The Project Is Too Big for Most Newtonians

Mayor Fuller has consistently and publicly maintained that robust input from residents should be a cornerstone of Newton’s development planning.

That same idea is already embedded in Newton’s Comprehensive Plan, which says that decisions about development “should critically involve those who live, work … in those places” so that residents can “feel real proprietorship and responsibility, not something imposed on them.”

Yet the city has never attempted seriously to learn how we residents’ view development. Why? It wouldn’t be difficult or particularly costly to hire a reputable survey firm and get definitive results. But neither the Mayor or most councilors have shown no appetite for doing this.

The council did hire a consultant, The Principle Group, to help plan development along the “Washington Street Corridor” on the city’s North Side. The Principle Group’s work included two surveys, but the results of those surveys can’t be trusted. The Principle Group made no attempt to get a representative group of respondents. In fact, they didn’t even ask people whether the respondents lived in Newton.

However, we do have three surveys done over the past several years by other Newton groups. The results of all three show that a large majority of residents want lower and less dense structures. It’s telling that the surveys all reached the same conclusions even though they were done independently.

2012: Beautiful Newtonville surveyed 800 people in Newtonville.

  • 82% of people said they preferred a development of three stories or less.
  • 80% of them wanted it to have 40 residential units or fewer.

2016: The Waban Area Council conducted an extensive survey of Waban residents. People clearly preferred smaller and less dense development.

  • Q16: …when houses are demolished, the replacement homes are 2-3 times larger and 2-3 times more expensive.

This is bad for Waban 61% – Doesn’t matter 20% – Good for Waban 20%.

  • Q18: …which communities best represent what Waban should look like in the future?

Waban should remain as is (including similar towns like Wellesley): 85% –  Should look like more urban places (incl. Cambridge and Somerville) 15%

2018: The Newtonville Area Council conducted an “Envisioning Washington Street” survey. The NAC mailed invitations to every household in Wards 1-3, inviting all appropriate respondents. And they collected demographic information to determine how representative the sample was. 2529 people responded, most from the target wards.

  • Maximum building size: A 5-to-1 preference for lower heights (59% for four stories or less; 12% for five stories or more). The remainder (28%) didn’t respond to this question.
  • Density: There were questions about density at specific sites. The results from all these questions showed that most people want lower density. For example: besides two current developments in Newtonville, how many additional units do you think are appropriate along Washington Street? 74% wanted 250 units or fewer to be built. (Compare this to the thousand or more units that developers hope to create). Only 13% wanted more than 500 units.
  • Historical vs. contemporary feel for new development: People preferred a historical feel (52%) or a mix of architectural styles (41%). Only 8% wanted contemporary.

There are of course legitimate differences of opinion about size and density. For some people, big is their aesthetic preference and “there’s no arguing with taste.” Others see implications for traffic, for affordable housing, etc. that are certainly legitimate to debate. But what we are pointing out is that a very clear majority of Newtonians do feel that “Less Is Better” when it comes to development, and these residents need to be heard.

For Northland, the city could have and should have collected systematic information from nearby residents. They still should and could. Right now, we have anecdotal evidence from all sides, each claiming that most residents support their own particular view. These conclusions can’t all be true. The project should not be approved until we have decent data.