STILL NOT THERE: Newton City Council ends another debate without a zoning vote

A City Council vote on the Village Center Overlay District rezoning plan will have to wait until the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone.

On Monday night, the Council debated more amendments for another three-and-a-half hours, and still there was no light to be seen at the end of the tunnel that is the zoning debate.

“We have another night’s worth of meeting,” Council President Susan Albright said hoarsely at the end of the night.

What’s good for God’s house

Most amendments were aimed at cutting maximum building size and maximum unit counts of projects allowed by-right (without a special permit), by moving them from VC3 to VC2 zones.

The VC3 zone—located directly in the hearts of the village centers—allows buildings of up to 4.5 stories and a building footprint of up to 15,000 square feet. The VC2 zones, further out from the village center cores, allow up to 3.5 stories and a 10,000-square-foot footprint.

Councilor Pam Wright, who has offered the most down-zoning amendments so far, motioned to remove lots on Union Stret and Herrick Road from the VC3, due to historic buildings occupying those lots now, along with a third lot near Centre Street that has an historic church on it.

Councilor Deb Crossley, chair of the Zoning and Planning Committee, urged the Council not to cut the church from the VCOD, noting that the VCOD gives property owners, including religious organizations, more options—like childcare services and other revenue streams.

“The reason I understand we have overlayed the VC district on churches and temples is to give them some by-right use opportunities,” Crossley said. “As we all know, we’ve all seen temples and churches lose their congregations, and many are struggling today who are still in business. Their ability to add to the rear of the building, or even to take in uses that are not currently what they have, could be the difference between sustaining the use or not.”

As it turns out, two of the lots would need a special permit due to their size, and all three would have an 18-month demolition delay if a property owner ever did want to tear the buildings down, making the amendments to exclude them from by-right zoning unecessary.

All three amendments were voted down anyway.

Brakes on Border Street

For West Newton, Councilor Andrea Kelley had a dramatically different amendment. She wanted to add lots along Border Street and part of Elm Street to the VCOD.

Kelley said she spoke with business owners who were eager to have their shops included in the rezoning plan. And her amendment added about 430 units to the mix of zoned new units, bringing the total of allowed new units to about 9,600.

Wright spoke against the amendment, citing past flooding in that area caused by faulty infrastructure installed by the Metro West Regional Transit Authority years ago. In fact, the area was initially taken off the VCOD because of past flooding.

But proponents of rezoning Border Street Monday night noted that the mechanical issue causing the flooding can be fixed.

Councilor Holly Ryan said she spoke to small business owners along Border Street as well and they want to be included in the VCOD.

“A lot of them do live in Newton and they’ve been here a long time,” Ryan said. “And if that’s what they want to do—How many times do we get requests to upzone?”

Debate was shut off anyway when Councilor David Kalis motioned—and 13 councilors voted—to table the amendment so the Council could see how many units later amendments knocked off from the total needed to satisfy the MBTA Communities Act.

“I don’t think that this neighborhood should suffer because they’re coming after the other neighborhoods have had their numbers calculated in,” Kelley said.

Cracking Walnut

For Newtonville, Councilor Tarik Lucas motioned to move parcels on Walnut Street from VC3 to VC2.

“The building heights and density on Walnut Street, which are currently zoned VC3, should not be the same for Washington Street. Simple as that,” Lucas said.

Lucas referenced the Washington Street Vision Plan, which set the maximum building height on Walnut Street at four stories. The VCOD has the maximum set at 4.5 stories.

“The Washington Street Vision Plan was a promise,” Lucas said. “It was a promise to the people and businesses in Newtonville that the building heights would be four stories high. And the reason why I keep filing this amendment over and over again, is to make sure we keep our promise. Otherwise these vision plans aren’t worth anything.”

Councilor Alicia Bowman opposed Lucas’s amendment, saying it would go against the purpose of encouraging housing near MBTA stops.

“This is where we want more housing,” Bowman said. “This is where young people want to be, where seniors want to downsize to.”

The Walnut Street matter quickly grew into a broader argument about down-zoning parcels and whether that does harm to the overall goals of the VCOD, especially since the VCOD is in its fourth rendition after many compromises and updates were made.

“We’ve compromised quite a bit already, and we do know from our studies, which were reasonable inputs, that the 4.5 stories can subsidize, as needed, first floor retail and that it is feasible,” Crossley said. “We’re less certain of lower buildings.”

Lucas’s motion failed, with 10 voting in favor and 14 voting against.

“I think enough is enough,” Councilor Alison Leary said. “We want to give every opportunity to make this zoning work. We’ve worked three years on it. We’ve gone over the same zoning two or three times, and I’m just not willing to compromise more.”

And with that, the Council voted to adjourn.

Maybe next time

The Council is set to take up the Village Center Overlay District debate again on Nov. 30.

Newton has until Dec. 31 to comply with the MBTA Communities Act by up-zoning neighborhoods around the city’s MBTA stops for a total of 8,330 new housing units.

The Village Center Overlay District plan—currently estimated to add zoning for more than 9,300 potential new units spread out over most of the city’s villages—has been in the works for a couple of years, with city leaders looking to revitalize the city’s village centers with more housing, more types of housing and more foot traffic.

The VCOD does not build anything. It changes the rules so that developers may build more by-right (as opposed to needing a special permit) in the village centers in the future.

The plan has been met with controversy, and earlier this month three incumbents lost their seats to challengers who oppose the VCOD.