How Newton bridged the housing divide
Still, the cost of this victory may be high
May 9, 2020
By Halina Szejnwald Brown
This is story about a fight over a new large housing development in Newton. Such stories, which involve stiff local opposition, play themselves out hundreds of times yearly in attractive suburbs of economically prosperous US cities. But this story has a trajectory and an ending different from the typical ones.
A typical story line goes something like this: A developer proposes a large housing project of several hundred apartments; the neighborhood or the entire community becomes alarmed and begins pressing local politicians to block it. A large controversy ensues whereby the local proponents of the project — a fraction of the local political leaders, some in the business community, and usually a minority among the citizenry — point to the housing crisis, dwindling tax revenues, and the stretched municipal budget; the opponents cite traffic, overcrowded schools, and the loss of the community character (a catch phrase that can include anything from the architectural design to xenophobia and racism). The specific tactics of the fight vary but the outcome is usually the same: the project gets killed. The wealthier and more educated the community, the fiercer the battle and the more likely the project’s demise.
This Newton story deviates from this narrative. It does include a fierce confrontation between the opponents and proponents, but the proponents, including me, formed an unusual united coalition representing a wide range of interests: the developer, local activists and most of Newton’s civic organizations. The outcome is also different: overwhelming approval of the project in a citywide referendum.
The background of this story is the increasing income and wealth inequality in Massachusetts, a growing distrust between cultural groups, the housing crisis in the Boston metropolitan area, the looming climate crisis, and the recently released Newton Climate Action Plan.
The Garden City is Newton’s well-deserved nickname. In this city of 89,000, about 90 percent of houses are single- and two-family structures framed by flowering bushes and green lawns lining quiet sidewalks shaded by old tree canopies. Over half of the houses were built before 1930. They are known for their external beauty: rich in detail and endless variety. While daily life here is very much car-dependent, and zoning favors separation of residential from commercial buildings, Newton’s density is much higher than in typical US suburbs, and all the streets and roads have sidewalks. Since the 1980s the city’s housing has changed in three ways: replacing older one-family homes with new ones, generally two to three times larger than the originals; replacing older single-family houses with 2-4 family condominiums; and building multiunit buildings in a limited number of areas zoned for mixed use, generally by replacing old commercial structures.
Newton has excellent amenities: It is located only a few miles from downtown Boston, to which it is connected by several modes of public transit, and has access to two major interstate highways: north-south and east-west. It has an abundance of athletic fields, a lake with a public beach, parks, and several large parcels of public forests. The picturesque Charles River borders it on three sides, offering bicycle paths, woods, and boat rentals. Newton is known for excellent schools, an extremely low crime rate, good services, and rich cultural life. These amenities are increasingly strained because the residential property tax revenues — the bedrock of its budget — are falling behind the growing obligations to the pension fund.
Newton is experiencing a rapid disappearance of housing for middle and lower income budgets. While a generation or two ago middle class families could still find houses in their price range, this is no longer the case. In 2019, the median price of a single family house listed for sale was close to $1.2 million. The housing crisis in Newton mirrors that in Boston and numerous other cities and towns in its larger metropolitan area. Newton is also aging: 25 percent of residents are over 65. Many elderly residents live in homes that are far too large for them but cannot find affordable smaller alternatives within the city.
The project, its opponents and proponents
Sometime in 2016, Northland Development Corporation proposed to build a village of sorts, 950 apartment units in several buildings, with retail and office space, on three adjacent parcels of post-industrial land it owns (22.7 acres in total) in the area called Newton Upper Falls. For decades the site has been an eyesore of decaying buildings and parking lots, and everybody agreed that something should be done with it. But the size of the Northland proposal took the idea of development to a whole new level. Nothing on that scale had ever been built in Newton.
Apart from the visual impacts of the project’s large size, an increase in automobile traffic would be the most difficult problem to solve. The main road connecting the development with the closest transit stop and the rest of Newton is a very congested commercial street. The congestion has increased recently due to commercial developments in neighboring Needham and the creation of a new Route 95/128 highway interchange nearby. Potential supporters of the project proposal included environmentalists, housing and senior advocates, and social progressives who believe that Newton has a responsibility to address the state’s and its own housing crisis and who are concerned about the increasingly for-the-wealthy-only character of the city.
Emphasis on affordable housing was very high among the proponents. Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller shared the views of the progressives and additionally looked to the project to generate tax revenues. “(W)e must preserve the wonderful quality of life we have in Newton while we make room for people of all means in our community,” she said. In 2019 Newton released an ambitious Climate Action Plan which aims for zero carbon emissions by 2050. With regard to new residential construction, the plan calls for higher density, radically greater energy efficiency, and elimination of gas heating in favor of electric heat pumps. The building standards committee of Green Newton, a highly respected local grassroots organization, approached Northland independently of the review process by the city to directly negotiate about Passive House construction and the elimination of all new gas hookups in favor of cutting-edge electric heating technologies. It was a brilliant move because the developer needed allies to fend off opposition to the project. The Newton Citizens Commission on Energy, an appointed advisory body to the mayor and the City Council, supported the Green Newton initiative and so did other local environmental organizations.
Northland had never even heard about Passive House, a trademarked technology that tightens the external building envelope in a way that reduces energy use by more than 40 percent and often requires no heating at all. Northland initially resisted the idea, but over time, and with the help of a consulting firm specializing in that type of construction, and state subsidies, Northland acquiesced, pledging to use the technology on three of the eight buildings, or 280 units.
Public transit and bicycling advocates such as Bike Newton and the mayor’s transportation advisory group supported the Northland project, pushing for limited parking facilities, hoping to attract one-car families and residents with no cars at all. They hailed the fact that the project would indeed be connected to the nearest T stop by the Upper Falls Greenway, a currently existing one-mile-long wooded bike path. Open space advocates pushed for an underground garage while ecologically-minded groups wanted to see restoration of a natural stream which had been confined to a culvert for more than a century. The sustainable living advocates within the Energy Commission viewed it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a “sustainability village” in Newton whose residents could meet all their daily needs within an approximately one-mile radius and create a thriving self-contained community. The affordable housing advocates and social progressives aimed for maximizing the number of “affordable” and “workforce” units. And advocates for seniors pressed for senior-friendly building design.
The most vociferous opposition to the project came from two directions: the village of Newton Upper Falls and a citywide coalition of anti-development and anti-urbanization advocates organized under the umbrella of Right Size Newton.
The City of Newton comprises 11 villages. Most villages have semi-urban walkable centers, and each has unique character, depending on the level of urbanization, average income, architecture, access to public transit, and cultural diversity. Some of the smaller villages, such as Upper Falls, have strong neighborhood cohesion and a sense of belonging among residents. It is a cozy place. Upper Falls is also one of the last vestiges of relatively affordable housing, partly because its industrial history traditionally attracted working families and immigrants to the area.
The main points of contention by the opponents were as expected: additional traffic, school overcrowding, and the loss of village character. They called for a much smaller, though undefined, project. The Northland proposal had come on the heels of several other residential construction projects in Newton (far from Upper Falls). This accelerating pace of new buildings, although not extensive relative to Newton’s size and population, unnerved many long-time residents who are averse to change, especially change toward a more urban character. “We will soon be like Brookline” is a common phrase. One of these projects – a single four-story residential building with 68 apartments – was at the time being fiercely (and eventually unsuccessfully) opposed by the host neighborhood, leaving behind lingering resentments, grievances, distrust of the government, and suspicions about the future of Newton.
Between 2016 and 2019, the 24-member Newton City Council worked with the city’s planning department, the developer, consultants, local activists, and residents to shape the proposed project to its and others’ liking. This included a reduction in the number of residential units to 800 and a decrease in the amount of traffic-generating retail space.
In December 2019, after many dozens of meetings with the developer; 14 meetings of the Land Use Committee of the City Council, of which 12 were public hearings; and intense last-minute lobbying, the City Council approved the project with a 17-7 vote, one over the required two-thirds majority.
The final design had something in it for all the proponents and opponents, including: 17 percent affordable units; a garage put underground to increase open and park space to 40 percent of the site; secure bicycle parking; ecological restoration of a brook; several mini parks; three Passive House buildings; apartments heated with advanced heat pumps rather than natural gas; a strict traffic management plan; free T passes for residents; a free electric shuttle to the closest T stop, every 10 minutes, 16 hours per day; and $10 million cash, including $1.5 million for the local school and $5 million for street improvements, including utility connections underground rather than on poles to create space for a protected bicycle lane along the main street. The large size of the project made these amenities fiscally possible.
But the fight did not end with the council’s vote. The Newton city charter provides for putting a council’s decision to a citywide referendum vote if a petition is signed by at least 5 percent of registered voters. This is a low threshold relative to the similar state-level provision (12 percent) and to other Massachusetts municipalities (12 to 20 percent range). Over the next three weeks the opponents, carrying clipboard and signature sheets, fanned out to supermarkets, the public library, drugstores, anywhere residents congregated, and easily collected over 3,000 signatures. The vote was scheduled for March 3, the day of the state presidential primaries. The “Vote Yes” coalition favored that date, reasoning that a large turnout would represent the larger Newton community, not only the most passionate opponents and proponents, and would work in their favor.
During January and February, the battle lines sharpened, emotions on social media exploded, alliances became reconfigured, and the nature of the debate changed. While in the pre-council-vote period Northland was an applicant negotiating with the city and the community at large, after the vote Northland became one of the many proponents of the project. In the first organizing meeting hosted by a Newton resident, the Northland team and their communication consultant took the stage. The well-attended meeting attracted baby boomers who exhibited the type of determination I imagine them displaying in their 20s as idealistic social reformers.
In no time a large number of volunteers on both sides became mobilized: they rang doorbells, made phone calls, provided and dropped off lawn signs and hosted house parties, and submitted letters to editor of the Newton Tab. Northland’s consultant, who specialized in political campaigns, provided materials, training, and organizational capacity for the citizen volunteers who supported the project. It maintained maps with anticipated leanings in various neighborhoods, surveyed public opinion on an ongoing basis, and flooded Newton mailboxes with high quality, glossy, mailers. Altogether, Northland outspent the opposition by 10 to 1.
The pro-Northland coalition comprised 16 local organizations, including business (The Newton-Needham Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Newton Economic Development Commission), faith-based (Newton Interfaith Clergy), conservation (Newton Conservators, 350Mass), municipal commissions (Newton Urban Design Commission), and housing (Uniting Citizens for Housing Affordability in Newton, Newton Housing Partnership, Engine 6, Can Do), Green Newton, and other groups. The mayor and Gov. Charlie Baker publicly supported the project, and so did the Boston Globe. Right before the voting day, Baker approved a $400,000 grant to support an extension of the Upper Falls Greenway bike path. The discourse also changed at that stage. In the pre-City Council vote period the discussion had focused on the technical and aesthetic aspects of the project, its impacts on the neighborhood, and the developer’s response to various identified problems. During the post-City Council vote stage, the confrontation shifted to larger issues. The ethos of the proponents was about the future vision of Newton as a community responsive to larger societal needs, diversity and inclusion, affordable housing, and sustainability. One resident wrote: “As a Newton resident and homeowner, I wholeheartedly agree that we can no longer treat our city as an island, leaving solutions to our most pressing problems — climate change, lack of housing, transportation, affordability — to other communities. We don’t need 800 new housing units in Newton — we need 8,000, or more.”
The opposition drew its energy from the idea that neighborhoods have a right to protect themselves from unfair burdens imposed by the larger community, from the lack of trust in the developer and the city government, and the rage for not having its voice heard. Wrote one citizen: “I’m NOT anti-development. I just want reasonable development that doesn’t erode our quality of life and increase our taxes…. Developer profits shouldn’t trump community needs.”
The stakes were high. If the project were to fail, Newton would not aim for a project of that magnitude in the foreseeable future; and the opportunity would be lost to advance Passive House construction in Massachusetts and to create pockets of more sustainable lifestyles in suburbs. The anti-development groups in Newton and other Massachusetts communities would become bolder in their resistance to change, and both the state and the city would lose a significant opportunity to alleviate the housing crisis. Other developers would probably not even try to advance proposals such as this for Boston suburbs.
A no vote also created a 40B threat for opponents. Chapter 40B of the Massachusetts General Laws addresses communities, including Newton, which have less than 10 percent of their housing classified as affordable. 40B provides developers who set aside at least 25 percent of their project as affordable a streamlined permit process and more flexible zoning rules. The fear was that if Northland went the 40B route it could propose a project of 1,500 units and Newton would have very little control over its design. Although there was no formal talk about 40B, and Northland was silent on the issue, the informal conversations among the population were increasingly focusing on that possibility.
In the end, the project did not fail. On March 3, with 51 percent of registered voters participating, 58 percent voted in favor and 42 percent against. This large margin suggests that it was more than a victory for the party with much deeper pockets. Rather, it appears that Newton citizens truly believed that this project, while imperfect, was the best use of the 22.7 acres of post-industrial land in Newton Upper Falls.
The day after the vote an eerie silence fell upon the city. There was nothing to fight about anymore, and celebrations by the winners did not feel right in the painfully divided community. It will take some time to heal the wounds.
A Newton resident can easily forget about the growing social problems in the society at large. We are in a bubble of sorts, which the Northland project briefly burst by bringing into our community the issues of wealth inequality, lack of opportunity for many children, lack of housing for the middle class and low-income working families, and the climate crisis.
The social forces giving rise to these problems are hard for individuals and local organizations to tackle; they have to do with the fundamental structure of the national economy and power relations. One area where citizens do have the agency to act is local land use and zoning. To Newton’s credit, a large segment of residents rose up to use these powerful tools. But the project also threatened the treasured way of life in the cozy community of Upper Falls, and it unsettled many other Newtonites. In this case the social reformers prevailed because they created a united, diverse coalition which included the developer, a player that does not have the best reputation as a progressive societal force. Green Newton took this opportunity even a step further by negotiating directly with the developer over adopting Passive House construction.
But the cost of the victory was high. The developer spent millions negotiating with the city and the community and redesigned the project several times to defuse opposition. A large national company, Northland, was able to absorb these costs, especially because they already owned a large part of the land. But not many developers would be able to do it. And the high cost does not bode well for the future pricing of the market units in the development. That means that Northland village may not, after all, accommodate young professional families and the children of current Newton residents.
And what of other housing ownership models, such as, for instance, non-profit cooperatives? It is highly unlikely that such enterprises would be able to afford this kind of a fight.
These concerns notwithstanding, the Northland village is a powerful beginning on the road toward what Newton was once: a place for the middle class to thrive.
To see the article, visit https://commonwealthmagazine.org/housing/how-newton-bridged-the-housing-divide/