By Amy Dain
Late last year, when Newton’s Board of Aldermen voted 17-6 to approve a four-story mixed-use development at 28 Austin St. in Newtonville, it was seen as a hard-won victory for Mayor Setti Warren and a developer who spent more than a year getting approval to build a relatively modest size apartment building.
But, in fact, the vote was about much more than one 68-unit apartment building.
It was an indication that after two decades of resistance, the work of many organizations and community leaders to promote smart growth as an alternative to suburban sprawl may finally be starting to bear fruit.
Smart growth is all about building in ways and places that reduce impact on our environment. This includes developing around existing transportation nodes and near schools, near workplaces and near stores, while providing diverse types of housing to meet the needs of diverse residents and supporting the regional economy.
And Newtonville is a textbook location for smart growth. It has a commuter rail stop. It’s at the intersection of a few bus routes that head downtown and to various suburbs. It has a couple of supermarkets, lots of stores and restaurants, places to exercise and excellent schools. The entrance to the Mass Pike is nearby in Newton Corner. All of Newtonville is highly walkable, with great sidewalks.
Still, the approval of 28 Austin St. was striking, especially in Newton, where land is scarce and property values high, and the percentage of affordable housing units has actually declined since Warren was first elected mayor in 2010.
Throughout 2015, no issue was hotter politically than 28 Austin St. Public meetings and public hearings drew overflow crowds. From the beginning, opponents were there in force, expressing many legitimate concerns. That’s not unusual. Typically, the people who attend hearings about multifamily housing — in Newton and anywhere else in the state — are opponents. Since many homeowners’ houses are both their single-largest investment and their homes, anything that might affect the value of their property and the quality of their neighborhood can understandably appear threatening.
Zoning was invented largely to stabilize the value of real estate so that people would be willing to invest money in it. The potential headaches for neighbors associated with new multifamily development are many: parking issues, increased traffic, noise, a clash of cultures between old and new residents, strain on infrastructure and city services, ugly architecture and more school kids moving in than the local schools have capacity to accommodate.
Some of the risks might be imagined or exaggerated. But some problems could turn out to be real, and neighboring homeowners get no compensation for any indirect loss of value to their own properties or for any reduction in the quality of their lives.
So while opponents have many reasons to turn out in opposition to such projects, and they do, in most instances the only folks who show up at public hearings in support of multifamily projects are owners and developers of the properties. But developers cannot speak credibly to the public good in the eyes of decision-makers, as they have a profit motive. And they’re almost always outnumbered at these meetings, while potential residents of the new housing are dispersed and unknown — they do not mobilize in support of their future residences.
The difference with the Austin Street debate as it headed into fall was that supporters were there in force too. The 28 Austin Street debate became unique.
Slowly, the Friends of Austin Street, a coalition of Newton-residents and disparate community organizations (including Green Newton, League of Women Voters of Newton, Newton Council on Aging, Newton Fair Housing Committee, Newton Housing Authority, Progressive Newton, CAN-Do and the Newton-Needham Chamber) began to mobilize.
Why were residents and civic groups turning out in force to support a big housing development? They had no financial stake in its success. Testifying in support were residents who already love Newton and Newtonville the way it is. Why would they want to see it change? What motivated them to turn out in favor of this project, even risking conflict with their neighbors who opposed it?
My read is that the movement for smart growth is taking hold. Its message is resonating.
In fact, the smart growth movement has been growing nationwide for years now. A little over a decade ago in Massachusetts, seven organizations that focus on housing, planning, design, and the environment joined forces to establish the Smart Growth Alliance: the Boston Society of Architects, Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, Conservation Law Foundation, Environmental League of Massachusetts, Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston, Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations. Each of those organizations has devoted significant staff time and money to advancing the principles of smart growth in Massachusetts.
In addition, the Boston Foundation has been funding an annual housing report card for Greater Boston, produced by the Dukakis Center at Northeastern. Think tanks such as the Pioneer Institute and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard University have also been out front on the issue. The Audubon Society published its famous report “Losing Ground” on the loss of open space in Massachusetts due to development. State leaders have also been carrying the banner.
Their efforts have started to change popular opinion about housing development. Now, the prevailing ethos is not only “let us protect our wonderful neighborhoods from development,” but also “let’s promote smart growth – for the environment, the economy, and diversity.”
Hence, neighbors, in a historic move, turned out to support a large development in a beloved neighborhood, Newtonville. And if you listened to the comments at the Austin Street public hearings and the remarks by Newton Aldermen the night they approved the program, it was the smart growth argument that won the debate.
It’s just in time. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the region’s planning agency, has looked into the crystal ball and concluded that the region needs to build 435,000 new units (many of those in multifamily developments) by 2040. With a target that big, Austin Street’s 68 apartment units (with 23 units below market rate) barely dents the need.
Almost a decade of planning went into 28 Austin St. Building many thousands of additional units in the region will take a lot of planning, organizing, and campaigning — for changes both in local zoning regulations and state laws.
But it’s an encouraging sign that Newton understands and is ready to embrace smart growth.
Amy Dain runs a consulting business in Newton that focuses on public policy research and is a Newtonville resident. An earlier version of this column was previously published online by CommonWealth Magazine.
How towns curb multi-family housing
Ten years ago, I conducted a survey of local zoning regulations in the 187 communities within 50 miles of Boston (not including Boston). I wanted to find out if our region was allowing for diverse types of housing to be built, as single-family homes are not for everyone.
I found that only 10 communities did not allow any multifamily housing. These communities tended to be rural areas on the outskirts, such as Lakeville and Littleton. Another nine (Boxford, Carlisle, Marshfield, etc.) only allowed multifamily housing restricted to residents 55 years or older. So, only 10 percent of communities did not allow any multifamily housing for families and young adults. It was better than I had expected.
When I looked closer, though, I found:
- At least another eight communities listed multifamily as an allowed “use” but had no multifamily zone on the map, so the permitting of a project would involve approval by two-thirds of Town Meeting – which effectively prohibits it. Weston, Dover, Chelmsford, Northborough and others were in this category.
- Several communities restricted the density of apartments per acre to four, two, or even one. That would be low density for single-family houses, forget about multifamily. Easton required one-half acre per bedroom.
- Some communities required land parcels bigger than a developer could likely assemble in the community.
- Most of the remaining communities allowed multifamily projects in districts drawn around existing multifamily housing, zoned at the density already built, so you could not squeeze in new units.
— Amy Dain