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Newton residents sound off on Washington Street zoning plans

Robert Korff’s 140-unit Washington Place is under construction at the corner of Walnut and Washington streets in Newtonville.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

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Newton residents divided over proposed zoning changes for Washington Street spoke out at a public hearing Monday at City Hall, with critics saying that taller buildings and denser development would harm their neighborhoods.

The proposed rules would allow for more housing — including affordable units — plus public spaces and safety upgrades along a roughly 2 1/2-mile stretch of road in West Newton, Newtonville, and Newton Corner, according to the city’s Department of Planning and Development.


But the proposal’s sweeping scope has critics concerned about the impacts from denser development and the presence of tall buildings — in some places, potentially as high as 10 stories.

“The vision is so blurry, we can’t see what’s in store for us, or for our quality of life,” said Peter Bruce, president of the Newtonville Area Council, in remarks to city councilors during the hearing, which drew about 100 people.

Bruce pointed to a survey conducted by his group that found most respondents liked the character and scale of the city as it is now.

“Public opinion about height and density has not been respected by the Planning Department,” Bruce told city councilors.

But Tamara Bliss of Newtonville praised the zoning effort, saying it was comprehensive and included much public input. The proposal for Washington Street could help create more affordable housing so seniors can remain in Newton, she said.

“I’m very much in favor of it because I feel there is a need for greater diversity of housing options,” Bliss said. “I think people don’t realize that this is a vision statement, and it should include our values.”


City councilors are still reviewing the zoning changes, and a final draft of the proposed zoning for Washington Street is expected to be presented to the Zoning and Planning Committee on Oct. 2.

“Washington Street is a major thoroughfare and it is important that we as a city proactively plan for its future,” Barney Heath, the city’s director of planning and development, said in a statement Tuesday. “During each step of the process, from the initial first draft to where we are today, the plan has been modified to respond to what we heard.”

Auburndale resident Doris Ann Sweet said she supports the proposed zoning changes for Washington Street because the area needs improvements to make it safer and more pleasant for people to walk and bike.

“Along a prime route like that, we could do a lot better,” Sweet said in an interview. “And we need the housing fairly desperately. We need a lot more housing.”

But Pamela Shufro of Newtonville told councilors she was concerned that the proposed zoning for Washington Street would create development “that encourages teardowns and new high-priced construction.”

“It creates a city that decreases economic diversity, emphasizing income inequality between those who manage to remain and those who move into these high-priced buildings,” Shufro said. “And it essentially says ‘keep out’ to low-income people and people of modest means.”

The Washington Street area already faces rapid development: on Austin Street in Newtonville, work is wrapping up on a 68-unit development, while developer Robert Korff’s 140-unit Washington Place is under construction at the corner of Walnut and Washington streets. In West Newton, Korff has also proposed a 243-unit project at the current site of the Barn Family Shoe Store.


Korff has been acquiring other parcels along Washington Street and has also outlined his own vision for improvements in the area. And Mayor Ruthanne Fuller has proposed turning the West Newton Armory building into affordable housing.

Part of those proposed changes would also allow buildings of up to 10 stories near the West Newton commuter rail stop and near the corner of Crafts and Washington streets in Newtonville though a special permit. Some other areas along the Pike could see up to six-story buildings, according to the proposal.

The proposed zoning would preserve the “historic core” of village centers and an area that includes single-family and shorter buildings between Cross and Lowell streets, according to a Sept. 6 city planning memo.

New development would be directed to edges of the villages along Washington Street, “where large areas of underutilized commercial properties and parking lots currently detract from the quality and value of the villages,” the memo said.

But widespread changes to Washington Street could negatively impact the businesses that are already there, said Christine Carey, a West Newton resident who owns Watertown Watch and Clock in Nonantum. Small mom-and-pop shops may not be able to use larger retail space built under a zoning change, and the increased traffic from development may discourage customers.

“Everything needs to be kept up with the times, but that doesn’t mean we have to have six-story buildings, it doesn’t mean we have to bring in 600 residents,” she said. “I would love 600 new customers — but they have to get to my store.”


John Hilliard can be reached at Follow the Globe’s Newton coverage on Twitter and Facebook.