Newton TAB, Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Succeeding on Austin Street, and beyond
By Tim Stone, Janet Porcaro, and Joy Huber
The proposed development of Newtonville’s Austin Street parking lot can benefit Newtonville, all of Newton, and future development in The Garden City. Beautiful Newtonville’s analysis stems from our mission as the nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing Newtonville. We have gauged popular sentiment by listening to local residents and businesses and conducting an extensive public opinion survey to identify the collective vision of Newtonville stakeholders.
Objectives. We believe a successful Austin Street development should enhance a sense of community and ambiance in Newtonville’s village center, help local businesses thrive, and support home values while meeting some of Newton’s affordable housing needs.
Current Status A City-appointed advisory board of local stakeholders has evaluated six proposals, summarized by the purchasing department. The City is scheduling interviews with the bidders. Based on the stakeholder evaluations, interviews, and other factors, Mayor Warren will select a developer to purchase the Austin Street parking lot from the City to convert it into mixed-use residential and commercial space. The City has asked that the proposals be firm for another 90 days, until Oct 22, but may request another extension.
Maintain downtown parking capacity, calibrate population density with traffic planning. An independent downtown parking/traffic study (accounting for pedestrian, bike, and vehicular traffic on Austin, Walnut, and Washington Streets) must precede any development plan, to account for economic booms, demographic forecasts, and the impact caused by the development itself. Despite the City’s RFP allowing development proposals to drastically curtail public parking capacity at Austin St. to 85 spaces, we have witnessed Saturdays when well over 85 cars fill the current lot. Reducing public parking capacity contradicts the wishes of local stakeholders, could be disastrous for beloved local businesses, and could squander public transportation opportunities: the MBTA says it will consider increasing Worcester-Framingham train service at commuter rail stations with sufficient parking capacity.
Establish appealing, well-landscaped public space. In both Beautiful Newtonville’s survey and in public forums, residents have said repeatedly that Newtonville needs a greater sense of community through appealing public space that includes more greenery, shade trees, outdoor dining, and benches. A successful Austin Street development thus needs a generous outdoor area accommodating all ages with outdoor cafes, ample greenery, and benches. Current proposals have situated a public plaza at Bram Way and Austin St., much of which will be a shared, vehicular/pedestrian space. This will only work if with minimal vehicular traffic. A traffic study is thus essential for determining the best entry points to Austin St. parking, ensuring the plaza’s viability as public space, and minimizing congestion on Walnut St.
Design a structure that complements iconic buildings and unites the cityscape. Residents feel deeply concerned with the size and style of many of the proposed structures. The optimal structure will enhance the historic charm already present in the village, and help unify the two sides of the downtown split by the Mass Pike.
Design for independent establishments. Design commercial space to attract independent businesses, not banks and service industries with no local connections and no incentives to contribute to civic pride. For example, a fledgling restaurant scene has begun in Newtonville, but growth is hindered by inadequate space, since full service restaurants require at least 2,000 square feet to remain viable. Residents repeatedly ask for independent shops and restaurants, not banks, nail salons, and chains. Even leaders at bank chains have lamented the profusion of banks, chain stores, and service industries.
Establish a 100% open meeting policy, engage the community. The Austin Street project will dramatically impact residents, local businesses, and property owners. Community input must be incorporated in the evolving plan, which the City cannot present to local residents and businesses as a fait accompli. Furthermore, Newton residents have a right to be present at meetings where key deliberations and information gathering occurs about the future of our villages. As with most City meetings, procedural protocols can maintain order and not impede process.
Ensuring sale proceeds are reinvested in Newtonville. Local representatives have recommended that all funds from the sale of Austin St. be reinvested in Newtonville (Austin St. RFP #13-51, Attachment-C), without other funds being rescinded. A net-positive reinvestment in Newtonville will meet the infrastructure needs of the development and the village center while benefiting residents and businesses, who will be negatively impacted by construction.
We believe these elements will establish a productive model for future development in Newton, enhance our village, and fulfill a reasonable portion of the city’s affordable housing needs.
Beautiful Newtonville is a non-profit 501©3 pending organization committed to revitalizing Newtonville. Its survey-based report is available at www.beautifulnewtonville.org
Tim Stone, Janet Porcaro, and Joy Huber are members of the board of Beautiful Newtonville. Huber was a member of the City-appointed advisory board of local stakeholders that evaluated the six Austin Street proposals. Huber and Stone are candidates for Newtonville’s Area Council.