Rezoning Project Sparks Debate in City Council

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At Monday night’s Newton City Council meeting, the debate centered around potentially rezoning the construction site on the corner of Walnut Street and Washington Place from a Business Zone to a Mixed Use-4 Zone (MU-4). A special permit and site plan approval were also discussed, so that a mixed-use development could be constructed.

The development would be larger than 20,000 square feet and would be made up of three interconnected buildings, including 160 total residential units, 5,000 square feet of commercial space, and 2,000 square feet of community space.

Four aspects of this building plan have generated the most controversy: the height of the building, the number of units, the mix of affordable with middle-income units, and the concerns of neighbors over shadows that the tall building will cast. Rezoning this building site will require 18 affirmative votes, two more than the usual two-thirds majority needed.

This rezoning will allow for the new proposed height of four to five stories, and a greater number of residential units. The MU-4 Zone was created in 2012, and was made to promote a lively pedestrian environment, as well as a space for businesses that serve the community.

The greatest concern of citizens attending this meeting was that rezoning this area would set a precedent for tall buildings to be constructed in Newton. A spokesperson for the Land Use Committee argued that this zone change would not set a precedent, emphasizing that the City Council still has to approve each new building constructed in Newton.

Supporters of the project and its rezoning noted that the construction of residential units would create more affordable housing in Newton for middle- and low-income individuals. Affordable housing would allow for a mix of people of various incomes the opportunity to live in Newton, creating the potential for upward mobility.

“This project promotes upward mobility in a way that no other project in Newton does, given that if you are a resident in an inclusionary unit and your income rises, there is the potential to move into a unit reserved for middle-income earners,” the spokeswoman for the Land Use Committee said.

The City Council listened, recognizing the important effect that increasing affordable housing could have in an affluent area like Newton.  

“Greater Boston does not have enough housing,” Councilor Jacob Auchincloss said. “If we want housing in Greater Boston to be less expensive, we need to build more housing.”

But Marc C. Lavardo, who was presiding over the meeting, argued that this project promotes a trade-off, as there would also be residential units for middle-income earners. He argued that by making more middle-income housing, there is less low-income housing space available.

Not everybody was impressed with the Land Use Committee’s presentation. Councilor Emily Norton noted that the presentation’s emphasis on the $200,000 net fiscal benefit that the project would provide Newton with was irrelevant, as the annual budget of the city is $447 million—the $200,000 net fiscal benefit of the project would hardly make a difference. Councilor Leonard Gentile also voiced his opinion.

“I can remember the days when the Planning Department was actually an impartial body,” Gentile said. “Over the years, the Planning Department has shifted to the point where they are trying to drive policy, that in my opinion, is supposed to be decided by the elected officials here in the City of Newton.”

Viewing the presentation as nothing more than a commercial, Gentile said “If I was a resident of Newtonville, particularly if I was one who was really impacted by this, I would be sitting [here,] and I would be furious.”

There were certainly a high number of critics of the project, but the project’s benefit to low-income individuals was noted by its supporters.

“The high price of housing is burdensome,” the spokeswoman for the Land Use Committee stated. Councilor Marc Laredo said that this project opens up a very important and very difficult public policy debate. “The breakdown of the building is going to be the difference for this project,” he said.

Councilor Ruthanne Fuller agreed. “We need this permanent affordable housing, [but] I am open to the discussion about whether it should be 20 or 25 percent low income,” she said.

While most of the citizens present were decidedly against the project, the meeting adjourned with councilors on both sides of the issue, and without a definitive decision made. Laredo noted the importance of having a careful discussion of this issue.

“We owe it to the citizens of Newton to explain why we’re for or against something,” he said.

Featured Image by Molly Duggan / Heights Staff

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