The Snow Globe and the Bulldozer

Established neighborhoods with mature trees, greenery and historic architecture attract people to Newton. There are other places with good public schools, and other places even more convenient to Boston, but Newton has location, amenities, and classic New England character. That sense of history, solidity and tradition invites Newton residents to feel secure in putting down deep roots into this garden city.

That’s why it’s strange indeed to hear some of our elected and community leaders talking about the need to “protect property rights” by facilitating demolitions and McMansionization. One of our city councilors likes to label community preservationists as people who want to freeze Newton in time and put it “inside a snow globe”. He seems to prefer the bulldozer. But preserving the structures that tell the story of those who lived in Newton in previous generations is part of our duty to the generations to come.

Despite the rhetoric about protecting homeowners’ rights to profit from the sale of their property, homeowners rarely receive the windfall profits that come from demolishing older houses to build new, much larger, more expensive ones. For anyone downsizing and selling out of Newton, hoping to make a killing, and perhaps also worrying about leaving one’s neighbors to live with whatever structure comes next, please remember, caveat venditor. Property speculators like to buy low, smash and build, and sell high.

It’s these developers who descend on desirable suburbs, wrecking houses and leaving a trail of fake stucco, multi-units, snout houses and monster homes in their wake. The altered neighborhoods, if left incoherent and mostly treeless, can become less desirable. It’s the developers, and the candidates they support, who profit from their “right” to destroy the property they flip – houses that make up wonderful neighborhoods, houses that are part of our history. During speculative housing bubbles, like the current one, developers seem to be in a frenzy to make as money as possible – before the boom goes bust. Our architectural heritage is most at risk at such times.

In contrast, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a review of numerous academic studies, neighborhoods that are protected by inclusion in a Local Historic District (LHD) enjoy stability, steadily increasing property values, and almost no risk of teardowns and inappropriate replacement builds. Newton currently has four LHDs – in Upper Falls, Chestnut Hill, Auburndale and Newtonville. Neighborhood groups in at least three other parts of Newton are working on establishing additional LHDs. This Sunday, don’t miss a wonderful, free, opportunity to learn more about what’s involved in establishing an LHD from historic preservation expert Gretchen Schuler and a panel of Newton preservationists at the finale of:

Setting Our Course in Newton 

A Speaker Series for Newton Residents & Stakeholders

Sponsored by the Newton Villages Alliance

Sunday, May 15, 2016, 1:00-2:30 pm, Windsor Club, Waban

Historic Preservation as a Planning Strategy: A Panel Discussion on Local Historic Districts & Limiting the Economic, Environmental & Cultural Costs of Teardowns

By the way, I recall reading a column in the TAB some years ago, in which the writer suggested that perhaps all of Newton should be declared an historic district. He meant it as a rueful joke, for he was a fan of new construction and urbanization. More and more, however, it seems like he had a really good idea.

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