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Why Newton needs this. And why I'm losing sleep over it.

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Why Newton needs this. And why I'm losing sleep over it.

Three percent.

That’s the total amount of land area that would be affected by a plan now before the Newton Council to update the zoning code in the city’s village centers.

Just three percent. Which means 97 percent of Newton won’t change.

Still, hundreds of passionate opponents and proponents gathered at City Hall and on Zoom on Tuesday for one final -- and being Newton, contentious -- public hearing on the proposal, just as they had at hearings this summer and at other meetings over nearly three years.

The Village Center Overlay proposal is expected to come up for a vote in a matter of weeks.  As written, it would allow Newton to meet the requirements of the state’s MBTA Communities Law, the most consequential housing law in half a century.

But this plan does more than is required by allowing for gradual change to more village centers than mandated. And that's mainly why it's so polarizing.

The proposal updates 1950s zoning rules that have made it onerous for developers to do pretty much anything by right except build McMansions. These are rules that were written in an era when no one worried about suburban sprawl, when no one worried about congestion, or climate, or where our kids and seniors would one day live.

The new rules would encourage the preservation of existing homes over tear-downs. They would allow for the creation of smaller, multi-family homes close to village centers and above existing shops. They would eliminate some of the onerous regulations that have made it hard to open a business here.

At Tuesday’s final public hearing (meeting video here), a majority of the speakers opposed the changes. Many were angry that the changes would alter their neighborhood’s character, create more traffic and lead to gentrification.

Some expressed fears that aren’t supported by the data. For example, school enrollment has been declining, although some complained that schools are too crowded now. And Newton has plenty of capacity in its water and sewer systems.

Other fears are the direct result of a misinformation campaign by an anonymous group of opponents who are behind lawn signs and flyers that depict buildings that are taller and larger and in locations not allowed under the proposal.

Yet other concerns were spot on. For example, our state needs to fix and restore confidence in our transportation system. People are right to worry about capacity. They're right to worry about parking.

Finally, others are worried about something that keeps me up at night too.

That’s the fear that upzoning may push out some existing restaurants, retailers, and other shops. Or that independent merchants won’t be able to afford the rent in new modern, amenity-rich, buildings.

As I said, I’m losing sleep over that. We do not want to lose our family businesses.

But here’s the rub: Not allowing our villages to evolve is harming our businesses right now.

And it’s only going to get worse.

Many business owners depleted their savings during the pandemic. Insurance, energy, the price of products, the price of everything, has soared. Online purchasing and meal delivery apps keep cutting into volume. Interest rates put capital improvements and repairs out of reach. Hiring and retaining workers has never been harder, or more expensive.

Sure, many restaurants are bustling again. Some stores are crowded too. But you need to consider the full economics (and the burnout following three harrowing years) before concluding, as several opponents to the zoning overlay argued on Tuesday, that life is rosey for our village merchants.

Many business owners tell you: It’s never been harder.

It’s no wonder that when the Retailers Association of Massachusetts surveyed small business owners across the state, 70 percent said they would be looking to sell or retire within the next decade.

Let that sink in: Seven out of every ten of Massachusetts’ small business owners hope to get out of their business within a decade.

Who is going to take their place? 
Our small downtown businesses – both those existing today and the new risk-takers and entrepreneurs we hope will open shops in the future – need the foot traffic that comes from creating more housing near their shops.

Our employers also need workers who can’t find a place to live right now too.

If we fail to build more housing, if we fail to take the steps that can reenergize our shopping districts, we will lose the small businesses we cherish today as well as hopes for future new businesses too.

But if we allow just three percent of Newton to evolve, we’ve begun building for our future.

That's what you need to know for today.

My regular newsletter returns tomorrow.

Greg Reibman (he, him)
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