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Teardowns spur West Newton Hill to consider historic district

The final stages of the teardown on Valentine Street in the West Newton Hill neighbohood on Sept. 16.
The final stages of the teardown on Valentine Street in the West Newton Hill neighbohood on Sept. 16.(Melissa Chaikof)

On a recent Friday, residents of West Newton Hill watched as the final remains of a 1917 Colonial-style home in their neighborhood came tumbling down.

“When it was over, there was a great sense of loss,” said Laura Foote, who lives in the neighborhood. “Some people said they felt ill, and some burst into tears.”

The demolition process for the house, once located at 174 Valentine St., began more than a year ago when the realtor for the house’s then-owner presented plans “to demolish the house and start the clock if a developer wanted to buy the property” at a Newton Historical Commission in August 2015.

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The commission said the house was a “fine example of Colonial Revival architecture” and met the criteria for preservation. But the only course of action the commission can take with houses such as the one on Valentine Street is to put a 12- or 18-month delay on demolition as a tool to encourage owners to seek other alternatives.

That’s why Foote and about 20 others formed the West Newton Hill Preservation Initiative, which is working to determine whether the neighborhood would benefit from the establishment of a local historic district. Newton currently has four such districts — in Newton Upper Falls, Chestnut Hill, Newtonville, and Auburndale — and the residents of West Newton Hill are looking into creating another.

Local historic districts provide protection from exterior architectural changes or demolition where warranted. Those alterations must be approved by a local historic district commission.

If the neighborhood did form a local historic district, the group would carry out the review process for changes to homes in the neighborhood, rather than the Newton Historical Commission.

About 30 residents involved in the West Newton Hill Preservation Initiative are currently conducting a field study of the homes in the neighborhood, which they say includes at least three other homes with active demolition delays. Current figures were not immediately available from the city.

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The group will eventually present their report to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, which will give comments to the local branch in Newton. A public hearing will be held, and the City Council must approve the district’s formation by a two-thirds majority vote.

Teardowns have long been a contentious issue in New England and especially in a suburb like Newton, where the land is often worth more than the building that stands on it. In 2014, Alderwoman Amy Sangiolo proposed a one-year moratorium on one- and two-family home demolitions, which she said was unsuccessful due to pressure from developers.

Babak Veyssi, a Brookline-based developer, purchased the 60,083-square-foot Valentine Street property for $2.6 million in February, according to state records. Veyssi said he was aware that some people were upset about the demolition, but didn’t feel there was anything extraordinary about the house.

“There are different degrees of historic,” he said. “I’m an architect myself, and there was absolutely nothing special about the house. Some people feel very strongly about [houses] where they have a lot of architectural details and things that distinguish them from an ordinary construction, but then you have a very regular home like this one was, which is historic based only on a date of construction.”

Foote said there have been rumors that two houses will be built on the new property, but Veyssi said no final determination has been made.

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Allison Pohle can be reached at allisonpohle@gmail.com.