I am a small business owner who resides in Newton and currently rents commercial space on Commonwealth Avenue. I recently posted about my business on this blog. In the discussion of Newton zoning reform, two issues related to zoning for Newton’s village centers (West Newton, Newton Highlands, Auburndale, Nonantum, Waban, etc.) that will have the biggest impact on the ability of small businesses to flourish are customer access and costs.
Regarding access: No one likes parking lots, but if parking is eliminated many types of small businesses will be unable to function in the absence of realistic substitutes. The MBTA’s Commuter Rail system is not a realistic substitute for customer access. Nor are bicycles (see West Newton traffic is a disaster).
My parents live within walking distance of one of the Newton villages. They walk there when the weather is good. But there’s no way they’re walking during the cold and dark winter months to pick up a prescription or get a bite to eat.
Small businesses like mine also depend on deliveries and pickups, which take place throughout the day during the peak season. This requires parking (I often use my personal car to drive to the main post office and UPS store in Newtonville) as well as vehicle access for UPS and USPS trucks. Here’s what my office looked like a month ago:
Bottom line: Bicycling and public transportation are not realistic options for most residents to access Newton’s small businesses, particularly on the north side of Newton.
Luxury apartments vs. Newton’s small businesses
I listened to the West Newton zoning feedback session. The comments from the business owners on Border Street were very telling regarding the impact on their blue-collar businesses and the prospect of conflict with new tenants who discover their expensive new apartments are next to working businesses with deliveries, noise, and employees seeking parking.
Restrictive and expensive commercial rents will be the other issue that kills off small businesses. One only needs to look at Kenmore Square, a thriving commercial center 25 years ago, which has turned into a corporate dead zone once a dominant corporate landlord took over and rebuilt Kenmore Square for luxury hotels, condos, and commercial space.
Planning officials say that they don’t have any ability to control ownership of property, but there certainly can and should be incentives to avoid monopoly situations, including elimination of “by right” developments, which will drive up costs for renters, whether they are “luxury” residential units or Newton small businesses.
When it comes to understanding the needs of small businesses and Newton zoning reform, the city council should consider the small business impact just as they look at environmental impact, traffic, and diversity.