April 24, 2007

Zoning Meeting

Filed under: Newton, Politics — marcstober @ 11:19 pm

Zoning matters in Newton, I think, for a different reason than a lot of people think. The Jackson Homestead’s website (our city’s history museum which I have yet to visit in person) has a great “movie map” of residential development in Newton; you can see on it that growth since about 1960 has been marginal, at the edges. I don’t agree with the people who quite vocally say that large new development will be a “disaster” to the “quality of life” in town. Perhaps building the Mass Pike or (the present-day) Route 128, or the railroads before that, or the subdivisions that created our neighborhoods mostly before anyone alive today was born were projects that could create such drastic change. Areas such as that south of the Fort Point Channel in Boston are undergoing the sort of redevelopment (to include new highways, subways, multiple high-rise buildings, museums, and a convention center that must be large enough to see from space). And let’s not forget this type of truly large-impact development is still the norm in areas that are less mature than Newton, or where economic conditions are such that old properties turn over and don’t retain value such as they do exceptionally well here.

The real threat zoning has to Newton is more along the lines of what economists call “opportunity cost,” that is, the possibility that once a given parcel is developed on the terms of a given zoning law we lose the chance to have that parcel developed into something else. This is particularly important in Newton because the city is so mature development-wise and most residents (and a lot of commercial tenants) have valuable property with no intention of moving; one a parcel is developed into one thing, there isn’t going to vacant land available for something else (at least when that something else requires a large commercial space, like a grocery store or hotel) anytime soon. Moreover, the threat may come from existing zoning as much as from new zoning—something could be developed in compliance with laws on the books that may not be the same as what would be enacted as the best zoning laws today (even in the theoretical in absence of proposed development). Put simply, when a large lot gets filled up with a large apartment building, a neighborhood loses its chance to have a convenient grocery store.

With these thoughts in mind I attended the public hearing last night of the Zoning and Planning committee of Newton’s Board of Alderman regarding the creation of a Planned Business District category of zoning, which may be suitable for various locations in the city but at the moment is being proposed by a developer who wants to redevelop a parcel that, until it closed, had the closest grocery store to my house, and is in a commercial area that I’ve been visiting for years even before I moved to Newton. In general, I am in favor of both the zoning change and the proposed development, in particular because I think the various elected and appointed officials, the city’s Planning Department, and even the developer and his attorneys have done an outstanding job in revising and amending the proposed change to make it conform with what is in the best interests of Newton and expressed in its Comprehensive Plan. I tend to see these sort of things in contrast to what I see in visits to my in-laws in suburban Cleveland where new developments are going up with all the problems we are talking about, such as the absurd Legacy Village which mimics a village center surrounded by a moat of parking lots (at least it has a grocery store). There are probably a couple areas that were commented upon by public speakers that are yet to be addressed: e.g., more direct mitigation for abutters, both during and after construction; and a need for “real” public transit that will encourage shoppers. Some issues are difficult: does limiting parking encourage transit, or merely increase traffic when people look for parking on surrounding streets? One commenter (who unfortunately did not have as good rhetorical styles as is points) asked why does the debate on height restrictions even matter; how tall the building is not as important measurement as how it actually impacts traffic—I thought that was a good point. In general, though, we are requiring developers to implement transit improvements, relationships to existing streets, etc.—we are ahead of the curve. Unfortunately our current zoning does not really match what we actually (at least as expressed by the Comprehensive Plan work) want Newton to look like, and state law provides that developers will get to do something with their land if the city doesn’t agree. (Avalon apartments are fine, but do we really want every vacant property to default to this?)

A few public speakers at the meeting spoke that we shouldn’t change zoning at the request of a developer. In an ideal world, we as citizens would figure out what zoning change we need and then the developers would build accordingly. In the real world, zoning changes don’t draft themselves, and I think it’s reasonable to allow that this is how the process works: until a property owner has a need to redevelop their land, we can’t expect that zoning changes will come before the board, even if it’s a change most citizens would agree to.

Of course, the citizens who show up at hearings aren’t usually the ones who agree to the request. This was part of my interest in attending; I’ve never been to an actual aldermanic-level (or selectmen or town or city council-level elsewhere) meeting before. I have been following local politics online through the Tab and the GardenCity.net sites, but I’d gotten the impression (confirmed by the meeting!) than this does not give a complete picture. In particular, what is the role of these blogs and websites in local politics? I find that I read these sites because I tend to empathize with the issues people raise in their comments and posts there, and because I feel I must have something in common with other citizens who want to connect with each other online. On the other hand, I don’t really agree with the decidedly antidevelopment sentiment of the most vocal people either at the meeting or online. My sense after going to the meeting (and this is probably “duh” for any experienced politicians) is that people who have a strong opinion or vested interest, particularly against what is being proposed, are over-represented both in the public hearing and online. (Much in the same way, as noted above, that it takes someone with a vested interest to propose a zoning or other amendment in the first place.) A smaller number of people—who may be for, against, or indifferent to the issue—are there out of motivation to participate or observe rather than a motivation to see the issue come out one way or another. As much as I’d like to think that I can get involved in politics from the comfort of my desk, reading blogs while waiting for code to compile, this is not the case on the conservative world of politics. As much as I appreciate Alderman Parker’s presence online, I do not agree with his views on this project (nor did I find his wandering around the room throughout and in one case, speaking out of turn conducive to due process). On the other hand, Board of Alderman President Baker made the most insightful comments I heard, although I haven’t come across a website describing his positions.

Anyhow, I am writing a message to the committee with my opinions. I like living in Newton because we have a local government that considers these issues, and is not driven by either the activists on one side or business on the other.