Stephen Farrell talks housing, government and why he wants to represent Ward 8

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.

“I’m a newcomer—I’ve been here about 24 years,” Stephen Farrell joked as he sat down at the Biltmore Bar and Grille on Chestnut Street.

Farrell moved to Newton on New Year’s Eve 1999, a precarious time for those who lived it.

“The first night of Y2K,” he mused. “We thought everything was going to be dead in the morning, but we woke up and the world was OK.”

Nearly a quarter century later, Farrell and his wife, Sarah, have made Newton their home, and he’s now running for a seat on the Newton City Council representing Ward 8.

“I think Ward 8 has been forgotten,” Farrell said.

The road the Newton

Farrell was born and raised in New London, Conn., and his family moved around briefly, so he spent some time living in Idaho in the 1950s and then in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. His father was head of labor relations for General Dynamics, which builds submarines.

He studied political science and government at Columbia University and, before retiring, had a career in private sector public affairs and political organizing that brought him to El Salvador with the Peace Corps, to Massachusetts College of Art and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation.

Farrell—who has lived in the Boston area for 55 years—ran for Boston City Council in 1977 and again in 1979.

“Incredible experience,” Farrell said. “The first year I ran there were 53 candidates in the preliminary election.”

Farrell came in 13th so he didn’t win a seat, but he made it through that preliminary election, and he was the first person to do so in many years who wasn’t born in Boston.

“I ran again in 1979, not having learned my lesson,” he laughed.

He lost that election, too, but he came in 12th place, showing some improvement from his first try.

Feeling ignored

It’s a few decades later, and Farrell finds himself putting on his campaign shoes once more. He’s running this year for Newton’s Ward 8 City Council seat, currently held by Holly Ryan. and said he’s running because he hears so much discontent from neighbors about how the city is run.

“I think people are frustrated. They’ve given up,” Farrell said. “They don’t believe anything will change, and I think they exhibit that by the lack of participation in elections.”

Farrell said his personal interactions with the city’s government have left him sour. For example, when Farrell and his wife first moved to Newton, the city was restoring a field at Newton South High School. Farrell’s property abuts that field, so he and his wife got engaged in discussions and organized more than a hundred residents to do the same.

“It took three years for them [the city] to figure out what they were going to do, and the hardest part of participation was the lack of interest in having us participate,” Farrell said. “You’re kind of like pests.”

And then there was the Gershom Hyde House. Built in 1744, the Gershom Hyde House was one of Newton’s oldest homes and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. A developer bought the property in 2021 and agreed to restore the building but instead tore most of it down without city approval.

That case is currently in court, but Farrell said the city’s lack of action left him and others in the city furious.

“We organized and appealed to the Historic Commission to deny this developer the right to proceed, and over the course of the next year and a half, we organized about 830 families who were concerned about historic preservation but also concerned about the way Newton was changing without apparent thought,” Farrell said. “And it took the city a year and a half to deny this guy the right to continue, even though he broke that contract.”

Farrell said if he’s elected, he’ll push for the city to take that property by eminent domain.

“I just think that kind of thing is very frustrating, when the city doesn’t respond,” he said.

Housing for whom

Farrell said he wants the city to have an independent, “real planning department,” because currently the Newton Planning Department is led by mayoral appointees. And he wants all city planning to come with a clear vision that protects the community and its history.

“I think we need a city councilor who will be much more responsive to the interests and concerns of the residents of Ward 8 and who will, in fact, speak to those issues on the City Council and give them a voice,” Farrell said. “Not my voice, their voice.”

A plan put forward by Newton’s Zoning and Planning Committee to re-zone the city’s village centers for higher-density housing has been met with mixed reactions. Photo by Bryan McGonigle

Farrell laid out a list of local issues including potholes, the condition of sidewalks, flooding and more. And he wants property developments to slow down, so the city’s plan to re-zone its village centers to allow higher-density housing concerns Farrell.

“I think there is a housing crisis in this country, but I think it’s a truly affordable housing crisis,” he said. “I think people with means will find housing, and people will build housing for people with means.”

Farrell said he wants Newton to re-zone only for the 8,300 units mandated by the MBTA Communities Act. The most recent version of the VCOD proposal does shrink it closer to that number (9,300 units), and Farrell wants discussions to continue.

“They’re trying to encourage people to give up cars, and that’s why they say it will be near the MBTA stations,” Farrell said. “And that’s fine. Let’s just assume, conservatively, that if we only zoned for 8,300 units, that only 6,000 cars came with them—which I think is a low number. But where are they going to put them?”

During the winters, when there’s an on-street parking ban in effect, Farrell said adding thousands of cars to the city would add more chaos.

Farrell said if elected he wants to focus on creating affordable housing, which he says neither the MBTA Communities Act nor the VCOD proposal do.

With zoning and other initiatives, Farrell said Newton needs transparency and an informed public.

“I think city government has a responsibility to be included in the design and development of the city, and they should be held accountable by the voters,” he said. “And you hold them accountable to the voters when you inform voters. You keep them informed. And that would be my job as a city councilor, to proactively make certain that people in Ward 8 know about what’s going on, hold local meetings—regularly, invite people to come and talk about issues—and make certain that they’re informed.”

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