The pro-development bias of The Newton Beacon shows up in override article

So Newton’s proposed override is currently dominating the local political discourse. On Monday, there was a long article in Fig City News about an online forum hosted by the Charles River Regional Chamber with Newton Mayor Fuller. The purpose of the forum: to discuss proposals for an operating override and two debt exclusions. I am a small business owner in Newton, and a resident, so I was interested in hearing what they had to say.

Reading the article, it was impressive that several local business owners were willing to ask hard questions of the mayor and share their concerns about the reality of operating a business in Newton. One owner quoted in Fig City said “the focus of the override campaign has been on the impact on homeowners, but there has been no discussion about the thousands of dollars by which the override will increase taxes for businesses.”

I was also interested in this excerpt from the Fig City article, which matches my own observations – local real estate titans get breaks and special treatment that small businesses seldom experience.


Today, the same forum was covered in an article by The Newton Beacon, a new entrant to Newton’s news landscape whose motto pledges to be “Independent, Accurate, Unbiased.” Reading it through, I noticed the following section in the Beacon article:

Newton and other cities used grants at various points during the pandemic to help local businesses and that funding could also help, Reibman said. [the Newton business owner] agreed.

“Maybe come up with a concrete way to get grant money or help with some of these expenses,” [she] said at the meeting. “We are nudging up to the line of making Newton very unfriendly for local business. My fear is we get to a tipping point and it no longer makes sense for local businesses to be in Newton and you default to banks and national chains.”

Something didn’t seem right. Is that what she said? What about the bit about real estate that was in the Fig City coverage?

Here’s what Fig City reported (emphasis mine):

“[the business owner] expressed frustration that restaurants are increasingly being asked to shoulder increased expenses via pressure from other businesses (e.g., rents, recycling costs, and third-party delivery costs). She said “businesses have no override, no pot of money we can go to” and “at some point, we make Newton an unfriendly place to do business” — except for banks, real estate, and national chains. She said businesses need concrete support. The Mayor responded that the City gave $610,000 in grants to small businesses and literally delivered concrete barriers to create outdoor dining and will continue to look for other ways to help.”

I checked the video. Fig City had it right. Here’s what the business owner actually said, at around the 35 minute mark:

my fear – because I am so committed to local business – is that we get to a tipping point where we no longer have an economic equation that makes sense for local business to be in Newton, and then you default to Banks, real estate and national chains.”

Here’s the screenshot of Beacon’s coverage of this event, and below it, the YouTube transcript:

Newton Beacon coverage of override forum sample excluding mention of developers annotated
newton override small business comment original

Not only did The Newton Beacon deliberately leave out the small business owner criticizing the fact that Newton is more friendly to real estate developers than other small businesses, it gave credit to the head of the Charles River Regional Chamber for something he didn’t say in the public-facing video … and made it seem like this business owner agreed with him.

Here’s what really happened in the video. The small business owner didn’t “agree” with the head of the Chamber. She made the statement about grants on her own. This is her comment about the grant money, made in context of some of her actual costs of doing business, such as water:

“So far I haven’t been able to find any grant that’s a significant thing, so I’m wondering if we can come up – maybe through the chamber’s dining collaborative – some real concrete ways that we might get grant money or help, to really help us with some of these expenses.”

At that point, as Fig City News correctly reported, Mayor Fuller (not the chamber) responded with a comment about grants during the pandemic to help local businesses. As far as I can tell, the head of the Charles River Regional Chamber didn’t say anything about grants at this point in the video. In the video, the business owner never “agreed” with something he said during the forum.

So why make it seem like small business owners “agree” with the head of the local chamber of commerce? Why leave out “real estate” from a pointed criticism of Newton’s business haves vs. have-nots?

Newton Beacon: Follow the money

I think everyone in the city concurs that Newton needs independent media. I’m old enough to remember when Newton had a robust news ecosystem, with multiple newspapers covering the news and affairs of the city.

But let’s be clear about the origins of the The Newton Beacon, which despite its principled motto, owes its existence to a core of voices representing luxury real estate developers, as opposed to a grass-roots movement. These voices may not be writing copy, but they are steering the organization and exerting influence over what gets written.

These voices include the Chamber of Commerce itself, whose impact on Newton’s political life and major real estate developments cannot be overstated. Over time, the chamber’s board and premier membership tiers have been over-represented by large real estate developers including Northland Development Corporation (the same company which bought a 2020 referendum in Newton) and Mark Development, the luxury apartment developer which has taken over Washington Street from West Newton to the Lake.

Further, out of seven board members listed on the Beacon before it was launched, many are/were developers or represent them in some capacity. At least one of the names on the original list of board members neglected to mention the development affiliation (partner in a development company), instead concentrating on nonprofit and volunteer activities. Note there are some people on the board (as well as other supporters of the Beacon) who have solid media experience, but they are unfortunately in the minority.

While not having a seat on the board, the Charles River Regional Chamber is calling the shots on hiring and other matters. This should come as no surprise. Ten years ago, the organization enjoyed a great deal of support from the now moribund Newton Tab. The chamber could depend on a Tab reporter or editor including pro-development narratives in most stories about big developments on Washington Street, Needham Street, and elsewhere in the city (for an example, see “Riverside MBTA developers Robert Korff and BH Normandy negotiating in bad faith?“). The head of the Charles River Regional Chamber (previously known as the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce) was a former Tab editor, which means that he personally and professionally knew the reporters who covered the city for the Tab. A similar degree of access is baked into the cozy relationships with the current editorial staff of The Beacon, both of whom used to work for the Tab, and know the chamber’s leadership team very well.

I attended (via Zoom) the public meeting last June about the formation of the Newton Beacon. Many local residents were worried about the lack of a real news organization covering the city. It was also clear that the head of the chamber and the pro-development voices pushing for the Beacon were concerned about the loss of exposure for their interests and the lack of “a common set of facts” in the debates circulating on social media and in politicians’ newsletters.

Here’s what I think, as a former journalist (daily newspaper, daily TV show, trade magazines, and online media) and former board member of various nonprofits associated with media and technology: The way  things are headed now, the journalists who end up working for the Beacon on a permanent basis will be carefully selected by the Beacon’s real estate-dominated board and the head of the Charles River Regional Chamber to make sure that they are willing and able to:

  • Under the guise of covering “both sides of the story,” give an outsized voice to a handful of rich developers and their proxies on the Newton City Council and Newton City Hall when it comes to stories about development and zoning, despite thousands of local residents in the affected areas repeatedly voicing objections.
  • Work closely with the chamber of commerce on pitches and positive spin on anything related to development and upzoning in Newton.
  • Downplay or ignore comments by Newton residents, small business owners, and others who raise questions or voice opposition.

As we can see with this article about the operating override and debt exclusions, the Beacon erased a small business owner’s negative reference to local real estate development, and gave credit to one of the Beacon’s primary creators for things that he didn’t say (at least not in the video) and “agreement” from a small business owner that he didn’t receive. This is not an oversight, a flub, or an “oops, we goofed!” moment for the Beacon. It’s a subtle move to advance an agenda, and makes a mockery of the Beacon’s supposed editorial independence.

Bottom line: It’s a terrible sign for independent media in Newton when an organization that strenuously presents itself as “unbiased” and “fair” makes subtle but crucial changes to the facts in a way that puts certain business interests and powerful people in a more favorable light. The Newton Beacon, if it truly is committed to providing independent journalism in Newton, needs to sever all formal ties with the Charles River Regional Chamber, completely reform its board to remove the dominant influence of the local real estate industry, and start covering the news like a real news organization, as opposed to the PR arm of the chamber of commerce and local real estate investors. Concentrate on digging up and accurately reporting the facts, ask hard questions of the powers that be, and report the very real concerns of residents and small business owners who are watching their city and livelihoods turned upside down while for-profit, luxury developers strip-mine our city for profit.

Comments are welcome below.

Newton developers behaving badly: Turtle Lane edition

In Newton, a major building project at the corner of Ash Street and Melrose Street across from the Auburndale Community Library has turned into a giant eyesore and question mark for neighbors. I typically walk past the Turtle Lane building site several times per week on the way to my office, the coffee shop, or the Village Bank branch on Auburn Street and have been wondering what was going on at Turtle Lane. Why was construction so slow, and then apparently halted altogether?

There is now more clarity on this aspect of the Turtle Lane project thanks to a letter from Newton’s chief building inspector. It’s worse than many people thought.

Turtle Lane & the Auburndale Club

Turtle Lane was a community fixture for decades. I went there for neighborhood parties, and even had a drink at the old-fashioned bar! This Patch article describes some of the Turtle Lane history:

According to the Turtle Lane website, the non-profit theatre organization started as an offshoot of Wayland’s Vokes Theatre in the 1970s. The group of actors started with a production of “Godspell” and held rehearsals at a cast member’s house, which was located on Turtle Lane in Dover, Mass.

After success with its “Godspell” production, more actors joined and the group purchased the old Auburndale Club on Melrose Street in 1979. Two years later, the Turtle Lane Playhouse opened its doors with a production of “A Little Night Music,” according to its website.

In addition to its productions, Turtle Lane also offered internships, classes and a Children’s Workshop series in the summer.

The project to redevelop the former Turtle Lane playhouse into housing started some 10 years ago, but wasn’t approved until early 2016, according to the Newton Tab:

Developer Stephen Vona has been eyeing a project to renovate the theater while also adding a mix of residential and commercial uses to the Melrose Street site for more than two years.

The City Council Monday night cleared the way for Vona to construct a 16-unit multi-family building plus a new three-story office building attached to the theater, which will be rehabilitated and reopened.

In addition to office space, initial plans called for 29 units plus a restaurant on the site, but the developer agreed to modify the proposal after feedback from neighbors and councilors.

Once construction on Turtle Lane started, there seemed to be spurts of activity involving the original structure and new modular units, interspersed with increasingly long pauses. Here’s what it looked like in May 2018:

turtle lane auburndale May 2018

Over the next few years, the original playhouse building was gutted and partially refurbished. Modular units were placed to the north of the playhouse and connected; as I recall this was during the early part of the pandemic. But then work on Turtle Lane stopped completely more than a year ago. What happened?

Turtle Lane Construction as of mid 2022

Here’s what it looked like this past summer. The plywood on the east side of the old playhouse was already starting to look weathered. Someone finally had covered up the open holes against the elements, though (they had been uncovered for many months).

Turtle Lane developer 2022

Here are the modular units per Google Street View:

turtle lane Melrose street view better

The Newton ISD memo

Rumor had it there was an issue with the foundation. According to a recent document from Newton’s Inspectional Services Department, that’s not all. It turns out the problems are manifold and extremely serious. Here’s what ISD Commissioner John Lojek states in his January 4, 2023 letter to Mayor Fuller:

Residents in the area surrounding 283 Melrose Street in Auburndale have voiced frustration with  the stalled Turtle Lane Development, which includes a theater building and a 16-unit modular  residential dwelling (the “Residential Building”) at 283 Melrose Street. I appreciate these frustrations and share them.

This memo focuses on the issues concerning the Residential Building. I have significant concerns  about the structural integrity of the Residential Building and the overall safety of the site.  Significant work was performed without building permits and in violation of multiple City of  Newton Stop Work Orders. Much of the work has not been sufficiently inspected or signed off on in  accordance with the State Building Code.

I. History

On multiple occasions, work on the Residential Building has been performed without obtaining building permits; without notice, knowledge, or oversight by ISD; and in direct violation of the  State Building Code. The installation of manufactured (modular) units is strictly regulated under the  State Building Code. One notable issue is that the modular housing units were set on the foundation without a building permit.

As a result of such violations, the City has issued numerous stop work orders and notices of  violation. Despite this, work continued to be performed in violation of the notices and orders. Some  on my recent notices were appealed to the Massachusetts Building Code Appeals Board and upheld  after thorough review.

After conducting a walkthrough of the Residential Building, I determined that the structure was not  safe and issued a notice of unsafe structure. The Newton Fire Department also determined that the  structure is unsafe in the case of fire and marked the Residential Building with a red X as notice of its unsafe condition, signifying that the structure is deemed unsafe for interior firefighting or for interior response by first responders.

II. Structural Concerns

An overarching concern is that the Residential Building was installed without building permits and  without full inspections. Even without full inspections, it is clear that the physical structure, as it  currently exists, does not meet the requirements of the State Building Code and is not structurally sound. Based on its walkthroughs of the property, ISD has discovered a number of serious structural problems with the Residential Building and has been unable to confirm the Residential Building’s compliance with the State Building Code or issue building permits to complete the building. In essence, the Residential Building was incorrectly assembled.

ISD has sent comprehensive letters to Turtle Lane, LLC listing the requirements that need to be  fulfilled in order for a building permit to be granted for the completion of the Residential Building.  To date, the majority of these requirements have not been fulfilled.

III. Steps Forward

I want to see the Residential Building completed as quickly as possible, but it must be built safely and in accordance with the law. I have continually consulted with the City’s Law Department to consider all possible avenues of achieving completion of this project. As this is private construction  on private property, the options available to the City to force compliance are limited. It is ultimately  the property owner’s responsibility, along with their construction team, to comply with the State  Building Code. I have clearly and unequivocally communicated to the property owner and the  development team the steps that are required for the Residential Building to proceed. They know  what is necessary to come into compliance to complete construction and it is ultimately their  responsibility to do so.

The City should continue to evaluate all of its options and rights. Currently, an upcoming meeting  has been scheduled with city officials and the developer’s representatives in another attempt to  resolve the outstanding issues. I will provide a further update after that meeting.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen Newton developers behaving badly. There was the shoddy finishing work at Mark Development’s Trio project in Newtonville (see “Substandard “luxury” housing construction, from New York to Newton“) as well as developer Ty Gupta’s outrageous and illegal demolition of the  Gershom Hyde House, a nearly 300-year-old historic home.

But “unsafe for interior firefighting?” “Incorrectly assembled?” “Not structurally sound?” Turtle Lane takes things to a whole different level, if the ISD letter is accurate.

What’s even more alarming is the ISD’s claim of limited options being available to force compliance. This is a longstanding problem. Newton negotiates projects with no real strings attached, and when developers screw up or demand more concessions (see “More broken promises, more developer demands at Riverside T Stop in Auburndale“) it’s neighbors who are left staring at derelict buildings, shoddy construction, and unfinished foundations.

A system needs to be implemented that penalize developers and property owners with significant fines that not only “force compliance,” but serve as a deterrent for delays and corner-cutting. Ultimately, if Newton developers prove unable to finish the work that they promised to do, there needs to be a mechanism for the property to be turned over to a more competent party … or the city.

What will happen to Turtle Lane? In the absence of any compliance mechanism, I and many other neighbors fear Turtle Lane will remain a hazard and eyesore for years while the developer, the city, lawyers and lenders deal with the mess.

Newton zoning reform: 2 factors that will make or break Newton’s small businesses

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:

Newton small business shpping

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.

Small businesses struggle against big box stores, Amazon, and luxury developers … and adapt

As the owner of a small business specializing in genealogy supplies, and someone who is passionate about local history, I follow several historical Facebook groups focused on neighborhoods in Newton Massachusetts and northern New York. It’s a lot of fun looking at the old photos and reminiscing about people or activities or buildings from decades ago. The photo at the top of this page is from near where I grew up – the line of shops on Washington Street in West Newton, near the former location for the West Newton branch of the Newton Free Library.

I’ve noticed people are particularly delighted by the pictures of main streets commercial districts and the small shops that lined the street (sample comments edited and anonymized):

“That was a great place to grow up … we would walk up town go to the drug store and get a soda that they mixed at the counter.”

“When I was 6 years old I would go the corner market with a note and they would pick the goods off of the shelves and put them in the bag along with any change.”

“I remember there was a second hand store that helped my mom when we had no money … the owner gave my mom winter boots, toys, decorations, so much love … My mom went back every year to buy things to help her business keep going and we became like family.”

“My Dad would drop me and Mom off near Main Street. We’d stroll to the shoe shop and Mom would get me my Hush Puppy shoes for school. Then off to Woolworth’s for a chocolate milkshake … it was our tradition!

“Next to Dad’s barbershop, the apple pie a la mode at the Lounge could not be beat!”

People clearly appreciated the personal touch. They loved the genuine concern the owners and staff showed for their customers. And there was mutual trust.

Broken cycle of small business renewal

Many of those little shops and eateries and small department stores are long gone. Furthermore, on main streets and crossroads across North America, the cycle of small businesses closing and new ones taking their place has been broken.

st lawrence county 1970s

Over the summer when I visited northern New York, I drove down the street shown in the photo above, and there were boarded-up windows everywhere. It turns out that the remaining local shops were dealt a fatal blow in the early 2000s after Walmart came to town, building a giant superstore a few miles away along the state highway. Business evaporated, and the local businesses shut down. It’s a typical pattern, the so-called “Walmart effect,” particularly when Walmart builds new stores in rural areas:

walmart effect small businessIn my own hometown near Boston, a larger population base gives local small businesses a better chance of survival against the big box retailers. But there are other threats, from Amazon to COVID. Here in Newton, a looming crisis for small businesses is the appearance of luxury apartment developers, who buy out local property owners, and redevelop the land into giant complexes that favor high-end retail tenants and national franchises over family-owned businesses and shops.

There is one bright spot for small businesses like ours: Online stores and tools that help us find new customers and stay connected with old ones, no matter where they happen to live.

As you complete your holiday shopping, please give extra consideration to small businesses, whether it’s a local gift shop in Auburndale or a trusted specialty retailer. We strive to provide that personal touch, mutual trust, and special products that you won’t find elsewhere.

More broken promises, more developer demands at Riverside T Stop in Auburndale

Riverside T stop development Korff

Mark Development once again wants to wriggle out of the agreement they forced through on Auburndale residents. Quoting Fig City News:

According to the report, “Over the last four months, increased construction costs (they have gone up by 25%) and rising interest rates have stalled the project. Once Mark Development has financing in place, it will be 9 months before they have a shovel in the ground. This means that there is no start date for the ledge blasting or Hotel Indigo demolition.”

The Liaison Committee also reported that residential units may be developed first, before any laboratory space, saying “it could take a couple of years for the market for lab to come back so Mark Development is exploring building the residential component of the project first,” even though they believe they have a great location and a strong partner in Alexandria Development.

The company, operated by Newton luxury apartment developer Robert Korff, was supposed to pay the MBTA $25 million next year. Now he is demanding an extension.

Is anyone surprised? This is the third or fourth time a Riverside developer has reneged on its agreement with Auburndale and Lower Falls residents, pleading poverty or “changed conditions” or something else to get more profits or rights at residents’ expense.

A few years ago, when Korff & Co. and his friends in City Hall were in the midst of maneuvering to overcome the sensible objections of Auburndale and Newton Lower Falls residents, I said the deal should be rejected on principle:

The impact would be especially hard on residents of Newton Lower Falls and Auburndale, who thought the Riverside deal was settled five years ago but have since learned the negotiation was merely a preamble to yet more aggressive demands from developers. No one cares about preserving an MBTA parking lot, but there’s already a signed deal that developers, residents, and politicians agreed to. Developer Korff’s attempt to renege on it should be shot down not only on principle, but also to avoid setting a precedent for other real estate deals signed by Korff and other developers throughout Newton.

It’s time to consider other options for this parcel. No one forced Robert Korff to pay premium prices for development rights in Riverside, and then expect Auburndale and Lower Falls residents to accommodate its endless demands for more profit. Mark Development clearly can’t be trusted to follow through on the promises it made for Riverside. And it makes me wonder about Korff’s other promises for Washington Street, from West Newton to the Lake.

Newton should also use eminent domain in cases where Newton developers demonstrate they are not up to the task. Unfortunately, the role of the MBTA makes that impossible at Riverside. Besides, in recent years, eminent domain has only been invoked for nature preservation on the south side of the city in the mayor’s back yard. When it comes to the northern villages, Newton City Hall applies a different set of considerations.


West Newton traffic is a disaster

West Newton traffic has never been good. Its design dates to colonial times, long before the invention of motor vehicles. But in the past few years West Newton traffic has gone from bad to worse, to a disaster that threatens the safety of pedestrians and drivers.

west newton traffic map

Increased volume is a factor, as are bad driving habits, and technology platforms like Uber and Google Maps that route drivers through the area. But I believe the traffic reconfiguration that introduced bike lanes in West Newton Square and reset the timing of traffic lights in recent years is also part of the problem.

Case in point: 3 accidents in 36 hours at a nearby intersection, where Watertown street is bisected by Eliot Ave/Eddy Street, about a quarter-mile away from West Newton Square. Someone – a pedestrian – was apparently struck. A stone fence was destroyed. I grew up in the area and have family there still. While accidents have happened in the past, they were never this frequent. Local residents have taken matters into their own hands with “Slow Down” signs and other warnings to pedestrians:

eddy street watertown street accident

The city has since introduced rubber poles on Watertown Street as “traffic calming” measures to slow drivers. But it doesn’t address the root cause.

If distracted drivers and poor driving were the root causes, we would be seeing similar clusters of accidents all over the city. So what’s happening at this intersection?

In a nutshell, more people are using Eddy/Eliot as a cut through to avoid West Newton Square where Watertown Street meets Washington Street, and connects with Chestnut Street, Elm Street, Cherry Street, and Waltham Street.

There are similar detours all around West Newton Square. Webster Street. Auburndale Ave and River Street. Adella Ave. Hunter Street. Eden Ave. Some of these ‘shortcuts’ are used more than others, but it derives from the same truth: people do not want to drive through the West Newton traffic mess.

Local residents noticed the situation getting worse during the pandemic after West Newton traffic was reconfigured to include bike lanes, new traffic light timings, and lanes for cars that force drivers to weave a path through Washington Street as they go through West Newton Square. Quoting West Newton Ward Councilor Julia Malakie from a newsletter in October 2021:

‘One of the most frequently mentioned concerns I’ve been hearing as I knock on doors in West Newton is the reconfiguration of traffic in the Square. “I hate it,” “I avoid West Newton Square now,” and “why are there so few bikes using the bike lanes?” are representative comments.’

west newton traffic disaster malakie newsletter

Now that the pandemic has receded and more people are returning to their jobs and social routines, West Newton traffic has gotten even worse, and more people are using the cut-throughs to avoid it. And more people are getting in accidents, and getting hurt, or nearly getting hit.

Malakie and other West Newton (Ward 3) councilors are raising concerns at City Hall. There are meetings and public comments are solicited. I’m not confident the situation will change, though.

As we’ve seen in the past, successive Newton mayors have been focused on prioritizing the demands of developers and small groups of activists over the input of northside residents and local businesses. They only relent when the outcry is too loud to ignore. Quoting “Newton Pulls Plug On Bike Lane Pilot On Washington Street” in the October 19, 2020 Newton Patch:

Earlier this month, the city removed some 200 parking spaces for a bike lane pilot east bound on Washington Street. Now the spaces are back and the pilot never kicked off, according to the city.

The spaces were removed at the beginning of the month along the Mass Pike side of Washington Street between Sullivan Tire in West Newton and Lowell Avenue in Newtonville as a trial designed to last a few months, according to city officials.

Local businesses panicked, as parking for their employers and customers was removed. According to the article, councilor Alicia Bowman from Ward 6/Newton Center had some role in the plan for bike lanes replacing parking on Washington Street in West Newton and Newtonville, but distanced herself from the plan after people complained (“I don’t think they anticipated the level of angst from the business community”). The Chamber of Commerce, usually a fan of Mayor Fuller’s pro-development policies, criticized the city:

Greg Reibman president of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce said he thought the city made a mistake by not communicating the decision in advance or giving stakeholders a chance to weigh in.

What happens now? There is a city website to track West Newton Village enhancements. The city’s presentation on October 20, 2022 about West Newton traffic flows states its goal is to “Maximize Safety and convenience for all travel modes.”

The top bullet points under this heading: “Simplify intersections and traffic patterns” and “Accommodate bicycles.”

That time when Newton’s mayor blew off my email about the Fessenden School abuse scandal

My email to former Newton Mayor Setti Warren, dated May 10 2016. This was two days after The Boston Globe Spotlight team (the same group that uncovered the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal) released a report detailing the decades-long culture of abuse and cover-ups at the Fessenden School in West Newton. Here’s a complete copy of the email:

Dear Mayor Warren,

On Sunday, May 8, the Boston Globe published a Spotlight team investigation into pedophilia at dozens of private schools in New England. One of them, the Fessenden School, is located in West Newton. A group of former students have given statements indicating that not only were they victimized by pedophile faculty at Fessenden, but administrators downplayed their reports and failed to report abuse to police and state authorities, as required by law.

One of the faculty members, an assistant headmaster at the school, was brazen enough to brag in a message to his Harvard classmates that “my life seems to have been filled with 250 boys each year to … put to bed and to love” while another faculty member proudly displayed a Nazi flag and other Nazi memorabilia in his dorm room. A third was the school psychologist — the man whom some of the victims (as well as other confused or struggling young students) may have turned to for help and reassurance. 

Fessenden itself has sent a series of letter to alumni (see links below) admitting that 16 former students have come forward since 2011 to describe their abuse at the hands of “at least five individuals who were members of our community” in the 1960s and 1970s. These numbers do not include victims who reported sexual abuse or inappropriate sexual behavior before 2011 or taking place outside of the 1960s and 1970s.

It is important to note that not one person has ever been investigated for abuse of Fessenden students, or charged with any crime. Pedophile teachers may have been able to commit more crimes against children after leaving Fessenden in the 1970s and 1980s. At least two of them are still alive, enjoying freedom while their victims have suffered a lifetime of pain. I have heard that one former student committed suicide in the 1970s, and his classmates believe that he may have been abused by one of these men.

Further, there is evidence that Fessenden administrators failed to notify police and state authorities of the abuse when they learned of it. Up until the 1990s and perhaps later, the M.O. of the Fessenden administration was to settle claims out of court.

I would like to ask you about what reports, if any, did Newton Police or child welfare authorities receive from students, parents, teachers, or administrators concerning physical or sexual abuse of children at Fessenden’s Newton campus? I realize that state regulations require reports of abuse to be filed with state authorities, but I think it is conceivable that some local residents or students may have first approached the Newton Police.

I would also like to ask if the abuse of children, or the failure of private entities (including Fessenden’s administration, board members and legal counsel) to follow reporting requirements falls under any municipal statutes.

Finally, I would like to ask your administration to make a public statement condemning the great evil that occurred at the Fessenden School … and offering support to the victims as they seek justice.


Ian Lamont

I never received a reply. There was no acknowledgement. There was no statement condemning the abuse. There wasn’t even a note in his newsletter pointing to the Spotlight revelations. I assume that there was no outreach to the legal department at Newton City Hall, or the Newton Police Department.

We now know that during this time period that Howie Leung, a faculty member at the Fessenden Summer ELL program, was allegedly grooming students participating in the Fessenden program. It apparently started in 2015 with a 13-year-old girl, and was about to happen again in the summer of 2016, according to an investigation that took place several years later. This is despite Fessenden’s repeated promises that it had turned a new leaf and was doing everything to protect children under its care. Quoting former Fessenden Headmaster David Stettler in 2011, the safety of students was the school’s “highest priority.”

Here’s the initial report about Leung in the Concord Monitor, dated April 17, 2019:

When he was a teacher at Rundlett Middle School, Howie Leung wrote a letter to a 14-year-old student that police said was “very expressive and emotional.”

“I love you,” Leung wrote, and admitted, “I was pressuring you and you didn’t want to let me down.”

The letter was written to a former Concord student who Leung is accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting at Concord’s middle school and at the Fessenden School in Newton, Mass., a five-week boarding camp for girls and boys ages 9 to 15. The letter was uncovered as part of an investigation by police in Concord and Newton.

… The report says much of the abuse occurred while she was an unpaid helper at the Fessenden School, which provides an overnight English Language Learning summer program to help students gain skills in speaking, writing and reading English.

The victim said Leung assaulted her repeatedly in his office, in the tunnels of the school buildings where the campers were playing tag, and in her own dorm room, assaulting her approximately 20 times over the course of two summers, the report said.

leung booking photo fessenden case

Leung was actually caught, investigated, and charged not because Fessenden School reported it, but because some of Leung’s grooming activities took place near Concord (NH) High School. That school district also dropped the ball, and recently settled with victims. But Fessenden is not party to the agreement:

The experiences of both former students were detailed in an investigative report prepared by attorney Djuna Perkins, who detailed years of inaction by school administrators to numerous red flags and boundary violations between Leung and female students.

In the most recent settlement agreement provided to the Monitor this week and dated Feb. 7, the school district agreed to protect the identity of the former student. The payment was made to the student who witnesses said Leung was kissing in a car near Concord High School in 2018. Despite the school district’s internal investigation, Leung was allowed to remain on the job for three and a half more months before any action was taken against him. However, that report led to Leung’s eventual arrest by Concord Police.

The agreement notes that the Fessenden School in Massachusetts is not released from any claims through this settlement agreement. It also specifies that Leung is not released from any claims in his capacity as an individual.

Even though the Concord school district failed to take action for months, investigators in NH apparently notified their counterparts in Massachusetts. In 2019, This led to charges of

aggravated rape of a child with a 10-year age difference, two charges of aggravated indecent assault and battery on a child under age 14, and two counts of aggravated indecent assault and battery on a person age 14 or older.

I wonder now what would have happened if Mayor Warren had done something in May of 2016, after the Spotlight report came out. Issued a public statement condemning what happened at Fessenden over many decades. Directed his law and police departments to examine relevant statutes, and their historical handling of such cases. Maybe even notified Fessenden that it had to do more to ensure no child under its care would ever experience abuse again.

As far as I know, nothing happened. Which is strange, considering his active participation in the discussions just a few years earlier surrounding Steven Chan, a Day Middle School teacher arrested for child pornography. Here’s how the Newton Tab described his address to concerned parents:

Mayor Setti Warren opened by saying that he had just two things to say to parents.

“Public safety is a priority to this community,” Warren said. “We take it very seriously. I believe that he (Chan) should be prosecuted to the extent that the law allows.”

Warren also told the crowd that his [daughter] began kindergarten today.

“I feel confident as mayor that not only will she get a great education, I am confident she’s safe.”

What about the safety of children at Fessenden? Did they not matter?

Or maybe Warren was focused on other things. I’ve written about him before, in connection with reforming Newton’s real estate development, taking control away from city councilors and giving it to a developer-friendly planning department. Over the objections of Newtonville residents and their city councilors, he was instrumental in getting developer Robert Korff of Mark Development what he wanted at the Orr Building on Washington Street in Newtonville, which later became Trio Newtonville. He also made it possible for developer Dinosaur Capital to lease prime land in Newtonville for the equivalent of just over $10,000 per year. Units at 28 Austin Street now require people with incomes measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Warren’s term ended in 2018, and he ended up Harvard Kennedy School, where he is now executive director at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics.

His successor, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, hasn’t once mentioned the Fessenden School even though the Leung case came to light during her first term.

Leung faces trial in Massachusetts in 2023.

To date, Leung has been the only teacher ever charged with abusing children at the Fessenden School, despite decades of reports and the arrest of two teachers in the 1970s for assaults that took place outside of Fessenden. In the 1970s, Fessenden administrators lied to the media and to investigators about abuse on campus by teachers there. At other times, they never reported claims of abuse to authorities. When the older cases came to light in 2011, Stettler claimed the school had changed, but its failure to monitor one of its employees in the years that followed shows it was lip service.



Newtonville residents sue city over Newton Senior Center (updated)

(Updated) Neighbors For a Better Newtonville (NBN) announced on June 3 it is suing the City of Newton over the proposed Newton Senior Center on Walnut Street. There’s a lot to unpack. Here’s the documentation that NBN prepared. Here’s the press release:

Neighbors For a Better Newtonville sues city Newton Senior Center

A couple things stood out to me, such as insufficient parking. NBN states that the city’s proposal:

Has 31 parking spaces when it needs 97 according to the feasibility study and 210 according to the zoning guidelines

The report by the traffic engineer hired to assess the Newton Senior Center lays out the usage challenges (peak demand depending on the program schedules, staff needs, etc.) but concludes with a hand-wavy solution around NewMo picking up the slack, seniors carpooling, or people walking from the Austin Street lot or street parking on Walnut Street.

As someone who regularly drives Newton seniors to appointments and hears a lot about seniors’ concerns about traffic (Auburndale was recently put through the ringer by city planners and southside ward councilors over the unsafe removal of the traffic light at Ash Street and Commonwealth Ave) this is wishful thinking at best, and dangerous at worst.

For instance, parking on Walnut Street has become more treacherous since the street was narrowed, with less visibility and reduced reaction time for drivers when people cross Walnut street or open car doors. I know this because my small business has dropoffs every week at the UPS store. It’s dangerous as a driver, and it’s dangerous for anyone who needs to step into the street. As noted in the NBN release, the city’s proposal:

Requires seniors with canes and walkers, who are not dropped off or able to park on-site, to walk a block or more from the Austin Street parking lot or nearby streets, to access activities.

NBN is absolutely right on this point. Carpooling or the NewMo car ride app is not a magic solution for seniors who can’t walk far, or who worry about COVID, or have trouble downloading, using, and updating an app.

Newtonville residents are clearly concerned about the Newton Senior Center plans. Quoting from Newton City Councilor Tarik Lucas (Ward 2, representing Newtonville) in his February 25 newsletter:

In December 2021 Neighbors for Better Newtonville (NBN) led a petition drive to collect signatures of Newton residents who would like to see the site landmarked. Last month they collected over 500 signatures and issued a press release which you can read here. As a result, on January 28th I co-nominated the Senior Center site for local historic landmarking. I was joined by Ward 3 Councilor Julia Malakie, the Chair of the Newton Historic Commission Peter Dimond, Newton Historic Commissioners Amanda Stauffer Park, and Mark Armstrong.

This approach failed, as evidenced by the lawsuit.

Newton’s northside residents ignored by Mayor Fuller

Another things that’s clear from reading the NBN press release and other materials prepared by the Newtonville residents: They clearly feel misled and let down by the Fuller administration. Local people were promised the building would be preserved, and now they’re being told that’s it’s not going to happen.

Should anyone be surprised? In Newton’s northside villages, including Newtonville, The Lake, West Newton, Auburndale, and Newton Corner, residents are regularly promised something and hear soothing words that the mayor is listening. At the end of the day, their concerns are ignored, the promises are broken, and the planning department and luxury developers end up getting what they want.

We saw it with Riverside in Auburndale (with developers ripping up an agreement 3 times in order to realize their demands). Mayor Ruthanne Fuller’s response? She doesn’t want to “push a developer away” so projects “become uneconomic.” Then there was Mayor Fuller’s farce of “listening” to local concerns about developing Washington Street which ended up with a plan that seems tailor made for Robert Korff and Mark Development.

Newtonville has been especially impacted by large building projects that line the pockets of developers, despite the concerns from local residents. Consider the 99-year lease granted to 28 Austin Street developers Dinosaur Capital for just $1,050,000. Or Mark Development’s luxury Trio development on Washington Street, which had visible cracks under the sidewalk overhang and pieces of building material peeling off the structure less than a year after opening (See Substandard “luxury” housing construction, from New York to Newton).

What will happen with the Senior Center? It obviously needs to be modernized and made more accessible, and many seniors support a completely new design. NBN’s leadership acknowledges that the current facility is outdated and insufficient:

“The petition asks only to preserve the historic exterior,” said Fred Arnstein, president of NBN, in a letter. “Within and beyond that exterior, we agree that the city needs an updated facility to better serve our senior population.”

I don’t know if the lawsuit will be successful, but it will force the city to pay attention.

UPDATE 6/7/2022: Someone pointed me to former Newton City Councilor and mayoral candidate Amy Sangiolo’s newsletter from this morning, which notes the multiple public construction projects in the city of Newton currently being handled by NV5:

NV5 was recently selected as the Owner’s Project Manager, OPM, for the Horace Mann Elementary School project by the Designer Selection Committee and the Mayor. According to this announcement from Building Commissioner, Josh Morse, “NV5 has a tremendous amount of experience managing school projects throughout the state, but they also have ample Newton experience as the OPM for Angier, Zervas, Cabot, and the project to replace the Newton Senior Center. They have worked with our project design firm, Raymond Design Associates, RDA, on several projects, and they’ve helped manage many occupied addition and renovation school projects.”

UPDATE 6/12/2022: Rightsize Newton asks in its newsletter, “Why does the Mayor claim to support historic preservation but oppose any attempt at landmarking the building?”. RSN goes on to note:

On Monday, May 13, Peter Dimond, Chair of the Newton Historical Commission, received a call from Barney Heath, Director of Planning & Development. Peter was informed that his term on the NHC had expired the previous Friday and the Mayor had decided not to reappoint him. In short, Peter Dimond was no longer a member of the NHC.

A few months earlier, Jennifer Bentley was informed by the mayor that she would not be reappointed to the NHC when her term was up in May.

Why would Mayor Fuller “clean house” at the NHC?

Peter Dimond has a theory.

A few weeks ago he wrote to his former colleagues on the NHC the following:

Peter Dimond Newton Historical Commission forced out

The mayor pretending to “listen” to experts and passionate residents about issues that are important to them, then turning right around and dismissing those views (or dismissing the experts) should come as no surprise.

The mayor, a Chestnut Hill resident, has been hammered for years by complaints that she doesn’t listen, particularly from residents of northside villages disproportionately affected by development plans, including Newton Corner, the Lake, Newtonville, West Newton, and Auburndale. For instance, she was put on the defensive on this point in the past, as the Newton Tab reported in 2019:

“We are listening,” Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said in response to questions about whether the community’s feedback will be taken seriously. “We all care desperately about Newton. We care about this site. I, too, want the right size here,” referring to the green “RightSize Riverside” stickers distributed by the Lower Falls Improvement Association’s Riverside Committee.

I’ve also criticized the mayor on this blog for putting on a charade of listening and then doing pretty much what she, her consultants, and luxury housing developers seek to have built:

Another side of this trend is the tactics used by some of our own elected officials and the city planning department to steamroll opposition and discussion. A few years back, it was holding neighborhood feedback sessions (“Hello Washington Street“) in which the mayor, planning department officials, and highly paid consultants made a big show of listening to local residents in West Newton and Newtonville about the plans. After the sessions were over, they promptly turned around proceeded to ram through the high-density plan that they and big developers wanted all along.

Then there’s the issue of the Fuller administration not even bothering with “stakeholder input,” as local businesses in West Newton and Newtonville discovered last fall when hundreds of parking spaces along Washington Street suddenly disappeared to make way for bike lanes.

Substandard “luxury” housing construction, from New York to Newton

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an article titled They Expected Luxury. They Got Leaky Ceilings and Broken Elevators. While the article was about pandemic-era construction, the comment from someone who claimed to have worked in Manhattan real estate development pointed to a problem that has been ongoing for many years:

I worked in luxury construction in Manhattan for nearly two decades, building and installing every type of bespoke metalwork that architects and designers could imagine. I was almost always appalled by the dysfunction on job sites, even on projects with multi-million-dollar budgets. In my opinion most of it was the result of construction companies hiring the cheapest possible labor and pushing them to go too fast. I can’t count how many times “bargain” laborers damaged my work or that of other craftspeople involved, simply because they were inexperienced or poorly managed. Until developers and general contractors begin to truly respect EVERYONE involved, whether they’re skilled artisans or merely sweeping up the sawdust, these problems will continue.

Another commenter said that the problem wasn’t only in New York:

Not just New York! I moved into a BRAND NEW “luxury” mid-rise in Florida in 2020 (building opened December 2019). Such terrible terrible awful construction! So glad I was only there for some months. Worst living experience I’ve ever had and that was the most expensive place I’ve ever lived in my life. Examples: Slanted (instead of straight) handing kitchen lights. Super thin walls – could hear my neighbor sneeze rooms away. The three elevators (placed in very awkward locations) took turns being broken every single month. Broken coffee machine. Thin exterior walls – could never sleep bc you can hear the highway all day and night. Leaning cabinets. Peeling wooden floors. Warped balcony doors. Low water flow (wouldn’t send solids down the toilet so I’d have to pour water in to manually flush!). And remember… this was a brand new place. I was the first ever occupant.

A third person said:

The best builders and contractors and sub-contractors have to turn down work because they’re in such high demand and so who gets those jobs instead of then? A lot of people who are learning on the job and making a lot of mistakes. Many of those “luxury” buildings are not luxury construction. EVEN in super high-end buildings you still get issues so it’s no surprise that with the sheer amount of building in NYC places that claim to be “luxury” are certainly not and full of behind the sheetrock fixes. If you’re going to buy find out who the builder is and do your research. I’m not talking about the developer, I’m talking about the company in charge of the actual building process. Then look up one of their buildings and see how it’s doing a couple of years down the road. And look in the cabinets and check the finishing work. Look at the plumbing under the sink and behind the toilet… How well is it finished? Go to the basement and get into the service areas and see what it looks like where there’s no sheetrock. Walk down the stairs and look at the concrete and the electric conduit and water pipes. You’ll start to see how much care and oversight was put into a building.

Reading these comments, I was reminded of the scenes outside of Trio Newton when it first opened on Washington Street in Newtonville, on the site of the former Orr block (Karoun, Ken Kaye Crafts, Newtoville Camera, etc.). Trio is the luxury apartment block built by Mark Development after steamrolling opposition from local neighbors and northside ward councilors with the help of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce and pro-development politicians like Newton’s former Mayor Setti Warren (see “Upzoning” in Newton: A tool to turn over the city from one class of people to another?).

When going to the Newtonville Post Office next door to Trio in 2020, I noticed long straps of plastic-like material hanging from an overhang above (below the 2nd floor of Trio). One strip was so low to the ground that someone could jump up and pull it down.

I wasn’t the only one to notice something was amiss. In April 2021, Ward 2 Councillor Julia Malakie compiled a list of other construction problems she had observed at Trio Newton under the heading “Is Trio Tired?” and shared it with her newsletter subscribers:

trio newton construction 2

Mark Development Construction

That wasn’t all. Other parts of the brand-new Trio showed signs of poor construction:

mark development newton luxury construction

mark development newton luxury 2

Despite Mark Development promising the moon to neighbors and councilors, this is what Trio looked like less than one year after its official opening. These problems have since been fixed, but I wonder about other issues that can’t be seen from the street. If anyone has knowledge, please leave your comments below.

Keep in mind that Mark Development has been given the green light by the Mayor and a bloc of pro-luxury development City Councillors (mostly from south-side wards, far away from any of these projects) to build not only overpriced rentals for the rich, but also science labs for pharmaceutical companies … and potentially housing for Newton’s seniors.

Mark Development is now planning another giant 7-story development on the Newtonville/Lake border. As noted by Ward 1 Councillor John Oliver in his newsletter:

Two concerns that I have heard most frequently, and share, are that the building exceeds even the generous allocation in the Washington Street Vision Plan, as well as how the developer intends to satisfy their Inclusionary housing requirements (ie., affordable units).

Substandard work on these types of buildings is not only unacceptable, it risks the safety of Newton residents.

Yet we hear nothing from Mayor Fuller and the pro-luxury development bloc in the City Council. Has any City Councillor from the southside wards ever challenged Mark Development about stuff falling apart at Trio, or the implications for future construction at Riverside in Auburndale or Washington Street, including scientific labs and housing for senior citizens?

Why is that?

Fuller vs. Sangiolo: Campaign donations and the development question in Newton’s mayoral election (updated)

The mayoral election in my hometown is coming up November 2, and in the final weeks of the campaign incumbent Newton Mayor and Chestnut Hill resident Ruthanne Fuller is using the tools at her disposal to gain an edge over her opponent, former Newton City Councilor and Auburndale resident Amy Mah Sangiolo. [Update: Fuller won and her success at getting big donations from outside of Newton undoubtedly helped].

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the flood of newsletters from Mayor Fuller’s office, which were accompanied by a flurry of positive social media announcements and Facebook friend requests from Newton’s Public Buildings Division. The online communications onslaught was ostensibly part of a “listening” exercise, but to me looked more like a stealth PR campaign launched in the wake of Sangiolo filing her papers to run for mayor in June. This week, I wanted to explore another effective tool in the Newton mayoral election: Money.

In late August, I pulled 2021 data from the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance for the three declared candidates for Newton mayor. One of them, Al Cecchinelli, lost in the September preliminary race, and had only a handful of contributions. By August 23, Sangiolo had two months of active campaign fundraising and 196 donations – not bad, considering Mayor Fuller (246 donations in 2021, plus additional donations in 2020) had a huge head start. Here’s how 2021 donations looked for both on August 23, segmented by donation size and total value:

Ruthanne Fuller mayoral race donors


Sangiolo donations

Here’s the breakdown by number of donations:

Sangiolo count


Fuller count

The pattern was clear: By late August, Fuller was getting the biggest donors (73 giving $1,000 or more vs just 12 for Sangiolo) and doing far better overall in terms of overall contributions ($111,097 for Fuller vs $39,123 for Sangiolo) and total counts (246 for Fuller vs 196 for Sangiolo).

But Sangiolo was doing far better with smaller contributions. Even though her campaign had started much later, she had 121 contributions in the $1-$100 range, 30% more than Fuller’s 93 contributions in the same category.

Campaign donations from outside Newton

Almost all of Sangiolo’s campaign donors resided in Newton. Only one of her twelve $1,000 donors was from outside Newton.

By comparison, of the 73 $1000+ contributions to Fuller’s campaign by August 23, 31 Fuller donors (43%) were not from Newton, with about 1/2 that number (15 donors) listing out-of-state addresses. If all of Fuller’s non-Newton campaign donations in the OCPF list are tallied, including smaller donations from elsewhere in Massachusetts and beyond, they are greater than what Sangiolo received for the entire period ($40,125 vs $39,123).

(Notes about the data: 2021 data includes donations recorded between January 1 and August 23, even if the contributions were marked as 2020 donations. In addition, there was a $2800 amount on Fuller’s list from Nationbuilder in Los Angeles in July which was listed as a “non contribution” in the OCPF data. Nationbuilder appears to be associated with a software application for processing donations).

Regardless, we’ve already begun to see the impact of Fuller’s fundraising success. Our household has received three flyers from the Fuller campaign since late August, but only one brochure from Sangiolo. Mailings and other paid publicity can have a huge impact on elections, as we saw with the Northland referendum, which was decided in favor of Northland Development Corporation after the developer dumped more than $300,000 into the campaign (see “As sole donor of the “Yes” campaign, Northland’s deep pockets try to steamroll Newton’s democracy“).

Explaining the Fuller/Sangiolo fundraising divide

Back to the mayoral election in Newton. Why are the patterns of donations so different?

Name recognition has certainly played a part. As mayor, Fuller is known across the city, whereas Sangiolo’s name recognition is more concentrated in north Newton, including her home village of Auburndale. Personal and professional networks play a role as well.

But another way of looking at the Newton’s mayoral race: Donors are aligning with the candidates who represent their values. Wealthy donors gravitate to Mayor Fuller. Donors of more modest means gravitate to Sangiolo.

For instance, in the OCPF report, I am one of the 121 small donors in the $1-$100 contributions to Sangiolo.


She aligns with my values.

For instance: I agree with Sangiolo’s campaign regarding zoning and development in Newton:

I have quite a bit of experience with zoning and development in Newton, having served on the Newton City Council for 20 years — including 18 years on the Zoning and Planning Committee and 2 years on the Land Use Committee. I believe that our City’s current work on zoning needs a fresh focus to better reflect what residents want.

First, I do not support the elimination of single-family zoning. I believe we need a diversity of zoning districts throughout our city to meet the needs of all who want to call Newton home.

Eliminating single-family zoning without adding strict dimensional controls will not make Newton affordable. We can see by the existing multi-family zones throughout the City that developers are tearing down modest-sized homes by-right and replacing them with out-of-scale units selling for over $1 million each. This does not improve affordability.

I’ve written about this very issue for years on this blog. Teardowns of modest middle-class homes and apartments to make way for McMansions, million-dollar condos, and luxury apartments is a chronic problem in Newton, especially in the north-side villages. Very few politicians are willing to truly stand up to developers. Sangiolo, when she was councilor, actually did try to introduce a teardown moratorium in 2014 but was rebuffed by other councilors and then Mayor Setti Warren:

“I’m trying to jumpstart something; make something happen. Development is a real issue. I just want to get something done.”

By contrast, Mayor Fuller (and before that, Ward 7 Alderman Fuller) has been a reliable supporter of zoning reform to encourage high-density “market rate” housing as well as giant luxury developments like Trio in Newtonville, Riverside in Auburndale, Northland in Newton Upper Falls, and 28 Austin Street in Newtonville. These projects are multimillion-dollar ATMs for the developers who build them, with the mayor and allied Newton city councilors – many of them from distant southside wards – ensuring that developers’ demands are met.

Case in point: the 99-year lease granted to the 28 Austin Street developers Dinosaur Capital for just $1,050,000. (Update: Meryl Kessler, the spouse of the developer behind 28 Austin Street, is running for a Ward 3 councilor-at-large seat, currently occupied by Andrea Kelley and Pam Wright. Kessler’s platform includes “revitalizing Newton’s village centers”) Or, Mark Development being allowed to repeatedly rip up signed agreements by claiming they’re not making enough money – with the acquiescence of Mayor Fuller, who said in the October 14 mayoral debate that she doesn’t want to “push a developer away” so projects “become uneconomic.”

In other words, no attempt is made to verify developer claims about profitability. With the precedent set by Riverside, developers know all they need to do is claim poverty to get Fuller and many southside Newton city councilors in Wards 6, 7 and 8 to agree to their demands for even more luxury units.

Mayor Fuller’s listening problems

Sangiolo has also taken issue with the mayor on schools, noting that Fuller “fails to elicit input” from stakeholders when it comes to Newton’s schools:

Sangiolo transparency

This is yet another example of the mayor’s “listening” problems. In some cases she and her administration merely pretend to listen to residents. In others, they don’t even bother.

And not just about schools. It’s about development. Roads. Public buildings. How many times have we seen Fuller’s administration plow forward with some project, then backpedal after outcry from residents and groups who were ignored or never even consulted?

This especially seems to happen on the north side of town. There was the aborted 2019 plan to place NewCAL in Albemarle, rescinded after sustained pushback. In 2020, the city unilaterally eliminated hundreds of parking spaces along Washington Street to make way for bike lanes. The many small businesses along the route came to work one morning to discover parking spots for employees and customers were no longer there. They were flabbergasted, to put it mildly. The response from the city was classic – we don’t need to listen!

“City officials said the project was always meant to be temporary, and thus doesn’t need to go through the stakeholder process.”

As for development, Mayor Fuller is good at putting on a show of sympathetically “listening” to Newton residents, but then going along with the plan she, the planning department, city consultants and well-connected developers wanted in the first place.

I participated in the “Hello Washington Street” exercise that the Fuller administration’s planning department and consultants put together to elicit residents’ input. It was clearly an act of political theater, with the city creating a plan that seems almost tailor-made for Mark Development:

According to the draft, the maximum height by right for all of these designations will be 5 stories. If developers successfully apply for special permits at any of those sites (a requirement to maximize the value of their investments) they will be able to place gigantic buildings between 6 and 10 stories tall.

This represents thousands of new units of housing (most of it market rate/luxury), and millions of new square feet of office and lab space. That’s not what residents asked for, but that’s what we’ll be getting if city councilors approve the plans for Washington Street. Similar zoning designations will likely be applied in other neighborhoods all over the city — a handout to developers worth billions of dollars, and a nightmare of traffic, massive infrastructure and school costs, and lost quality of life for the residents of Newton for decades to come.

The trend, on Washington Street from West Newton to Newton Corner, Riverside in Auburndale, Northland in Newton Upper Falls, and elsewhere, is clear:

Affordable vs luxury housing in Newton Massachusetts

It’s not just big developments, either. In the mayoral debate, Sangiolo challenged Fuller’s claim that she wants to eliminate single-family zoning in the city (Fuller: “No one is suggesting that we eliminate single family zoning in the city. I don’t know anyone who is supporting that, period.”) Sangiolo responded:

“Eliminating single family zoning is not off the table. I believe it was tabled until after the election, until next year. The other issue I have to push back with you, is you keep using the phrase ‘special and unique neighborhoods’ that we seem to want to protect. Everyone thinks their neighborhoods are special and unique and trying to figure out whose neighborhoods can have more density is not an easy task. There are already multifamily zones that we have throughout the city. And what we are seeing now are the teardowns and replacement of moderately sized homes to luxury units and that’s not making the city affordable. That’s what drives the biggest distrust in the city about eliminating single family zones and doing that trickle down housing theory.”

Sangiolo is right. And if these trends continue, Newton will become unrecognizable within a decade or two. From a collection of unique villages, the city will be transformed to a developer-controlled syndicate of high-density luxury apartment enclaves separated by acres of condo conversions and McMansions. Family-owned businesses will give way to chain stores, lab space, and high-end amenities.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at what happened to the Orr Block businesses in Newtonville, including institutions like Newtonville Camera, sent packing after Mark Development got what it demanded on Washington Street with an assist from the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce. Then there’s Russo’s just over the border in Watertown, destined to become expensive laboratories. This process will accelerate if things continue as they are in Newton City Hall and the Newton City Council.

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