Newton struggles to keep villages vibrant
Newton’s 13 villages, some dating back nearly three centuries, are a source of pride for local residents.
Each is distinctive, from Auburndale with its cozy row of local shops and unassuming restaurants overlooking the Massachusetts Turnpike, to Nonantum with its red-, green-, and white-striped streets and a bakery stocked with cannoli and sfogliatelles, to Newton Centre with its boutiques and busy train station.
But keeping all of the small downtowns in these villages thriving through a struggling economy and continued competition from the city’s malls and shopping centers has been a challenge.
In recent months, some of Newton’s villages have come down with a common malaise: vacant storefronts.
According to an informal list of vacancies that the city started tracking more than a year ago to help recruit new business, there are more than 20 empty commercial spaces in the villages of Auburndale, Newton Centre, Newton Highlands, Newtonville, Nonantum, Newton Corner, Newton Upper Falls, and West Newton.
Glass windows papered with “for lease” signs stand out like weeds in some of the village centers.
In Newtonville, the village’s eponymous bookstore moved to Newton Centre, leaving a prominent corner open. Newton Highlands, which just a year ago was the poster child for a successful and bustling retail district, has stumbled since its anchor, Bakers’ Best restaurant, closed in December. Even in Newton Centre, residents worry that as mainstays move out, they are being replaced with banks or financial offices that draw fewer people.
“We need to fill the village,” said Laurie Howell, who owns George Howell Coffee with her husband in Newtonville. “I think it’s a great village.”
Newton officials say they are aware of the concerns and have launched several efforts to revitalize the villages, including Mayor Setti Warren’s recently announced “13 Villages One Community” campaign. A restaurant week is in the works, and the city is piloting a contest to design banners for Newtonville, and is helping beautify the village with additional planters and trash barrels. The city plans to expand the program to other villages, Warren said.
The city has also tried to speed up the permitting process for businesses, and is studying ways to help them, such as making more parking available, Warren said.
As a sign of success, Newton officials point to recent announcements by some restaurants that they plan to open or expand their space in the villages.
“The civic life, commerce, restaurants, and community engagement,” Warren said. “That’s what makes the villages such a special place.”
Newton became an independent community from Cambridge in 1688, and the villages have been key to its history.
In the 1880 version of the “History of Newton,” the villages are described as “distinct from one another as if they were separate towns. Only the town meetings brought the inhabitants together in one place as a united people.”
Today, residents continue to remain loyal to their village.
“It’s not just a place to live,” Wendy Gordon said about Newton Highlands, where she has lived for seven years.
Gordon stopped by Deja Vu, a consignment store in the village, on a recent morning to look for a new top. Gordon said she hopes efforts to liven up Newton Highlands with concerts and other activities will help.
Deja Vu’s owner, Oksana Pan, does too. Pan, who lives in Sharon, opened her store in September after driving around the village center and noticing it was packed with people.
But Bakers’ Best, a cornerstone of the village, closed three months later, and Pan and other business owners said they noticed a drop in walk-in traffic. Other stores have left, and the Bank of America branch is expected to close soon.
Established retailers, with longtime customers who are willing to travel to shop in their stores, have weathered the transition. But Pan said she hopes that a restaurant opens soon in the former Bakers’ Best location.
“I’m really sad, because of that place,” Pan said.
Newton planning officials said they have met with the property’s owners, and have tried to help them identify ways to make the space more marketable.
Amanda Stout, Newton’s senior economic development planner, said the city is improving its communications with businesses and real estate brokers.
“All of us would like them filled,” Stout said. “They’re voids in the village centers.”
But Stout and others point to successes, such as the Rox Diner, which opened in Newtonville last year, and Brewer’s Coalition, which is scheduled to open this summer across the street.
John Fortin, a co-owner of Rox Diner, said its location has been such a boon for the business that its owners are seeking city permission to add more seats.
At brunch, waiting diners snake down the street, and nearby shop owners stop by for lunch.
“We’re thrilled to be part of the timing of what seems to be the reenergization of the neighborhood,” Fortin said.
Tom Godino, a broker with Godino & Company Inc., said most of Newton’s commercial market remains strong and attractive to business.
Newton’s commercial tax base has grown by almost 5 percent since 2008, while its residential base declined by 1 percent, according to figures from the assessors’ office.
But Godino said the city should work on issues such as ensuring that all villages have adequate parking and that the permitting process is easier to navigate.
“I think the mayor and the city are trying to do that,” Godino said. “I think it’s easy for a bunch of nonretailers to come up with hypothetical thoughts, but it’s hard to execute.”
Chris Steele, chairman of the city’s Economic Development Commission, said Newton’s antiquated zoning and permitting requirements need to be reexamined to help the villages thrive.
The commission recently proposed that, for one year, Newton require banks to apply for a special permit if they want to move into a first-floor space in one of the city’s villages.
Advocates suggested that the financial pressures on landlords to rent their space to banks was too great, and that Newton needed some time to develop better zoning to encourage restaurants and other retailers to go into the villages. For example, Steele said, the city requires too many parking spaces for restaurants.
“I think we’ve got some work to do,” Steele said.
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.