Newton mayor unveils ambitious housing plan for the city
NEWTON — Mayor Setti Warren on Thursday unveiled an ambitious housing plan for the city that he says will not only provide diverse housing options, but will help preserve the characteristics and values Newton has embodied.
The plan identifies 70 locations across the city as potential development sites, but pinpoints seven as priorities. Some would be mixed-use projects similar to the 68-unit housing and retail complex approved in December for the Austin Street municipal parking lot in Newtonville.
The developments would offer a range of affordable housing options for lower and middle income families, as well as market-rate units.
The sites are privately and publicly owned, and were selected after several community meetings and conversations with each member of the City Council, Warren said.
Top-priority locations include the Marshalls Plaza on Needham Street; the “triangle lot” between Langley and Centre streets in Newton Centre; and the parking lot on Richardson Street by the Massachusetts Turnpike offramp in Newton Corner.
The priority list also includes proposals near the Golda Meir House in Auburndale, where an unused water tower now stands; at the former Parks and Recreation headquarters on Crescent Street; and at Jackson Gardens near the former Aquinas College.
The final priority site is Washington Place in Newtonville, where 171 units are proposed, at least 15 to 20 percent of them affordable.
Warren emphasized during a meeting with the Globe that his plan is a means to “start the conversation” about housing in the city, and while it lays out a blueprint for his vision for Newton’s future, it will need buy-in from residents and the City Council in order to take shape.
“This is a recognition that the city is changing, and it’s an attempt to preserve what we love about Newton, while giving people of all backgrounds an opportunity to live here,” he said. “It would all be in jeopardy if we do nothing.”
Warren and his team say the developments would help reinvigorate village centers, provide opportunities for seniors to stay in the city, and attract innovation economy companies by providing nearby housing options.
The plan also calls for zoning amendments to expand options for accessory apartments to be created in single-family homes. It would also raise the requirement of affordable units in developments needing special permits from the current 15 percent to at least 20 percent of the total.
The aim is to reinforce the characteristics that have made Newton desirable, such as diverse neighborhoods with village centers and housing offered at various prices, according to Warren and his team.
Historically, Newton had a mix of housing options that included the estates of Chestnut HIll, mills and housing for their employees in Nonantum and Newton Upper and Lower Falls, and suburban neighborhoods with various price points for middle-income people, including the post-World War II neighborhood of Oak Hill, according to James Freas, associate director of the city’s planning department.
That type of diverse housing is giving way to a city where the population is aging, and only the affluent can afford to live, he said.
Figures provided by the city’s Planning and Development Department show the current median price to buy a single family home in the city is $1.1 million, up from a median of $855,000 in 2013.
In addition, an inventory of rental properties show that currently there are just four available in the city renting for $1,350, which is 30 percent of the income for someone making $55,000 a year, according to Barney Heath, director for the city’s planning department.
For Warren, this issue is personal. He often tells the story of his parents, born in the Bronx and Harlem, New York, who came to Newton and with government veterans housing benefits were able to afford to buy a home in Newtonville where he and his family still reside.
“My whole reason for running for mayor was to make sure every family has that same opportunity to move here,” he said.
Not everyone in the city agrees with his strategy.
The Newton Village Alliance is a group formed in opposition to the Austin Street development whose stated mission is to “preserve the character and scale of Newton’s villages and residential neighborhoods,” among other things, according to its website.
Members have consistently attended community meetings to object to the idea of putting mixed-use, high-density developments in village centers and other locations, arguing that Newton is a city where residents want trees and green space, not more development.
They, as well as other residents not aligned with the group, have also voiced opposition to the Washington Place proposal for the Orr Building at the Corner of Washington and Walnut Streets in Newtonville that is now winding its way through the city’s approval process.
But Warren says his second term is committed to finding a way of creating “a foundation of opportunity” in the city after focusing his first term on stabilizing the city’s finances and addressing infrastructure and building needs.
His plans go beyond housing. His administration is also looking at transportation policy that not only tries to improves roads and intersections, but also creates a more walkable and bikeable city, he said. And, he’s trying to broaden the tax base enticing companies to move to the innovation districts near Needham Street and in Nonantum rather than Cambridge and Boston.
“Beyond great education, what else do we need to look at to make sure people can be self-sustaining here in Newton?” he asked.
Once that is determined, he said, he’ll shape policy “to try and move the needle.”