NEWTON — In what Mayor Setti Warren called a historic night for the city, the Board of Aldermen late Tuesday approved a plan to turn the Austin Street municipal parking lot in Newtonville into a 68-unit housing and retail complex.
The proposal, which needed a two-thirds majority, passed with 17 in favor, one more than the 16 votes needed.
Opponents had argued that the development was too big, unnecessary, and out of character for the village center.
But at the end of more than three hours of debate, aldermen sided with Warren's vision for revitalizing the area by partnering with Austin Street Partners LLC and creating housing that includes 23 affordable apartments within walking distance to a grocery store, shops, and public transportation. Plans also call for a ground floor restaurant, stores, offices, and a public plaza.
The packed hall erupted in applause, with audible sobs of relief from supporters who hugged and hooted as opponents sat in disbelief, believing earlier in the evening that they had the votes to defeat the project.
When reached at home immediately after the vote, an emotional Warren, who had staked his political clout on passing the project, was at first speechless.
"Earlier tonight I called this a historic night," he said, gathering his thoughts. "And it is, because I believe it affirms the forward thinking this city needs to be doing to address diverse housing needs, affordable housing needs, and to revitalize our village centers. I'm thrilled for the city of Newton."
Alan Schlesinger, an attorney who represents the developers, called the vote "forward thinking" and said his team was "very grateful" for the support from the mayor and aldermen.
But the mayor's vision for Austin Street was not shared by everyone, in particular a core group of residents of Newtonville, led by Alderwoman Emily Norton, who was an early and outspoken opponent of any large-scale development at the site.
Opponents attended every one of the eight public hearings and meetings over more than 25 hours held since last June, they circulated petitions, wrote letters, and last month filed a lawsuit trying to stop the project.
And while there were several specific complaints about the plans made during the seven months of public comments, the general tone of the local opposition was that Newtonville is just fine as it is.
"We need to be pragmatic and not just idealistic," Norton said in speaking more than 10 minutes against the project before the vote.
She cited a loss of parking spaces, traffic issues, and lost business for local merchants during and after construction as village locals find alternative places to shop because parking will be scare and inconvenient. She also questioned the need for the 68 units of housing and the economic benefits of the development, and called plans for the public plaza "a disappointment, and that's being generous."
"If we want smart growth in our village centers, it makes more sense to build up, not on a parking lot," she said.
Alderman Richard Blazar, who has an office on Austin Street, also opposed the project, saying the people in Newtonville definitely don't want this development.
"And I respect what the people want," he said.
While the opponents were organized from the start, supporters gathered steam in the past couple of months, with a coalition of city organizations forming Friends of Austin Street to advocate for the project, particularly the affordable apartments, as well as the market-rate units that will be fully accessible for people with disabilities.
Alderman Mark Laredo spoke of thinking about his mother, who would be in her 80s if still alive, and perhaps no longer able to navigate stairs or drive safely.
"I would like to think my mom would have been able to go to a place like Austin Street," he said, where she could walk to a grocery store, a drug store, the senior center, and to Newton North High School to see a play.
Supporters and opponents packed the aldermen's chamber and balcony, with few leaving as the meeting went past 11 p.m., and most of the 24 aldermen got up to speak for and against the project.
Alderman Barbara Brousal-Glaser, one of the undecided aldermen whose vote supporters needed to pass the project, represented the political tug-of-war felt by many members of the board.
"I'd like to align myself with the positions of Alderman Fuller," she said, giving a nod to Ruthanne Fuller, a project supporter. "And Alderman Blazar," she said, looking toward an opponent.
"That's a snapshot of what the past few weeks have been like for me," she said, before ultimately voting in favor of the project.
Alderman Amy Mah Sangiolo was equally torn, saying after the meeting ended that she was against the project earlier in the afternoon, but ended up voting in favor in part because of the last-minute addition of six affordable units the developer added to the proposal on Monday.
Fuller said she originally had reservations about the size of the project, but after looking at the details, she believes it was the right size in the right place. She also said, even though she is Jewish, she listened to Pope Francis's words before the United States Congress, and came to believe it was also the right thing to do.
"He reminded me that we have a responsibility to pay particular attention to those in situations of greatest vulnerability and risk," she said. "It feels good to vote yes for that reason."
But Alderman Leonard Gentile, who was an early opponent of the project and voted years ago against making the Austin Street parking lot available for reuse, told his like-minded colleagues to vote their conscience.
"Don't feel guilty for voting against this," he said.
Well past midnight, after the board finished up its other business, Aldermen Deborah Crossley, Ted Hess-Mahan, and Susan Albright, all supporters of the project, reminisced about the long road taken to get to this night.
"I still remember standing in that parking lot one early summer morning 10 years ago with [Alderman] Marcia Johnson and [former alderman] Stephen Linsky talking about how this parking lot could one day be affordable housing, a parking facility, and the economic driver for Newtonville," Albright said.
"It was a long, hard struggle, but this is the best outcome for Newton," she said.
"This is progress," said City Hall custodian Anthony Pellegrini Jr., before turning out the lights and heading home.
Aldermen voting in favor of the proposal were Albright, Lisle Baker, Brousal-Glaser, Crossley, Victoria Danberg, Fuller, Marcia Johnson, Hess-Mahan, David Kalis, Laredo, Richard Lipof, Cheryl Lappin, Scott Lennon, Alison Leary, John Rice, Gregory Schwartz, and Sangiolo. Those opposed were Blazar, James Cote, Alan Ciccone Jr., Gentile, Jay Harney, and Norton. The final vote was 17 to 6. Alderman Brian Yates was not present.
Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.