City presents Village Center Overlay District 3.0 and here’s what’s changed

The Newton Zoning and Planning Committee presented its latest iteration of the Village Center Overlay District re-zoning plan, which they’re calling “VCOD 3.0,” on Tuesday night.

The plan comes as the state is mandating communities with MBTA access re-zone their neighborhoods near MBTA stations to allow higher-density housing. But Newton planners have been contemplating ways to re-zone the city’s village centers for more housing for several years now.

“And to ensure that our village centers are going to continue to thrive into the future, we need new zoning that is going to drive new investment and bring more people to live in and around them,” Zachery LeMel, long range planner at the city’s Planning Department, said as he laid out the new proposal.

The earlier versions of the plan were met with a mixed bag of excitement, outrage, frustration and bewilderment because of things like building heights, lot sizes and traffic worries. So city officials hashed out this third rendition—a scaled back version with smaller aspirations that still meets MBTA Community Act guidelines—to get more consensus when it goes before the City Council for a vote.

Here are some highlights from Tuesday’s VCOD 3.0 public hearing:

VC1 is gone

The Village Center Overlay 2.0 plan had subdistricts to make height increases more gradual from the outskirts of the centers to the middle of them.

  • The VC3 subdistrict encompasses lots directly in the heart of the village centers and allowed the biggest footprints and tallest buildings.
  • VC2, set further out from the core of the centers, allowes for slightly smaller footprints and building heights.
  • VC1 set those allowed sizes and heights even lower.
  • MRT subdistricts (found at the edges of the village centers) would only allow for modest size increases from the rest of the city.

The new version of the VCOD eliminates the VC1 district. The new proposed map eliminates many of those lots from the VCOD completely and turns others into MRT lots.

The choice

Within the overlay district, a property owner can choose to develop a property under old district zoning rules or the rules of the new overlay district.

“By opting into the overlay district, it means more development is allowed,” LeMel explained. “However, when you get more development it comes with more strict rules, more strict design standards and guidelines that have to be followed.”

Those guidelines include wider sidewalks, ground floor retail or restaurant space, and parking behind the building hidden from sight.

Lessening impact

VCOD 3.0 comes with more considerations for nearby residential neighborhoods, which would be impacted by village center growth and larger developments.

For example, previous versions of the VCOD would have allowed buildings with heights of up to six stories to be built in certain locations around the city to allow more affordable housing. That allowance has been removed.

And buildings developed next to the village centers under the new VCOD 3.0 plan would have to have greater side and rear setbacks, from 15 feet to 20 feet, lessening impact to nearby residential neighborhoods.

Building height limits under the new plan are lowered while roof setback requirements are increased, making new buildings less overbearing to nearby homes.

The Newton Zoning and Planning Committee has presented its latest version of the Village Center Overlay District, which is set to be voted on by the City Council by the end of the year. Shown here, the red and blue area represent different subdistricts with varying building size allowances. Courtesy Photo

And in the proposed MRT zones along the outer edges of the village centers, the Zoning and Planning Committee increased the amount of open space required (35 percent required under new plan) and increased building front and side setbacks.

“So overall, a maximum building footprint and this open space requirement, and setback requirement, is going to mean that within those transition zones, you’re going to see more open space,” LeMel said.

Fewer potential total units

Earlier village center rezoning plans not only met the MBTA Communities Act requirements but exceeded them. That’s because VCOD planning has been in the works far longer than the MBTA Communities Act has been law.

The MBTA Communities Act is requiring Newton zone for at least 8,330 units. VCOD 2.0 allowed for more than 10,000.

The changes made for VCOD 3.0 would mean about 7,300 new potential units in the village centers.

That’s fewer than the state requires. But last month, the state updated its rules so that now, communities can count a portion of properties where mixed-use is required toward its MBTA Communities Act housing zoning requirements.

For Newton, that adds about 2,000 units to the total and brings that 7,300 number to about 9,300, well past the minimum mandated by the state.

And, Deputy Planning Director Jennifer Caira noted, the city is not building any units. The new zoning ordinance would decide what may be built, not what will be built.

“The need for housing is great, however we also know development happens gradually, even under the best economic conditions,” Caira said. “And some sites may never see redevelopment for any number of reasons.”

Putting the ‘no’ in Nonantum

When Chair Deb Crossley asked how many people wanted to speak, about 40 people raised their hands. It was clearly going to be a long night.

Much of the three hours of commentary was in opposition to the VCOD. And the biggest pushback came from the village of Nonantum.

“Nonantum needs your protection against the zoning plan,” Terry Sauro said. “The MBTA Communities Act guidelines say housing units for families with children should be built near MBTA stations. Nonantum has no MBTA stations.”

To be clear, the MBTA Communities Act considers whole cities and towns to be communities, not sections of cities.

A 13-year-old boy named Matteo Luongo from Nonantum spoke about being hit by a pickup truck while riding his bike in May. He spent two days in a hospital with a concussion and slight brain bleed.

“After my injuries healed, I became more aware of how dangerous the road is,” Matteo said. “Every time I cross the street, I get legitimately scared of cars zooming by.”

Luongo said that adding more housing to Nonantum would mean more traffic and more danger on the roads for him and other kids.

Matteo’s brother, Armando Luongo, 12, spoke next and said he’s scared when crossing streets in Newton because some drivers don’t stop to let people cross.

“Every day, I go to the park to hang out with my friends, and it should take me two minutes to walk there, but instead it takes me five minutes to get there,” Armando said.

“Just talking about this gets me nervous, and the fact that it can happen at any moment,” Armando continued. “That is why it is called an accident, isn’t it? Anyway, I also think that adding more apartments to Newton would make it so much more hectic and would add so much unneeded traffic and cause more accidents in Newton.”

Janine Strewart said her family has been in Nonantum for more than a century, called the VCOD proposal “discriminatory.”

“Nonantum is a working-class village, and your plan will not attract new working families,” Stewart said. “It will gentrify Nonantum. It will raise rents and home prices beyond the affordability of working families. Why do you want to drive us out of Newton?”

The entire hearing can be viewed on YouTube.

The Zoning and Planning Committee will have more public hearings this fall, before the VCOD heads to the City Council for a vote.

The MBTA Communities Act has a Dec. 31 deadline for cities and towns to enact their new zoning plans.