Deb Crossley, Ward 5 at-large councilor, talks planning, environment and running for eighth term

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Newton Beacon is reaching out to all candidates for City Council for interviews and profile stories. The Newton Beacon is independent and nonpartisan, and coverage does not mean endorsement.

“It’s the bricks,” Deb Crossley said as she sat down at—and adjusted—a wobbly table outside The Dining Car Café in Newton Highlands. “That’s a little better, don’t you think?”

Crossley, who’s served as Ward 5 at-large city councilor since 2010, is an architect. She’s designed homes, multi-income properties, special needs housing and more.

As chair of the Zoning and Planning Committee, she’s been one of the many architects of the boldest zoning reform plan the city has ever seen.

“I never could have come up with this product without our terrific staff and consultants, and collaborative councilors, and so many contributing citizens,” she said of the collaboration that went into the Village Center Overlay District plan.

Crossley is running for an eighth term on Newton’s City Council in hopes of continuing that kind of cooperation as the city plans out its future.

The long road to Newton

Crossley’s father was a physicist who worked on aircraft communications systems, and that career brought their family to Florida, Texas and Washington State.

“It accounts for me not having a Boston accent,” she laughed.

The family always ended up back in the Framingham area, Crossley said, and lived for a while in Waltham.

“So my dad is on the register at the West Newton Unitarian Church, which is the church he raised us in, even though he was Episcopal growing up,” Crossley said.

Crossley and her husband, Phil Vance, moved to Newton in 1985 and raised their kids—Nicole and James—attending that same church.

Building for people

Crossley’s background is in environmental design and architecture, and she quietly calls herself an “energy and infrastructure nerd.”

“I bring that with me, like we all bring ourselves with us wherever we go,” Crossley said. “Architecture is a social science. We make buildings for people. And in the 1970s, when I went to school, that was a strong theme. Some people go into architecture just to make buildings, but buildings are for people.”

Before her first run for City Council, Crossley was part of a study conducted by the city that showed the city’s buildings and facilities had been allowed to deteriorate at an alarming rate.

“From our school buildings to our roads to our water systems, we were not investing in our public places,” Crossley said. “And so, I felt we needed to be much better stewards, and to do that, you have to engage in long-range strategic planning—especially when you have the limited resources that the city is able to glean, limited revenue.”

Putting it all together

In 2009, Crossley ran for her current City Council seat on a push to act on that study and invest in public facilities and infrastructure, despite the city having bare coffers and little appetite for expensive long-term projects in the wake of the Great Recession.

“The five-year capital plan that the charter requires the city to adopt every year was literally a two-page list of hopeful projects,” Crossley said.

Crossley’s efforts paid off and she got her seat that year, and every election since.

Crossley has served on the Land Use Committee, the Public Facilities Committee and the Zoning and Planning Committee.

Her ten-year tenure on the Public Facilities Committee included bringing items for the state’s Green Communities program—which forms partnerships between communities and the state to pay for green energy improvements—to Newton.

That program requires communities to have an energy action plan for municipal facilities, and Crossley had worked on that as a member of the Citizens Commission on Energy for eight years before joining the City Council. She had also helped get the city to adopt the state’s new “Stretch Code” (a statewide building code that requires energy efficiency in all new public buildings), making Newton the first community in Massachusetts to do so.

Crossley has made fixing what needs repair—fixing and maintaining buildings and infrastructure the city has before adding more—a key part of her campaigns. Another key part has been long-term planning.

“It’s a lot about housing, but it’s about the wide range. It’s about housing and schools and services,” she said. “How do you put it altogether?”

Crossley worked with then-Alderman Ruthanne Fuller to start a planning process for the city’s underground water systems, which were leaking and costing residents a lot of money. The massive undertaking of fixing the city’s water systems is now in its tenth year.

“I’m very, very proud of the work we’ve done there,” Crossley said.

Remaking the village centers

This year, a major focus of Newton’s local election is a proposal to re-zone the city’s village centers to allow higher-density housing and more housing options.

The Village Center Overlay District plan has been in the works for several years, and enacting it would satisfy Newton’s requirements in the MBTA Communities Act (a new state law making cities and towns with MBTA stops re-zone neighborhoods near those stops to allow more housing units).

The city is not building any housing units. The VCOD would change what’s allowed by right in the village centers. But property owners can opt to stay in the old zoning rules or adopt the VCOD zoning rules.

As chair of the Zoning and Planning Committee, Crossley has been a key player in developing the VCOD, which is now in its third version.

“The book of rules tells us what we’re allowed to build and where, and a little bit about how,” Crossley said. “And our current zoning is broken and encourages the things that people don’t want. The Village Center Overlay District, in part, recovers some of what we have lost since 1987.”

There’s a plan to re-zone Newton’s village centers to allow more housing options near the city’s MBTA stops. Photo by Bryan McGonigle

Newton didn’t have any zoning ordinances until the early 20th century. And even through most of that century, buildings as tall as six stories were allowed by right. In 1987—after decades of rapid growth and development—Newton’s city government implemented new zoning that greatly reduced the heights of buildings allowed by right (which means no special permit is needed) in the village centers.

That 1987 zoning overhaul reduced by-right building height allowance in the village centers from six stories to two stories, it prohibited residential units being built above retail, and it eliminated multi-family housing as a by-right option citywide.

Changes here and there have been made to the city’s zoning since, but Crossley said the 1987 zoning overhaul changed the city for decades to come.

“If we look around our village centers and we see deterioration, and we see high turnover, and we see vacant storefronts, and we see a lack of diversity in our goods and services, that’s why,” Crossley said. “And when Bigelow Cleaners closed, they essentially said that. They said, ‘Newton Center is stagnating, there aren’t enough customers, we’re done after 90 years.’”

Schools and trees

While zoning is a hot issue today, Crossley said she wants the city to focus on helping Newton’s schools.

Contract negotiations between the Newton Teachers Association and the School Committee have stalled. The fight is currently in state mediation, and a major sticking point has been around future salary increases.

“We’re slipping, and I think we really need to pay our teachers competitive salaries,” Crossley said. “We lost the override—that’s one thing—so we’re struggling to have enough revenue to pay salary increases, but I’d like to see money added in for them going forward.”

And there’s a new tree ordinance in the works that would require anyone who chops down a tree in their yard to pay a fee. Crossley, emphasizing that she loves trees, is against that because it would mean an added burden for families who just want to put an addition on their house, which was allowed by right when they bought their homes.

“I think our tree ordinance can be strengthened, but it should not wind up as something that’s going to harm our residents’ ability to use their property as they were told they could,” Crossley said.

Newton’s election will be Nov. 7, with early voting starting on Oct. 28.