Randy Block talks career, vision for Newton and why he’s running for Ward 4 seat

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.

“A lot goes into deciding to run,” Randy Block said in his Lower Falls living room as his very vocal supporter, Max—a dog who looks like a black lab despite a DNA test showing not a single drop of Labrador DNA in him—whimpered with excitement.

Block noted the Riverside MBTA development project and how Mark Development a couple years ago was going to put in a bigger project than the one approved in 2018. Block and others in Lower Falls and Auburndale formed a committee to negotiate with the developer and the city.

“The project that was originally proposed for a million-and-a-half square feet got reduced to about a million square feet of new space,” Block said. “And that compromise was eventually passed by the City Council unanimously in October or 2020.”

Block gives some of the credit for that victory to Ward Councilor Chris Markiewicz and Ward 4 At-Large Councilor Leonard Gentile, whom he said coached him and the committee on who to reach out to and which issues to advocate for as they navigated that process.

“I saw first-hand how city councilors can support neighborhoods, and I appreciated that,” Block said. “I think that role that city councilors can play is very important.”

Lending a voice

Block grew up in Madison, Wisc., and Brooklyn, N.Y.—but has neither a Brooklyn nor a midwestern accent—and earned his bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Chicago and his master’s degree in public policy at the University of Michigan.

In 1990, Block and his wife, Karen Davis, moved to Newton to raise their sons, Jeffrey and Peter. Karen passed way earlier this year.

Block worked in child welfare administration for almost five decades (for the state of Massachusetts, the City of New York and multiple nonprofit organizations) and served as executive director of the nonprofit group Parents Helping Parents from 2004 until his retirement in 2018.

“PHP runs parent support groups on a confidential basis and runs a 24-hour helpline called the Parental Stress Line,” Block said.

“One of the things that we did while I was executive director was greatly expand our prison support program,” he continued. “And I’m a trained group facilitator. As executive director, that was not the main purpose of my job, but I did do some group facilitation and I still facilitate one group as a volunteer at the Middlesex County House of Correction.”

When Ward 4 City Councilor Chris Markiewicz announced he wasn’t running for reelection this year, Block decided to run for that seat.

“The ward councilor position has a special duty to represent the concerns of ward residents,” Block said. “Two-thirds of the city council is elected citywide but only one person is elected exclusively by the ward.”

Zoning and housing

Block said a plan to rezone the city’s village centers has him worried for Newton’s future.

The MBTA Communities Act requires communities with MBTA stops to zone for higher-density housing around those MBTA stops by the end of this year. Newton officials have been working on a Village Center Overlay District plan to allow taller buildings and higher-density housing—aimed at increasing housing and revitalizing the city’s village centers—for the past several years.

As Newton officials consider a plan to re-zone the city’s village centers to allow higher density housing and bigger buildings, like this development on Austin Street., opponents are worried about parking shortages and traffic issues higher-density developments can bring. Photo by Bryan McGonigle

The VCOD proposal, now in its third version, would re-zone the village centers for more potential units than the new state law requires, and that’s where many opponents say the VCOD goes too far. And Block said he wants to be part of that debate.

“We are a wealthy society, and we are a wealthy city. There are people who are under constant threat of eviction and who really can’t afford housing, and we have a moral responsibility to help them,” Block said. “To me, that means subsidized housing for low-income families and individuals. We can do a better job of supporting this low-income population.”

Block pointed to the West Newton Armory, a historic property being preserved and renovated into housing that will include 43 units for people making 60 percent of the area median income or less.

“The people who will occupy these units are very low-income, and if you’re interested in diversity in Newton, which I am, then this is going to be a great development,” Block said.

Block said that the reason the West Newton Armory project has been successful is that it’s a product of collaboration between the city and the state. The land was owned by the state, and the state sold it to the city for $1 so the city could put low-income housing there.

“We need to do many more state-city partnerships,” Block said. “Actually building housing that will be occupied is very important and very satisfying. Changing zoning rules, which doesn’t build anything in and of itself, is to me an unfortunate distraction from what we need to do to create more housing.”

Charter talk, schools and traffic

A few years ago, Newton rejected a charter proposal that would have decreased the size of the City Council by eliminating ward seats. Block would like to see the city discuss shrinking its City Council again, but not in a way that eliminates ward seats.

“It’s pretty big, when you think that Boston has 13 city councilors, and we’re a lot smaller than Boston,” Block laughed.

Block, who spent his career helping families of children, said residents he’s talked to are concerned about the city’s public schools. The teachers and the School Committee are in a contract standoff that is now under state mediation. Enrollment in schools has decreased, teacher aides have been cut, and schools are still recovering from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think our children deserve a very high-quality educational system, and they deserve our special attention as a result of the past three years of covid, which really did set a lot of kids back,” Block said.

Block said he thinks the decline in enrollment was brought on by frustration with public schools’ pandemic response, but he wants the city to prepare financially for when enrollment goes back up.

“And we need to take the learning loss as a result of these three years of COVID very seriously,” he said.

Another area Block wants to city to focus on fixing is traffic—especially since the VCOD plan does not include parking requirements.

“There is no empirical evidence that not providing parking reduces traffic,” Block said.

In fact, Block said, people using rideshare services can increase traffic, since each ride-share trip has two round-trip drives.

“They have to come get you and bring you there, and then they have to pick you up and bring you home,” he said. “So, is there going to be more traffic on the streets or less traffic on the streets? Wouldn’t it be nice to have some idea of an answer to that question before you got rid of parking requirements thinking that that’s a way to reduce traffic?”

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