Austin Street as a Clinical Trial

Before a new drug is released to the public, it must undergo a series of trials, first on animals in the laboratory, then on a small group of humans in a clinical trial. Often there is even another larger-scale human trial. Only if the drug’s benefits clearly outweigh its harmful side effects is it made available to the public. It is unfortunate that a similar process is not followed with large-scale development projects, say, for example, the one on Austin Street.

As we have all learned over the past year, many knowledgeable residents and business owners have argued that the proposed semi-enclosed parking lot, nominally still at street level, but in fact beneath and partially enclosed by an apartment building, and filled with support posts, will make parking more challenging, particularly in light of the slightly narrowed width of the parking spaces. In addition, despite the labored arguments of the developers and their supporters, there will be fewer surface parking spaces than there were in the original Austin Street lot.

In an ideal world, before the project was fully approved, a clinical trial would have been set up by marking the outline of the proposed building on the parking lot, erecting a 12-foot-high plywood wall along Austin Street and a portion of Bram Way, with cutouts at the locations of the designated entrances and exits, and then columns made of Sonotube or PVC pipes of the correct diameter erected to simulate the posts that would support the apartment building. Residents would then have been given a couple of months to test how well the parking lot worked under these conditions. They could then have provided feedback to business owners and the City.

Of course, we do not live in an ideal world, so the reality is that for Newtonians the actual construction of the Austin Street project will be the clinical trial. Any harmful side effects will be experienced directly by the “patients.” The project is still 18 months or two years from completion, and only then, when the public begins to use the lot, will all of us, in particular the merchants of Newtonville, be able to tell whether the developers’ promises were true, namely, that both parking and commerce will be unaffected by the new configuration.

“Hey, pal, Austin Street is old news,” I can hear some of you saying. “That ship has sailed.” Sadly, you are correct. Meanwhile, though, Mr. Korff is still proceeding undeterred with his even denser and more problematic Orr Block proposal, for which he expects to receive approval long before Austin Street is complete. That threatens to further scramble traffic, parking, and business in Newtonville even as the Austin Street project is still under construction.

As if this were not bad enough, our Mayor and his growth-at-any-cost adjutants are pressing on the inhabitants of the village centers of Newton Highlands and Newton Centre projects of a similar nature that propose the erection of multi-story apartment buildings above the existing municipal parking lots.

“Insanity” is probably too strong a term for what is being contemplated, but “unjustified optimism” certainly is not. The Mayor and all other supporters of “smart growth” and “transit-oriented development” are betting that the future of the city will be enhanced by densification. Even if that bet pays off, the winners will be 1) the developers, whose profits will be handsome, 2) the Mayor, whose resumé as a pro-growth go-getter will be nicely enhanced, and 3) the residents of the new buildings, who will have had no share in the inconvenience, mess, and disruption created by the construction of these buildings. The losers, who will have had to bear both the hardships of construction and any infrastructure costs occasioned by the new inhabitants—think new schools—will, of course, be the current residents of Newton.

I do not think it is too much to ask that a halt be called—one hesitates to use the dread word “moratorium”—to all of these proposed projects until the Austin Street apartment building has been completed and in operation for a full year, so that businesses, residents, and the administration have had a chance to assess the results of the “clinical trial,” i.e. how well the new arrangement functions during every season. After all, we’ll be living with the “side effects” of these grand projects for the rest of our lives.

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Elaine Rush ArrudaJohn KootMark MarderosianGreg Reibman Recent comment authors
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Colleen Minaker

In some ways I believe that the people who may rent these apartments may be dismayed to find that the buildings are not very appealing and sub-standard in construction. The rents will very high and the value of the building much lower than expected. Transit services are inadequate and traffic is unbearable. These new residents will soon find they have been duped.

Greg Reibman
Greg Reibman

Hi John:

Ever since the Europeans began arriving in Newton and the rest of the New World, existing residents have had to bear hardships from new construction.

Meanwhile,.it’s short sighted to suggest that building housing over a parking lot could only have a negative or, at best neutral impact on businesses.

Adding new customers within walking distance of Newtonville shops could and should also be a positive for Newtonville merchants. And if those new customers help keep our local merchants in business, then that’s a great benefit for existing residents.

Mark Marderosian
Mark Marderosian

I try to avoid apples and oranges but I think the mixed use construction on Elm Street in West Newton was and is the mini-trial of Austin Street and have said so for over a year now. It’s now been completed for approximately six weeks and the retail space from what I can see remains unrented. Who knows – maybe I’m wrong and next week, new tenants and businesses are moving in. But they will find what I have – there’s no parking from September to June. The few new spaces in the back will not support the type of volume that a business would desire, never mind two. The advocates keep repeating that creating these cool village centers will encourage walking. They forget that 1. Not everyone shares their excitement over walking and bicycling. 2. With little ones, I can only push a stroller so far and a mile is not feasible. 3. We live in a colder clime and seven out of twelve months is not a majority of time. I watch the progress of Elm Street with continued interest especially as a harbinger of things to come. The downside is blight….urban, suburban or any other combination.

Let’s face the truth: Newton is not a transit-oriented city with plenty of public alternatives to cars. This is not Paris or Nice, or some european city where you can get around efficiently without a car. I commuted on the D train for a year into Cambridge and I live close to a T-stop. It took me over an hour each way from door-to-door – never mind how ridiculously crowded the train would be at times or how delays could push this up into almost two hours. When I would drive, it would take 20-25 minutes for the same trip. If you look at the statistics, very few people are riding bikes and a lot of them are getting injured and killed – here is a globe article: Newton does not have the infrastructure in place to handle this development and the quickening of economic gentrification caused by this is directly attacking the middle class that make up the bulk of the citizens. As John mentions, without appropriate parking, many commercial entities pass on Newton. Guess why the bank that owns the former Newtonville Pets property passed on putting an office there? Lack of parking space!

Elaine Rush Arruda

I agree with the comments that merely removing parking will entice more people to walk or ride bicycles. The infrastructure needs to exist before bikers will consider Newton a viable place to live. I grew up in the Minneapolis area, currently ranked 2nd most bike-friendly city in the country (behind Portland, OR). I commuted by bicycle to my summer jobs in college and truly enjoyed frequent recreational biking. When I moved to Newton 25 years ago, I was still an avid biker, however in recent years I rarely bike to run errands or commute and very infrequently bike in Newton recreationally. It has become too dangerous, and getting more so every year. I continue to reiterate my concerns with the development boom in Newton that the infrastructure needs to be addressed first (or at least simultaneously) with growth. This includes schools, roads, biking infrastructure and pedestrian safety.
Other ways that Minneapolis and St. Paul are truly Smart “smart growth” cities are that 1) they built a light rail system before adding housing, 2) they heavily promote and support commercial growth, and 3) they require developers to pay into a fund for parks and open space.
Mayor Warren should research and learn from successful cities before using Newton as a Guinea pig.