When the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority bulldozed through Newton in 1962-63 to construct the Turnpike extension, it took hundreds of homes and business properties by eminent domain, provoking bitterness that lasts to this day. Just as devastating was the impact on the village centers of Newtonville and Newton Corner.
Newton Corner’s bustling village center was almost obliterated by the Turnpike, and the job finished in 1980 with the arson and demolition of the five historic buildings collectively known as the “Nonantum Block”. A developer had proposed a massive mixed-used structure to replace the Nonantum Block, but when the Board of Aldermen denied a permit, he built a banal retail and office complex, by right, instead. Together with the loss of the village railroad station, replaced by a towering air rights hotel and the Exit 17 access ramps, “revitalization” annihilated the village of Newton Corner, and produced what Newton residents sardonically call “the Circle of Death”.
The railroad had long bisected Newtonville, but the Turnpike split it further apart, like an open wound. Still, Newtonville was luckier than Newton Corner. It did not see its railroad stop replaced by a highway exit (the handsome station house was already lost). The Turnpike Authority’s air rights deal in Newtonville, while it did result in the Brutalist architecture of the Star Market, did not produce another misbegotten concrete tower.
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” George Santayana famously wrote. Now, Newton is at risk of repeating the devastating mistake inflicted on Newton Corner, this time in Newtonville. Once again a developer is seeking a special permit from the Board of Aldermen (now City Council), proposing to build a massive mixed-used structure that would involve the demolition of the historic buildings collectively known as the “Orr Block”, and, he has suggested, all the buildings on the north side of Washington Street from Walnut Street to Lowell Avenue. Julia Malakie has written in detail about the proposal here and here. The implied threat is that if a Special Permit is denied, the developer will demolish the buildings anyway and build whatever is allowed by right under the zoning ordinance (2-3 story office buildings). In this case, the residential and commercial tenants have already been told they will have to leave.
Here’s an idea: what if instead of repeating the mistakes of the past, we as a community demanded that our leaders work for us in forging a way forward that reunites the severed village center of Newtonville? that restores the long lost village green? that rebuilds an accessible railroad station? that provides new “land” for high-skills employers, complementary retail, senior/affordable housing, and parking to support commuters, shoppers and residents?
Let’s build a deck over the Turnpike and the commuter rail tracks from just east of Walnut Street to Lowell Avenue and create a “Ted Kennedy Greenway” in honor of the distinguished late U.S. senator. The final plan for what the Ted Kennedy Greenway would look like must be negotiated between the public and private participants, and the people of Newtonville the City Council and the Newtonville Area Council. Post Austin Street, no one should imagine the people of Newtonville would tolerate being left out of the decision-making process ever again. The Greenway proposal and sketch are just a draft plan, not a final plan, and can be seen here.
The good news is that the technology for air rights projects has advanced and the cost is directly related to the weight of what goes on the deck. So if what’s on the deck is a village green, some buildings of two or three stories, and re-positioned, tree-lined parking lots for the village and for a refreshed Star Market, the cost would be low enough to be manageable in a public-private partnership. No looming concrete tower is required to make this work financially. Now elected officials and the private sector are discussing this idea, and support is growing. It could be a win-win for residents, City Hall, and the public and private participants.
If both the Austin Street and the Orr Block projects succeed in going ahead in any form, Newtonville would be transformed into a construction no-go zone for the better part of two years, at least. With bulldozers, diggers, cranes, and trucks carrying construction materials, lining both sides of the Turnpike, people will avoid Newtonville. There would be no better time to construct a deck over the Turnpike, as Newtonville would be a sprawling construction site anyway.
The best development at the corner of Washington and Walnut would be one that restores the historic buildings and houses threatened by developer Robert Korff’s current proposal. Sadly, he has thus far rejected the idea of preservation. He should be encouraged to produce a design that more faithfully reflects Newtonville’s Victorian architectural heritage. Of course, the five stories he has demanded is a negotiating tactic. All developers make outrageous demands, knowing they will be knocked down in height and mass by City Councilors looking out for the best interests of their constituents and the city’s fiscal health.
But when presented with a developer’s “big ask”, rather than negotiating from the status quo and inevitably accepting more development than voters want, we should counter with our own big ask. In this case, the counter is: work with us to make the Ted Kennedy Greenway a reality, and protect existing commercial and residential tenants by offering them compensation for their losses sufficient to allow them to rebuild their lives or businesses, preferably in Newtonville. Here’s a question:
What is your vision for the re-unification of Newtonville?