Put a Temporary Hold on Zoning in Newton

The Newton TAB, June 25, 2016

By Fred Arnstein

On Monday, June 27, a City Council committee is going to consider a petition to temporarily prohibit any changes to zoning anywhere in Newton, unless a majority of nearby owners approves it. This moratorium would be in place until the end of 2017.

That’s a lot to ask. What do we find so troubling that we would ask the city to put a temporary hold on rezoning?

I’m writing as head of a newly formed group, Neighbors for a Better Newtonville (NBN). We are the petitioners. We’re concerned about massive new real estate developments in our own village, but our village is not alone in this. The same kind of development will happen in all our villages — or is already happening. Call it over-development, urbanization, gentrification — there are better ways to manage change in our city.

Zoning underpins the stability of our neighborhoods. If you buy property in Newton, you expect your neighborhood to stay roughly the same. If there are mostly single-family houses nearby, you will be surprised and probably displeased if a huge apartment complex goes up next door. Maybe you didn’t think to ask about zoning regulations when you bought the house, but it’s those zoning regulations that are responsible for the stability you take for granted.

Newton, like Boston and many surrounding towns and cities, is in the midst of a development boom. We’ve seen big-box residential buildings going up in Waltham, Watertown, and many other communities. Neighbors often resist and sometimes they prevail. But fighting each development on its own is a difficult and often unsuccessful strategy. We need to manage our “built environment” in a more comprehensive manner.

Right now, developers are elated over the possibilities that Newton presents for making huge buildings and correspondingly huge profits. Developers decide what they want to build, they buy the land, and then they ask for “community input” on what is already a done deal.

This is backwards. The community, with expert help as needed, should be creating its own plan and vision. The community should figure out what will work best and rezone if rezoning is needed. Only at that point does it make sense for the developer to come into the picture. The developer should work within the rules, not make the rules.

Developers want rezoning so they can tear down old buildings and replace them with big multi-unit ones. The goal is to raise the value of the property and then to sell. The developer hopes to attract affluent renters — this is obviously true, for example, in our latest Newtonville development where the developer is explicitly aiming at upscale stores that can cater to the new (upscale) tenants. Meanwhile, Newton’s most vulnerable citizens are displaced. Current low-rent tenants are evicted (this is already happening in Newtonville). And seniors are preyed upon by developers eager to bulldoze their houses to build bigger ones. (Yes, we and our neighbors are already getting form letters to buy our house for development.) Developers are destroying properties that are already affordable and replacing them with ‘affordable’ units that are actually more expensive. The overall impact on Newton will be to make it an even more affluent city — just as is happening in the big cities, San Francisco, New York, Atlanta. We are not a big city. We don’t want to be one.

Developers expect to make a big return — often near 100 percent — on the money they invest. Meanwhile, what does the city make? What benefit is there to the city? Experience says that such structures over time will contribute little if anything financially. They will likely cost more in city services than they yield in property tax revenue. That, combined with the impact on traffic, parking, historic ambiance, and the village “sense of place” means that the developer walks away richer, the city poorer.

Come to the meeting at City Hall next Monday at 7 p.m. The Zoning and Planning Committee will be considering our petition. Listen to what we have to say. We believe you will support us.

Fred Arnstein is president of Neighbors for a Better Newtonville

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