If a real estate project is thoughtfully designed and fulfills genuine public needs, it deserves to be approved. But in Massachusetts, faulting projects for their failure to achieve perfection is a time-honored way of blocking them.
On Tuesday, the Newton Board of Aldermen is expected to vote on a plan to replace a city-owned parking lot on Austin Street in Newtonville with a complex that would include 68 housing units, a public plaza, and ground-floor retail. The project, by Austin Street Partners LLC, would fulfill Newton's stated goal of enlivening its traditional village centers by redeveloping surplus public property — and exemplifies the kind of smart growth that communities across Massachusetts should be pursuing.
In Newton, as in other suburban communities, mixed-use projects face an arduous approval process. The Austin Street proposal would require special permits from the Board of Aldermen because it's taller, and has fewer parking spaces, than what zoning rules allow by right.
The permits are warranted. Newton's sky-high home prices are prima facie evidence of a need for more housing; building a little higher on the Austin Street parking lot makes room for new units with no sacrifice of existing green space. Because restaurants, retailers, and homes draw vehicles at different hours of the day, mixed complexes need less parking than projects that segregate commercial and residential uses.
The plan has attracted enthusiastic backers; the group Friends of Austin Street includes housing and smart-growth advocates, but also many regular citizens.
The opposition comes from multiple camps. Current business owners worry about a parking crunch during construction, though the developers have solid plans to address that. Other opponents have sued, accusing the city of using "deficient and defective" procedures in handling the well-publicized project.
Still others express fundamental doubts that, given the current state of nearby commuter rail, the project could be a springboard for transit-oriented living. "You think 100 more people living in Newtonville is going to cause the T to drop another $20 million on [our station]? Are you kidding?" says Emily Norton, a leading opponent who sits on the Board of Aldermen.
This is a strikingly pessimistic view from an official who's also the director of the state Sierra Club. The best way for communities to promote greater walkability is to approve projects that embody this principle.
Blocking new development won't preserve the status quo; it just guarantees, amid rising demand for housing, that the city will keep getting pricier. Newton would set a terrible precedent by rejecting a project whose developer has made significant concessions in response to community concerns. "There's a fear that, in the future, nothing is going to meet these standards," says Hattie Gawande, a member of the steering committee for Friends of Austin Street.
Newtonville would benefit from new housing and greater vitality. It's a weird kind of perfectionism that would leave the community with the same old parking lot.