Look Who Wants to Upzone Your Neighborhood

Back at the end of March when I was writing what I intended to be a humorous piece for April Fools’ Day on zoning, little did I imagine that RKG Associates were at that moment nearing the end of their work on the Mayor’s Housing Strategy.[Available at http://www.newtonma.gov/civicax/filebank/documents/76450 ]

While I know that this document will be the subject of vigorous discussion and debate throughout the remainder of this year and into the next, my own opinion is that Mayor Warren’s vision for intensified residential development in Newton would take the city in precisely the wrong direction.

It appears that the RKG consultants used the results of the Lego housing workshop and their own research to suggest likely sites for denser residential development in Newton. (I’m sure that many of you, like me, have been perusing pp. 75-79 and 85-90 of the report to see what’s being suggested for your area.) One of the locations the consultants chose was my street, Winchester Street, which runs through the southern end of Newton Highlands, connecting Centre St with Nahanton St. You may imagine my surprise—and alarm—at encountering (on p. 79) the following paragraphs under the column titled “Housing Opportunity Corridors:”

“Ward 8 has several neighborhoods composed of single family residences at a variety of densities. As the city continues to grow, moderate increases in density as warranted by the market are recommended. This densification can take the form of single-to-multifamily conversions, small-scale multifamily infill, large-lot subdivision, and reconstruction as opportunities arise.

“In addition to the density opportunities on Needham Street and Route 9 already mentioned, greater residential densities could be accommodated along Winchester Street between Route 9 to the north and Nahanton Street to the south. This corridor acts as a primary means of access from Ward 8’s Wells Avenue office park to northern Newton and Route 9. This corridor is currently lined primarily with single family residential units and could support higher-density residential products as well as small-scale multifamily products.”

Gee, thanks, fellas—but this “housing opportunity corridor” happens to be my neighborhood. My neighbors and I like to think of the places we live in, whether large or small, as our “homes,” not “residential units” or “residential products.” Many of them are surrounded by “grass,” and “flowers,” and “trees,” all of which we regard as enhancements to our quality of life, not impediments to clear lines of sight or obstacles to construction, as I’m sure the consultants at RKG would view them.

There’s also the not insignificant fact that the vast majority of the lots along Winchester Street from the corner of Dedham Street to the golf course and the eastern border of Nahanton Park are zoned Single Residence 3. Even on the one-third-mile stretch on the west side of the northern end of the street that is zoned Multiple Residence 1, nearly all the homes are single-family.

During the recent hearings held by the Land Use Committee for a Special Permit for a proposed storage facility on Newtonville Avenue, the committee and the public were informed by the Law Department that the zoning of any particular property cannot be changed except by the consent of the owner.

I suspect that there are on Winchester Street some weak-minded souls—or more likely their heirs—who would succumb to the blandishments of the Mayor and his developer allies and agree to the suggested upzoning and the demolition of their homes if enough money were offered. However, based on conversations with a number of my neighbors, I am confident that most residents will not agree to such a change. I personally plan to do my best to reach the century mark, which means that our particular lot will preserve its cherished single-family status for another thirty years.

And if, God forbid, an effort is undertaken by the City unilaterally to force an upzoning of our neighborhood, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “We shall fight them on the curbstones, we shall fight them on the verges, we shall fight them on the lot lines, we shall fight them in the setbacks, we shall fight them in the Council Chamber; we shall never surrender.”

If you want to live in a place with greater residential density and more “vibrancy and vitality,” by all means move there. I like my neighborhood just the way it is.

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5 Comments on "Look Who Wants to Upzone Your Neighborhood"

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Lynne LeBlanc

I am thoroughly disappointed that a housing strategies event, the weekend before Thanksgiving with about 50 people in attendance (many of whom were opposed to the very nature of the event which left no room for dissent), should be rationale for a housing policy. This does not constitute the “discussion” the Mayor has promised. It seems patently unfair for a few select people and entities to determine for us, the voters and residents of our Garden City, what form out city should take.

Julia Malakie

Let’s go to the tape, as they say on Meet the Press. http://www.juliamalakie.org/blog/a-roomful-of-people-are-asked-where-to-put-high-density-housing
What is happening is exactly what was predicted. RKG runs an exercise where people are told they have to put multi units and increased density somewhere, without regard to current zoning, and then uses the results as if they represent agreement.

With I think ten breakout tables, I could only sample these, but this video has the entirety of the presentation and Q&A (before and after the breakout session). A recurring sentiment was unhappiness with teardowns, an issue that this “Housing Strategy” does nothing to address.

Diane Dion

Mayor Warren has called his new housing strategy “an attempt to preserve what we love about Newton.” Maybe if you love over-building, increased residential densification and urbanization–but not for the majority of us. Like John Koot, what we love is the quality of life that drew us to invest in the city decades ago. Replacing modest houses with multi-unit apartment/condo developments and expensive, out-of-scale “luxury homes” is, indeed, a strategy–for consultants and developers to work the system and leave the residents with the sad results.

Bob Jampol

Nice piece, whose sentiments resonate mightily with me. The news of late has been deflating: the mayor’s development initiative, the purge at the zoning board, and, most improbably, Andy Levin’s paean in the Tab to MacMansions. Some rays of sunlight: read that wonderful letter in the Tab about the impact of MacMansions on Newton’s energy consumption. Lynne Leblanc wrote a terrific column in the Tab as well. The powers-that-be seem determined, however, to increase property values in Newton while creating a community with a much higher density population. I will do my best to reason with my friends and acquaintances in city government though the results have been paltry!

Even the Mayor’s consultants had to admit in their report: The City will not “build its way to affordability.” The imbalance of demand and supply is so great that the City could not physically accommodate the development needed to affect pricing in a substantial manner.

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