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Support for homeless housing, but not in Newton

By Adrian Walker

Globe Staff

Setti Warren, the mayor of Newton, is a diehard defender of deliberative public process, the need to work things through carefully. That’s usually a good thing, but not when it’s used to kill something as important as housing for the homeless, a cause he claims to support.

The target of his ire is a pending development known in town as Engine 6. It calls for renovating a dormant fire station into nine studio apartments for middle-aged people who have been homeless. The project is being developed by the MetroWest Collaborative Development and the Pine Street Inn.

The Pine Street Inn would manage the property and screen residents. It's likely that many of them would be suffering from some kind of mental or physical disability, but they would be deemed ready to live independently.

The renovation is dependent on $1.4 million in federal funds, which the city controls. Warren put an indefinite hold on spending money on the project after it ran into fierce opposition in its neighborhood of Waban.


Residents raised concerns about who exactly would live in the house, what services they would need, and how specifically the services would be provided. Those are all reasonable questions, which Warren claims developers were not prepared to adequately answer.

Jennifer Van Campen, executive director of the Metrowest group, disputes the idea that the developers failed to provide a proper response. But she acknowledges that the meeting took one unexpected turn. "I think the vehemence of it caught us off guard, because this project is for nine homeless people," she said. "Nine is a small number by most people's estimation."

Newton residents have said a lot of things about the proposal, not all of them reasonable. One told the Globe a few weeks ago that the project really belonged in nearby Waltham, claiming that Engine 6 could bring crime and, God forbid, lower property values. Surely Waltham residents enjoyed hearing that.

I'd have slightly more respect for Warren, whom I've known and liked for years, if he just admitted that he doesn't think Engine 6 is worth the political headache it threatens to become. Instead, he has opted to call for more "process" — more meetings, more discussion, more information, more blah blah blah.


This is, of course, a time-honored strategy for killing ideas you don't like. As Warren is well aware, the developers have entered into a purchase-and-sale agreement that expires on Aug. 12. Several months of discussions could well sink the project.

I asked Warren when the next public meeting is scheduled. Nothing is scheduled. Never mind the question of when all these discussions will conclude; he can't even say when they are going to start.

And if the deal falls apart? "They can come back another time, with this project or another project," Warren said. "I thought they hadn't thought through crucial issues."

Apparently, housing homeless people is not a big concern to some residents of the well-housed city of Newton. Presented with responsible developers and a plan that doesn't seem especially disruptive of anything, they want it to simply go away. And they know that time is probably on their side.

The developers hope to negotiate a delay with their seller to allow time for the process Warren says he wants. And they hope to make peace with their would-be neighbors. There are no guarantees on either point.

"This isn't hard or complicated; it's just the right to do," Van Campen said. "Homeless people need homes."

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.