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When Vicki Danberg and her husband, John, moved to Newton Centre in 1977, there were two grocery stores, a movie theatre, and a hardware store and fewer banks.
The longtime city councilor is seeking to return the city’s village centers to their past glory.
She’s confident that Newton can successfully deal with what she sees as some of its major challenges—declining school enrollment, fewer young families moving into the city, and re-zoning the village centers—if there’s an aggressive effort to provide more affordable housing.
“The only way we’re going to attract young families to Newton is to get affordable housing,” said Danberg, who is seeking her 11th consecutive term representing Ward 6. “And the only way that we are going to get affordable housing is through the city’s inclusionary housing requirement that requires any housing project over six units to have an affordable component.”
Creating additional affordable housing, particularly near the village centers, would increase the number of young families moving into Newton, provide more options for seniors wanting to remain in the city and attract new businesses, Danberg said.
“And if we don’t have affordable housing, we are never going to be able to increase our diversity,” she said. “We need to increase the number of affordable homes for city employees, including those working in the police and fire departments.”
She said about 90 percent of the approximately 3,000 city workers cannot afford to live in Newton.
“We need housing for seniors, we need housing for disabled people, we need housing for empty nesters because when empty nesters sell their home young families can move in,” Danberg continued.
In order to get a home, she said, “you need to either have a very high income or inherit a house from your family.”
Saving the schools
The inability of young families with children to buy homes in the increasingly expensive Garden City has created serious challenges for the school system, which has seen enrollment drop from a high of 17,000 students in the 1980s to about 11,500 today, said Danberg, a former high school teacher.
In the last five years alone, she said, the student population has lost around 1,300 students and is continuing to lose around 250 a year.
Danberg predicted that the downturn in the number of students could force “a consolidation and closure” of one or two elementary schools. The Bigelow and Ward schools are at the biggest risk, she said, and Franklin “is another one on the horizon.”
A ‘yes’ on VCOD
Additional housing will not only bring in an influx of students, Danberg insisted, it could return the Newton Centre that was “going to be our forever community” when she moved here as a young, married couple, back to the days when Chandler Levy Hardware store, Blacker Brothers grocery and Dewar meats were there.
The MBTA Communities Act requires the city to re-zone neighborhoods near its public transit stations for higher density housing, and for Newton that new state law requires the city zone for 8,330 units. Newton’s Village Center Overlay District plan takes that new state law into account and would re-zone the city’s village centers for more housing options, and official numbers have that total at about 9,300 units.
Opponents predict the unit number would be higher, but the difference is how potential units are calculated and how existing buildings are factored in. The VCOD is a change in rules, not a building permit, so nothing is set to be built by the city and many factors go into how a property is developed.
Danberg said she favors the VCOD’s 3.5-to-4.5-story housing limits in the larger villages, which she said, will increase the number of people who can move into the village centers. She pointed out that Newton Centre was more lively when it had a number of 19th century four-story buildings.
Under the proposed VCOD guidelines, if a building owner increases the percentage of affordable housing in their building to 25 percent, the owner would get a one-story bonus.
The current limitation of two stories with a maximum height of 24 feet in commercial districts was created in 1987, she said, is “too limited for today’s needs.”
Going green and cutting waste
While housing and zoning have been of major concern to the Ward 6 councilor since she first was elected to the Board of Aldermen (later changed to City Council) in 2003, Danberg has been a leading voice on other issues, including the environment.
She led Newton’s effort to ban polystyrene (Styrofoam) items packaged locally and supported the ban on single use plastic bags and “nip” bottles, an ordinance banning non-recyclable single-use dishware from the city’s restaurants and a ban on releasing helium balloons. She serves as chair of the Plastics Reduction Working Group.
While the city has a pilot program involving picking up residents’ compost, she believes a more aggressive approach needs to be considered as, Danberg said, some 40 percent of the trash that is picked up by sanitation workers is organic waste that “could easily be composted and turned into fertilizer and good earth.”
When she isn’t working on city council business, one can often find Danberg walking in her Newton Centre neighborhood with her two rescue dogs, as 12-year-old springer spaniel and a 2-year-old Australian shepherd.
“Everyone in our family has a dog. In fact, you’re not allowed in the house unless you bring a dog,” she teased.
Danberg is running for one of two open seats in the Nov. 7 election. Other candidates in that race include fellow incumbent Alicia Bowman and challenger Alan Lobovits.
All registered Newton voters are eligible to vote for those running for any of the at-large seats.
Newton’s election will be Nov. 7, with early voting starting on Oct. 28.