MBTA developers Robert Korff and BH Normandy negotiating in bad faith?

Developer Robert Korff and his company Mark Development couldn’t have asked for a more helpful boost from the Newton Tab in the article titled, “Some concerned over short timeframe of Riverside visioning process,” published online on December 28.

In addition to publishing verbatim developer Korff’s Riverside PR spin points, the Tab failed to question some extremely dubious claims. “The Riverside development could be the economic engine for the city of Newton, but it’s going to require the density that we’re proposing,” he told the paper.

Economic engine of the city? What he’s proposing sounds more like a profit engine for Korff, with no additional benefits for Newton — in fact, it comes with significant costs, as I will shortly explain. And why were there no questions about his intention to rip up a signed deal he and his partners already have to develop the parking lot area at the Riverside MBTA station?

Let’s be clear about what’s happening here, since the Newton Tab wasn’t. In 2013, Korff’s business partner BH Normandy was granted approval to build a 580,000 square foot development at Riverside that includes more than two hundred new housing units. This deal came after six years of negotiations and lobbying with neighbors, local politicians, and city planning officials.

Now developer Korff and partner Normandy want to rip up the 2013 agreement, and force through approval for a far larger development that’s 1.5 million square feet in size, contains two 200+ foot tall towers with mostly “market rate”/luxury housing, and is only reachable by Grove Street, a narrow road connecting Auburndale and Newton Lower Falls.

Why are the developers trying to ram its new proposal through now? It apparently relates to the fact that Newton city council elections are taking place in November 2019, which would require them to start the application and lobbying processes all over again — possibly with a new slate of councilors voted into office based on their stances on the waves of oversized luxury development taking place in Auburndale, West Newton, Newtonville, Newton Upper Falls, and other parts of the city.

Developer Korff is orchestrating a PR campaign in the pages of local media, in “fireside chats” with neighbors, and PR street teams going door-to-door in Auburndale and Lower Falls that aims to grant himself and his business partners hundreds of millions of dollars in additional property rights. We don’t know what the exact figure will be, as this is surely a starting point that will be ‘reluctantly’ scaled back to something that still grants him a huge payout. He’s done it before — check out his tactics with the Orr block in Newtonville, which included using the threat of 40B and having the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce criticize skeptical councilors and community groups on his behalf.

His new plans for the MBTA Riverside development represent an aggressive land grab that would come at the expense of Newton residents, who would be forced to shoulder massive costs relating to schools, traffic, infrastructure, and parking. Meanwhile, there’s nothing in developer Korff’s PR points about affordable housing, housing for seniors, or housing for middle class families, as shown in the flyer his PR team dropped off at my house last month (see below).

The impact would be especially hard on residents of Newton Lower Falls and Auburndale, who thought the Riverside deal was settled five years ago but have since learned the negotiation was merely a preamble to yet more aggressive demands from developers. No one cares about preserving an MBTA parking lot, but there’s already a signed deal that developers, residents, and politicians agreed to. Developer Korff’s attempt to renege on it should be shot down not only on principle, but also to avoid setting a precedent for other real estate deals signed by Korff and other developers throughout Newton.

If you are a Newton resident, please contact all ward councilors TODAY (EASY WAY: Email everyone at once by using this email address: citycouncil@newtonma.gov) and let them know what you think about the Riverside development. Even if you don’t live in Auburndale or Newton Lower Falls, your taxes will end up paying for developers’ profits through increased road, school, infrastructure, and other costs. The developers’ tactics to rip up a signed agreement also sets a precedent for similar tricks in the future all over Newton, including Washington Street, Newton Upper Falls, Newtonville, and elsewhere.

The misleading flyer handed out by MBTA Riverside developers. The actual size of the proposed development is 1.5 million square feet, not 547,000 square feet. The “new neighborhood” phrase suggests this is intended as a luxury enclave, distinct from the existing village structure of Newton.

Robert Korff Mark Development RIverside MBTA parking lot development flyerflyer 121818 SMALL