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Newton

Some fear growth will spoil character

Newton is in the midst of a building boom that will see local officials making land-use decisions over the next several months that will shape the look and feel of the community for decades to come.

Last week alone, aldermen held meetings on two substantial housing developments; plans to build a new, expanded Zervas Elementary School moved forward; and the first of several community forums kicked off the official planning process for a complex of apartments and stores on the Austin Street municipal parking lot in Newtonville’s village center.

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In addition, there are proposals before the city for a restaurant and 26-unit condominium project at the former Turtle Lane Playhouse, and a 150-unit affordable housing complex on Rowe Street, and the city’s Planning Department is awaiting definitive plans to review for a large mixed-use project near the MBTA’s Riverside Station.

At the same time, the practice of demolishing older homes to make way for two- or three-family structures where zoning allows, or for much bigger single-family homes that are out of character with their neighborhood, has prompted Alderwoman Amy Mah Sangiolo to propose a one-year moratorium on tear-downs. The measure is being considered by the Board of Aldermen’s Zoning and Planning Committee, which is slated to decide on Monday whether to set a public hearing date for the proposal in September.

The development plans have some residents worried that the city they love for its 13 distinct villages and leafy suburban feel is being sacrificed by property owners and developers looking to exploit the state’s affordable-housing laws to build dense projects, and in the face of a local government out of touch with their desires.

They see traffic congestion, parking issues, and already overcrowded schools as reasons to put the brakes on projects that they say are just too big to fit in with the character of their community.

Recently a local advocacy group, Newton Villages Alliance, was formed with one of its stated missions to preserve “the character and scale of Newton’s villages and residential neighborhoods,” according to its website.

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“We don’t want to become Somerville” is a phrase heard over and over at community meetings and public hearings.

But for others, including Mayor Setti Warren, the opportunity to shape Newton into a city ready for the future, with alternatives to single-family housing built near public transportation, stores, and restaurants, should not be missed.

“How do we create a sustainable, livable city as we look out over the next 20 years? Our unique character should be preserved,” he said. “But at the same time we need to make sure that we are welcome and open to all types of people.”

That means creating housing that will serve the city’s aging population, as well as young people, single people, and families who cannot afford, or do not want to live in, a single-family home with a yard to maintain.

“I believe Newton can retain our character while continuing to offer opportunities for people from all different backgrounds — that’s a philosophy I believe in,” Warren said.

A test of his vision will be the Austin Street development.

The municipal parking lot was classified as surplus by the city, according to Alderwoman Deborah Crossley, who said the process included an analysis of whether the property was being used to its full potential.

“Yes, we need the parking, but the site is being underutilized. We can have parking, and meet some of the need for smaller, more affordable housing. We can have the parking we need and more usable open space. We can do this at the right mix, at the right density, and in a way that respects and works to support adjacent properties and uses,” she said.

“And depending on the scale of the project, and we don’t know the scale yet, it is an opportunity to satisfy some of the community’s unmet needs. It is a big challenge, but some of us are not afraid of the challenge,” she said.

At a community meeting on June 24, Warren reiterated his desire “to make Newtonville better, more vital.” Calling the place where he grew up and still calls home “an important village in our city,” the mayor also stressed that the developers chosen by his administration for the project are starting from scratch, with no preconceived plans ready to be pulled out after only a token show of listening to residents.

But many in the neighborhood have questioned the process.

“We like the 19th-century character of our village,” said Newtonville resident Peter Bruce, who also said he fears the development will include mall-type chain stores and resemble Legacy Place in Dedham.

“This would add congestion, and detract from Newton’s character as a distinctive, old, well-preserved city,” he wrote in a letter to the mayor and Board of Aldermen.

Warren said community meetings will continue through the fall, and that negotiations with the developers, Austin Street Partners, will proceed with input from residents. A final design is expected to reach the Board of Aldermen this fall or winter.

The Austin Street issue is a different question than the one posed by a Cabot, Cabot & Forbes proposal for a 334-unit apartment complex in the Wells Avenue Office Park, in the middle of the newly created “N² Innovation Corridor.’’

At two public hearings last week, on Monday and Wednesday nights, aldermen discussed the question of whether a deed restriction and zoning in the office park should be changed to allow the construction of residential units.

“Why should we put housing here? What are the public policy benefits for us?” asked Alderman Mark Laredo, chairman of the board’s Land Use Committee.

While developers say their proposal, which calls for a shuttle service to public transportation, a cafe, and co-working space, is just the type of place young tech workers want to live, nearby residents say traffic is already at a standstill.

Aldermen also questioned the size of the project, and whether it is in the city’s best interest to take commercial property off the tax base in exchange for a residential development that potentially would require more services.

The Wells Avenue project is being proposed under the state’s Chapter 40B affordable-housing law, which provides a streamlined permitting process in communities that do not meet the state’s 10 percent threshold for affordable housing. Newton has 2,441 units that are considered affordable housing by the state, or 7.5 percent of its housing stock.

Chapter 40B is also being used by developers proposing to build a 36-unit condominium complex on Court Street in Newtonville, behind Cabot’s Ice Cream, and the company behind the 150-unit project at 70 Rowe St. in Auburndale.

“I think there is no question that people in Newton generally favor increasing the amount of affordable housing we have. The question is, how do we do that while maintaining our character as a network of villages, without urbanizing into a Somerville or Brookline,” said Alderwoman Emily Norton.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.
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