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Residents prompt hearing on fate of Newtonville lot

NEWTON — A petition signed by 50 registered voters has forced a public hearing to review whether an Austin Street parking lot in Newtonville should be deemed as surplus by the city and sold for development into a housing and retail complex.

Proposals from several developers are before Mayor Setti Warren to build a complex with mixed-income residential units, ground-floor commercial space, and parking at the municipal lot across Austin Street from Star Market.

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But a group of area residents say the city’s decision to sell the parking lot was made using faulty assumptions, and they want it reexamined and rescinded. A petition filed by Newtonville resident Sarah Quigley earlier this month also asks that the mayor “withdraw the offer to sell the land,” and that the property be rezoned to allow only public use.

The residents are calling for an independent parking study by an outside consultant to determine whether there is a need for the municipal parking lot in Newtonville, with the neighborhood’s business climate having improved since the decision to sell the property was made by the Board of Aldermen in 2010.

And they want a say about whether the land should be sold, or remain in the hands of the city for use as a parking lot or open space.

The Board of Aldermen’s Real Property Reuse Committee and Zoning and Planning Committee have scheduled a joint hearing on the issue for March 25.

Any recommendations drafted by the committees would be forwarded to the full Board of Aldermen for a vote. The board could take up the matter as early as April 7, according to City Clerk David Olson.

The Board of Aldermen has no authority to rescind the designation of the Austin Street lot as surplus, or to prevent the mayor from selling the property, according to City Solicitor Donnalyn Lynch Kahn.

Instead, aldermen could vote to recommend that the Department of Public Works reexamine its decision to designate the lot as surplus, and recommend that the city refrain from selling it, she said.

“If it is determined through a formal parking study that the parking lot is frequently utilized, or through citizens comment at the public hearing that it should be maintained as municipal land, the declaration of surplus should be rescinded,” Quigley said.

She said that the criteria for determining whether land is surplus also requires review, “since it could similarly influence development plans in other Newton villages.”

Should the city eventually decide to overturn the Austin Street lot’s surplus designation, plans to sell the property would be derailed, ending a development concept that Warren supports and has used as an example of what he sees as necessary to provide housing and maintain the vitality of the city’s village centers in the future.

Warren had no comment Friday about the petition or public hearing.

The Newtonville Area Council, an elected village advocacy group, has been surveying neighborhood residents, and business and commercial property owners and employees about the Austin Street project, according to council member Tim Stone.

He said the survey was to have been closed this weekend, and that about 700 surveys had been completed. The results of the survey will be available within a week, he said.

“We want to make sure that local Newtonville stakeholders, residents, commercial property owners, business owners, have a voice,” Stone said. “We want to make sure our input is heard.”

Stone said the survey will provide a “picture of where there is consensus” about the proposed development project.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.
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