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Newton grapples with an identity crisis — and the most hotly contested local elections in a generation

Small shops along Washington Street in West Newton. A wave of development proposals has many residents concerned that the village character of the city could be threatened.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

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NEWTON — Pamela Wright knows her city desperately needs more affordable housing — after all, the median house price in Newton is now nearly $1 million, making it increasingly unaffordable for many residents, particularly seniors.

But when she learned that proposed zoning rules would allow 10-story buildings that would dwarf the beloved small shops and old-school movie theater of nearby West Newton Square, Wright figured that was the wrong solution. Newton may be a city, she thought, but it has the heart of a town — or rather, 13 villages.


“We’re not a city like Boston, with the really tall buildings,” Wright said. “We have our distinct little villages, and yes we do need growth, we need development, but these heights that they’re proposing [are] out of character.”

So Wright, 57, an engineer with three children, decided to run for City Council against two at-large incumbents. “I became frustrated and disillusioned with the city politics,’’ she said.

Newton is facing nothing less than an identity crisis as a wave of development proposals stand to reshape the cityscape, spurring the most hotly contested City Council elections in 16 years. In all, 35 people, including Wright in Ward 3, are running for the council in November, including 24 candidates in nine contested races.

For most of the candidates, the race boils down to this question: How do you make Newton more affordable and attractive without damaging its village character?

“There is a huge amount at stake,” said Vicki Danberg, 71, a health care manager from Newton Centre who is running for reelection as a Ward 6 at-large councilor. She pointed to the need to create affordable housing for seniors and workers, particularly for such city employees as teachers, police, and firefighters.


“This is the first generation of service personnel that has not been able to afford to live in this city,” Danberg said. “It is something that the city needs to deal with.”

Washington Street in West Newton. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Until now, Newton has resisted the growth patterns of some of its neighbors, generally keeping buildings smaller and less massive. Today, Newton is home to only five buildings that are at least 100 feet tall, compared to more than 20 each in nearby Cambridge and Brookline, according to Emporis, a company that keeps data on buildings worldwide.

And Newton residents often say they like that.

But keeping things small has a price. For years, much of Newton’s housing construction has been limited to tearing down smaller houses and replacing them with bigger ones, driving up prices without increasing the supply. Northeastern University researchers warned the city five years ago that rising real estate prices were fueling an exodus of people aged 25 to 44.

Next year, the City Council plans to overhaul zoning laws for the first time in decades. And councilors are considering potential changes for a 2.5-mile stretch of Washington Street that could allow denser, taller development near the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Washington Place is under construction at Washington and Walnut streets in Newtonville. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The debate over growth isn’t limited to Newton. In nearby Dedham and in Saugus, local officials have imposed moratoriums on dense developments, while Arlington delayed zoning changes that would make it easier to create housing.


Already, Newton officials are considering four proposals that would bring 1,771 new apartments and condominiums, almost 20 percent of them intended for people earning well below the area median income ($79,310 for an individual; $113,300 for a family of four).

Another two projects already being built near the Massachusetts Turnpike in Newtonville will add 208 apartments, including 44 affordable units.

While few argue against the need for more housing, the scale of the recent plans has many residents worried that the Garden City will become more urbanized, losing its character along the way.

“It’s going to be a critical election because people are so much more aware and concerned about the development and zoning proposals that are facing us,” said Randall Block, 70, chairman of RightSize Riverside and a founder of RightSize Newton, two citizens groups that are critical of “out-sized” developments.

On Wednesday, RightSize Newton endorsed eight candidates in the Nov. 5 election.

Tensions over development have been building for years. Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, a longtime city councilor who represented Chestnut Hill, took office in 2018 after campaigning in part on the need for more affordable housing and economic development. Early in her tenure, she held public meetings to solicit community input on future development along Washington Street.

But it’s the City Council that deals with many projects, said Block, who criticized some current councilors for being too supportive of development. “We [RightSize Newton] think there should be more balance to the question of development, and how aggressive Newton should be in that regard.”


In interviews with 28 of the City Council incumbents and challengers, 21 said they expected development will be a key issue in the election.

Much of the development on the table in Newton asks residents to picture a different city from today’s single-family homes clustered around village centers. The new developments would bring more multiunit housing together with retail and business use that has easier access to mass transit.

Two large-scale projects have been proposed on the city’s south side — a 14-building mixed-use development in Newton Upper Falls with 800 apartments, and a 10-building complex at the Riverside T station with 524 housing units, along with office, retail space, and a hotel.

Developer Robert Korff, whose Wellesley firm Mark Development is behind the Riverside Plan, has also assembled properties along Washington Street. He has started building Washington Place in Newtonville, and he proposes building another 243 apartments in West Newton under the state’s affordable housing law.

Meanwhile, the city is developing rules that could allow taller buildings along the Washington Street corridor, including up to 10 stories in West Newton and Newtonville near the highway. It will be up to the City Council to approve them.

But longtime residents can remember another big change that Newton came to regret: In the 1960s, Newton Corner was cut in half by the Pike, and it’s now covered in tall buildings. And thanks to heavy traffic, the intersection of Washington and Centre streets has a colorful nickname: The Circle of Death.


“I’m here to tell you: Change is not always good,” said Emily Norton, 51, a Ward 2 Councilor who has been critical of the size and scope of development in Newtonville.

In interviews with the Globe, the City Council candidates were split over how much development Newton should allow. Some argued that Newton should work proactively with developers to create affordable and workforce housing as part of large projects.

“We have got to try to make folks understand that if we have more housing, we have more opportunities for their family and friends to stay in Newton,” said Maria Greenberg, 56, of Nonantum, who is running for reelection as a Ward 1 city councilor. “I think they have to understand that it’s to their benefit.”

Since 2010, Newton has lagged in the creation of housing, and the median price of a single-family home soared 30 percent — from $741,950 to $965,000 — between 2008 and 2018, according to the Greater Boston Housing Report Card.

“We’re part of a region that needs more housing, and Newton needs to do its part to produce more housing,” said Kathryn K. Winters, 49, a tax attorney in Waban who is running for the Ward 5 city councilor seat. “The best path forward is to work with developers.”

Others said the city should slow that growth down because some big projects don’t create enough affordable housing to offset the boost in traffic.

“If the true argument behind having these large developments is increasing affordable housing so people can live and work in Newton, I don’t know if the affordable housing percentage is high enough to justify the amount of traffic and strain on our resources,” said Jennifer Bentley, 45, of West Newton, the director of marketing at an architectural firm. She is challenging two incumbent at-large councilors in Ward 2.

Many residents don’t feel like their voices are being heard when they question the scope of development, said Lisa Gordon, a Ward 6 City Council candidate who helped organize an unsuccessful campaign to ban recreational marijuana sales in Newton last year.

Now the Newton Centre resident is running out of concern for the pace of growth.

“I think that Newton is going through growing pains. We’re trying to decide, ‘What are we?’” Gordon said. “We’re a very unique place. And I think that needs to be appreciated as well.”

John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.