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.

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.

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.

Feel free to comment or share this post using the links below.

Why does someone in Newton’s Public Buildings Division want to be my Facebook friend? (updated)

In the middle of the summer, a strange thing happened. Someone in Newton’s Public Buildings Division sent me a Facebook friend request.

I get friend requests from time to time from people I don’t know, but this was suspicious, as the same person had recently started relentlessly spamming practically every community Facebook group across the city, including Auburndale Village, Newton Community, and the Newton Civic Action forum. The posts were trumpeting public announcements from the Mayor’s Office about various public works projects, such as this one:

newton fuller public buildings employee post newton facebook aug 4 2021


This post was immediately shared or cross-posted on other Facebook groups, including People who grew up in West Newton and Newton Parents.

Looking at the Newton Community Facebook group, the posts by the same Public Buildings Division employee commenced on July 22 (Gath Pool). It was followed by similar posts relating to these projects:

  • July 23 – Newton Free Library’s Children’s Room Expansion
  • July 26 – Lincoln Eliot
  • July 27 – Franklin School
  • July 29 – Newton Center for Active Living Project Community
  • July 30 – Newton Early Childhood project
  • August 2 – Horace Mann
  • August 4 – Athletic fields city wide
  • August 11 – Gath Pool
  • August 12 – Carbon Neutrality
  • August 19 – NewCAL
  • Sep 1 – Newton Early Childhood project
  • Sep 3 – Newton Early Childhood project
  • Sep 10 – Lincoln Eliot
  • Sep 15 – Oak Hill
  • Sep 16 – Gath Pool

Many of these were cross-posted in other more local Newton Facebook groups, along with other positive announcements. I don’t know if they also appeared on Nextdoor or other local forums (comments welcome below, if you know the answer).

In addition to the municipal employee, one other city official has also been very active on electronic media, too. I have subscribed to Mayor Ruthanne Fuller’s weekly newsletter for years, but a funny thing happened around the same time the Public Buildings employee began touting all of the great news from the Mayor’s Office. On July 21, the day before the Public Buildings Division employee started excitedly posting on Newton’s Facebook groups, the mayor sent five newsletters in less than five hours:

Newton mayor newsletter

It’s no coincidence that Fuller and one of her employees started sending out so many messages at the same time.

The first one – “Welcome to the Interactive Newton Network” gives a clue as to what’s going on (emphasis mine):

We know people are hungry for information about what is going on in our neighborhoods, villages and across our City. We in City government are also eager to hear from all of you. City projects are always better when we listen carefully to the people who live and work in Newton and shape the projects accordingly.

To that end, welcome to the INN, an interactive map that allows you to focus in on your neighborhood or any place of interest across the City and see what improvements and investments are in the works.

The mayor, a Chestnut Hill resident, has been hammered for years by complaints that she doesn’t listen, particularly from residents of northside wards 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. Even the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce, which has loved having the mayor on its side when it comes to high-density luxury development in Newton, was surprised:

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.

But the Fuller administration claimed that it didn’t need to “go through the stakeholder process” because the project was temporary. It was forced to backpedal owing to the outcry.

Why now?

Keep in mind that the flood of social media posts this summer from the Public Buildings Division employee haven’t just been about listening, they’ve also been shouting to the rafters the accomplishments of the Fuller administration:

“In less than 18 months we completed the design and construction of the fossil-fuel-free addition to the Oak Hill Middle School”

“We’re hard at work with our design team, friends from Newton Public Schools, City Council, and parent community to deliver a wonderful project for the Lincoln-Eliot School.”

“It was a beautiful morning as we set the new temporary pedestrian and bicycle bridge at Albemarle in place.”

Regardless of the posts’ contents, the longstanding concerns about Fuller’s listening habits kind of makes one wonder why INN, the coordinated social media press releases, and Facebook friend requests didn’t get going years ago. Why did the communications frenzy start in July?

Maybe it has something to do with this announcement on June 16 that Fuller has a serious contender (former Auburndale city councilor Amy Mah Sangiolo) in the Newton mayoral race this November?

I read through the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission Advisory 11-1: Public Employee Political Activity and did not see how a flood of positive social media posts about city business by a Newton municipal employee reporting to the mayor running for reelection would constitute an ethics violation.

But it still doesn’t feel right.

Update: The election is over, Fuller won, and as if by magic the Facebook spam from this Newton employee have largely disappeared.

Newton City Council candidate Bryan Barash pledges to reject developer and lobbyist donations, takes it anyway (Updated)

Updated: Two donations were returned weeks ago. He indicated he won’t return the rest. Details below.

“Follow the money.” It’s practically a cliche in legal, government, and journalism circles, but it truly is a powerful technique for exploring relationships and motivations at all levels of society. Earlier this year in Newton, we saw how developer money was used to make a referendum turn in its favor through a massive cash injection to a supposedly grassroots community group (see As sole donor of the “Yes” campaign, Northland’s deep pockets try to steamroll Newton’s democracy). That developer subsequently got the green light to build more than 600 units of luxury housing in Newton Upper Falls, off Needham Street.

Now with two city council seats up for grabs in a special election (following the election of Ward 2 Councillor Jake Auchincloss to Congress and the tragic death of Ward 1 Councillor Jay Ciccone), we see candidates stressing their integrity and dedication to serve the residents of Newton. One candidate, Bryan Barash, even pledged to refuse money from developers and lobbyists on the transparency page of his campaign website, stating:

bryan barash newton developers pledge

When I first heard about this, I thought, good for him. I honestly hope every other candidate for Newton City Councilor now and in the future can make a similar pledge and keep corporate cash out of our elections and local democracy. I love my hometown, and am tired of seeing so many of our elected officials bending over backwards to accommodate developers and other corporate interests.

A recent history of developer influence in Newton

It’s one thing to say you are going to follow high-minded ideals and listen to the citizens of Newton. But when the rubber hits the road, I have learned that in Newton local politicians often disguise their true intentions.

In particular, there is a lot of doublespeak and false promises when it comes to real estate development. For many Newton councilors and candidates declaring “we support affordable housing,” they actually mean “we’ll support a sliver of affordable only if there are thousands of luxury condos and boutique apartments.” They’ll use phrases like “housing with a range of price points,” or “abundant housing,” not letting on that the range skews heavily toward the most expensive units, and the primary beneficiaries of this abundance are rich developers as opposed to the ordinary citizens of Newton. Almost all of these councilors live in Newton’s tony southern and eastern wards bordering Brookline, far away from Needham Street and the northern villages where the developments are planned.

The result of this ongoing deception: gigantic luxury developments Riverside in Auburndale, Trio in Newtonville, and Northland in Newton Upper Falls. In these developments, there is next to nothing for the following groups of people:

  • Seniors and disabled people living on fixed incomes
  • Teachers, firefighters and other public workers
  • Recent immigrants
  • Young people who grew up in Newton trying to move back to their hometown
  • Anyone earning the Massachusetts median income of ~$77,000 per year or less

The numbers show what’s happening. Here’s the breakdown for Riverside:

  • 582 units total
  • 102 affordable (18%)
  • 480 luxury (82%)

Here’s the breakdown for Northland:

  • 800 units total
  • 123 affordable (15%)
  • 677 luxury (85%)

Affordable vs luxury housing in Newton Massachusetts

Successive Newton mayors have also made false promises, making a big show of listening to residents but prioritizing the profit-focused needs of developers. Over the protests of many Newtonville residents, former Mayor Setti Warren and many city councilors (especially on the south side, miles away from the projects) gave the green light to develop 28 Austin Street in Newtonville, where the developer paid a mere $1,050,000 for a 99-year lease. It now offers “luxury boutique living” where a two-bedroom apartment requires an annual income of nearly $150,000.

It happened again across the Pike in the Orr Block. Warren and allies on the Newton City Council, with assistance from the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce, went to bat for developer Mark Development to force through a mostly luxury development on the corner of Washington and Walnut Street. Renters and small businesses that had been in Newtonville for decades were sent packing. The new complex, Trio Newton, now promotes “luxury apartments in Newton” with prices starting at $2,600 per month to rent a 600 square foot studio (I did the math; your income needs to be at least $104,000 per year to rent an apartment at Trio). 75% of the 140-unit complex are similarly priced. The remaining 35 units (25%) are affordable via lottery.

More recently, a similar farce took place with “Hello Washington Street,” Mayor Fuller’s exercise in building community buy-in for high-density, market-rate housing from West Newton to the Lake. The plans put forth by Mayor Fuller, her planning department, and their consultants ignored the wishes of residents, as demonstrated by the thousands of comments from residents and the survey conducted by the Newtonville Area Council. Not surprisingly, one influential and experienced stakeholder — the powerful real estate developer behind Trio and Riverside — stands to benefit even more from the proposed zoning changes on Washington Street.

Now we are seeing a “debate” about rezoning Newton. I put “debate” in quotes because it appears the Newton City Planning Department has already decided in favor of high-density housing activists, developers, and their proxies in the Newton City Council.

Not coincidentally, the beneficiaries of this high-density housing strategy will be developers – any house that can be torn down, chopped up, and divided into overpriced multifamily units will be. The result: thousands of more “market rate” apartments, condos, and townhouses that are out of reach to any household making less than $100,000 per year. In the midst of the pandemic, most residents have no idea of what’s being forced through by activist southside councilors and the Planning Department.

Are there any projects which favor the needs of ordinary residents over luxury housing? Yes: The conversion of the West Newton Armory into housing. I support this project, which will turn an unused National Guard facility into 100% affordable housing. This type of project is the exception, unfortunately.

Following the money to Ward 2

There is a database of campaign donors for local races in Newton and other cities in towns in Massachusetts. I decided to check it out, not only to see who is donating money to the candidates running for the Ward 1 and Ward 2 seats, but also to determine how my own recent donation shows up in public records.

This useful state-run resource is operated by The Office of Campaign and Political Finance, and as I will shortly demonstrate, helps improve transparency in our democracy. It’s a searchable database that shows donations from different corporate and individual campaign contributors, from local council races to mayoral contests to campaigns for state positions.

Here’s how to display all of the donors for a particular Newton City Council candidate:

  1. Go to
  2. In the field that says “Provide part of the filer’s name,” enter the first or last name of the candidate.
  3. For the next field, “then select a filer,” chose the correct candidate (sometimes there is more than one with a certain first or last name)

You can also search for specific campaign donors using the “Contributor” field.

The resource is not perfect. Donors self-identify their occupation and other details, which can be left blank or fudged, or data transfer problem may arise when the campaigns attempt to upload information to the state database. I discovered for my own small donation of $50 to Barash’s competitor, the occupation and employer information I submitted via an online form (“small business owner” and the name of my company) did not show up in the OCPF database. The date was also wrong, showing a date in early November when the donation was actually one month later.

But other people donating to Newton political candidates do have more complete information attached to their records. The database shows that the Ward 2 candidate who made a pledge to refuse money from developers and lobbyists has in fact received donations from property developers, lobbyists, and others attached to luxury housing initiatives, high-density zoning reform, and businesses that are regulated at the municipal or state level.

I’m leaving donors’ names out of this post. But I will share some other details about their backgrounds and relationships.

The self-identified real estate developer has made regular donations over the years to candidates for state representative, mayor and city council in midsized cities, and the mayor of Boston.

One lobbyist’s website lists a realty and development corporation as a client. There are other businesses and organizations both big and small on his client list and the state lobbyist database.

There are registered lobbyists for retail marijuana and transportation.

There is a person who is listed as a “consultant” and puts his employer as “self employed” on the OCPF database, but his name matches the name of a registered lobbyist in the Commonwealth’s lobbyist database. Update: this donation was returned weeks ago, per Barash’s “No Fossil Fuels” pledge. This was not reflected in the state campaign finance database when I looked at it in mid-December.

Several attorneys donated to the campaign. One of the attorney’s firm’s website lists government relations and lobbying at the top of its list of specialties. The second firm specializes in real estate development law, including zoning, permitting and “neighborhood grassroots outreach.” Its website lists specific projects in Newton, including dozens of townhouse condos and tens of millions of dollars worth of commercial property.

Another donor works for a nonprofit group seeking to reform planning, zoning, and permitting laws.

And so on.

This candidate is not a bad person, and has a right to ask for donations from followers. Those donors also have the right to donate money to their preferred candidates for Newton City Council, just as I and many other residents are doing. But it’s a red flag when those donors may conceivably have business in front of city officials or councillors, including high-profit housing projects and commercial initiatives worth millions.

It should be noted that lobbyists aren’t bad people either, and in some cases promote important work or advance good and worthy causes. Quoting a 2014 OECD report titled Lobbyists, Governments, and Public Trust:

[Lobbying] can provide decision-makers with valuable insight and data and facilitate stakeholders’ access to the development and implementation of public policies.

But lobbying also grants power to the entities paying for it, and in some cases that power can be abused. The same OECD report states:

However, it can also lead to undue influence, unfair competition, and regulatory capture to the detriment of the public interest and effective public policies.

In my view, Newton residents should indeed be worried about the pernicious influence of  money in our local democracy.

Feel free to leave comments below.

Update 12/14/20: Someone has accused me of posting misinformation and says I should “not be allowed” to write about a public candidate for Newton City Council taking money lobbyists and developers. A reminder to readers that this is a blog, hosted but not controlled by Harvard University (through my affiliation as an alumnus of the Harvard Extension School), and everyone has a right to disagree and express their opinions (I invite anyone to do so in the comments below). It is not illegal or wrong for me or others to post facts obtained from a public database, no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable they may be. If there is something factually incorrect about those donations, please let me know and I will update the blog post accordingly.

Update 12/15/20: In a closed Facebook group, Bryan Barash criticized negative campaigning but explained that his pledge only applies to donors “who [are] paid to lobby at the city level in Newton or [have] a special permit for a development in Newton” and called on other candidates to do the same. Barash said he did return donations from two people who violate his No Fossil Fuel pledge – these lobbyists were apparently connected with the Weymouth gas compressor station that was the subject of a front-page Boston Globe article this month (“In Weymouth, a brute lesson in power politics“). As for his call for other candidates to not accept certain contributions, I would call on Tarik Lucas in Ward 2 as well as Ward 1 candidates Madeline Ranalli and John Oliver to go even further, and unequivocally reject ALL campaign contributions from for-profit developers and registered lobbyists. The Northland Investment Corporation’s approach to the March 2020 referendum set a terrible precedent for elections in Newton, in which winners can be decided by which side (or which candidate) has the biggest for-profit sponsors. These three candidates can do the right thing and set a new precedent that keeps special interest cash out of our local democracy.

Update 12/17: Removed the graphic referencing a donor who no longer works for the listed real estate firm. The donor also said the firm only operated in Cambridge, not Newton. I apologize for the error.


Architects: Newton rezoning is “driven by ideology” and an attempt to “unzone” the city (updated)

Updated. Lots of people have reached out after my post last week, “Upzoning” in Newton: A tool to turn over the city from one class of people to another? In addition to reading comments by various city councilors on the Newton rezoning process, someone also shared with me a letter to the Newton City Council Planning and Zoning Committee. The letter was written by a group of architects who were originally recruited by the mayor, the city’s planning department, and some city councilors to help review the rezoning proposals and add their professional opinions and recommendations.

It appears rezoning in Newton has been severely undermined. I am going to post the public document in its entirety, as the committee chair has yet to post the PDF on the official city website (even if it were available, it would be hard to read, especially on mobile devices – a chronic problem for most official city documentation, incidentally). The letter is long, but I have bolded some parts which I believe are particularly important, and encourage people to leave comments at the bottom of this page:

September 30 2020

Members of the Newton City Council Planning and Zoning Committee:

Over the past several months, many of us have been providing assistance to the Planning Department with analysis of the impact of its proposed rezoning plan. We have been encouraged to provide this assistance by planning department staff, many city councilors and the Mayor in recognition of the detailed knowledge and expertise we bring to evaluating the effects of zoning on housing development from design, construction cost and home owner perspectives. As architects, builders and residents of Newton, we are committed to help maintain the quality of life in our city as zoning is being reconsidered. Despite challenges to our businesses and personal lives caused by the pandemic, we have provided significant time and effort to analyze both the macro effects of the rezoning plan as well as its impact on homeowners by applying the proposed rezoning to numerous renovation and new construction projects which we have worked on for Newton residents over the past several years.

During numerous online meetings, we have presented detailed analysis of built projects to planning staff and we have shown that the vast majority of these projects would not be permissible under the current rezoning proposal. The projects we analyzed reflect a diverse range of improvements and building programs which are typical across the City. Specifically, we have presented projects that reflect renovation and additions undertaken by homeowners as well as projects that involve restoration of historic properties. In addition to the analysis of specific projects, we have also provided many examples where the proposed zoning would on a broad scale increase the number of homes that would not conform to the new dimensional requirements. Despite our efforts to help inform decisions regarding the impact of the proposed zoning, we have seen no evidence that our work is being considered. In fact, changes to the proposal that have been made over the past few months have ignored issues demonstrated by our project analysis and have instead made some elements of the plan more prescriptive and restrictive. In view of the Planning Department’s failure over several months to meaningfully answer questions and concerns, respond to evidence provided by numerous building professionals or provide its own probative analysis, we reluctantly have concluded that the proponents of rezoning have no intention of considering facts and evidence of the potentially broad, negative impact that this plan could have on homeowners, the aesthetic character of the city and potentially on property values. In short we feel our time and expertise is being wasted. 

Many of us have been concerned about this process from the outset given that no detailed analysis was undertaken to identify specific issues with current zoning so that the new “form based“ approach could be properly evaluated. Form-based zoning imposes a highly prescriptive approach to housing design and has been adopted predominantly in dense urban communities like Somerville. It is clearly ill suited to communities like Newton with a very diverse housing stock and varied lot sizes. Given the drive to force fit form-based zoning to the actual built environment, the Planning Department is now calling it a “hybrid” of form based zoning. Nonetheless, we made a genuine effort to improve on the original proposal rather than reject it summarily given the many problems that were obvious from its inception. The problems with the metrics of the rezoning proposal are only exacerbated by the most recent change that would allow multi family development by right across the city. Combined with the elimination of minimum lot sizes and allowing some additions in setbacks by right, the lack of restrictions on multi-family seems to effectively “unzone” the city, rather than reduce non conformity, make development more predictable, or retain the character of neighborhoods. The Zoning and Planning Committee’s “3rd straw vote goal” approved at its April 27, 2020 meeting was as follows: “Context: Preserve and protect what we like in our neighborhoods. Encourage new development to fit in the context of our neighborhoods and villages.” The current plan clearly conflicts in many important ways with the objectives the Committee adopted just a few months ago.

With this background in mind, these are our primary concerns with the current proposal:

  • We have examined numerous built and proposed projects and find these new proposed controls are significantly more restrictive and more complex than current controls. New side and rear yard setbacks will create more non-conformity in existing structures. For example, the side yard requirements imposed by the new R1 zone for much of Waban results in most homes being non-conforming. The new lot coverage definition that now includes driveways compounds the problems. The resulting non conformity will severely restrict and discourage homeowners across the city from improving their homes with additions that reflect contemporary living requirements and market expectations to retain property value. Such projects also facilitate improved energy conservation as well.
  • The proposal to remedy increased non-conforming conditions by allowing certain additions by right in the new more restrictive setbacks would likely be struck down in the courts and defies the most basic purpose of zoning in the first place. Shouldn’t property owners at least be able to expect that there will be no construction allowed in setbacks, at least not without a variance?
  • The elimination of FAR in favor of foot print restrictions is another significant issue. The footprint restrictions are based on the median of what currently exists in contrived neighborhood zones based on the pattern book prepared by Sasaki. The problem with this methodology is that over 90% of homes in Newton were built before 1960 which means that this most critical standard of footprint limits is based on characteristics of housing built over the last hundred years, not current and future housing requirements. In many the data used reflects homes [text missing]
  • The removal of minimum lot size is an enormous and unnecessary paradigm shift that promotes more vertical than horizontal homes. As is the case with all the dramatic changes in this plan, no study has been presented which evaluates the impact of such a significant change to land use in the city. If we want a mechanism to allow existing non conforming lots to be buildable, we can simply add a provision to our existing code with whatever stipulations we find appropriate and subject the approval to issuance of a special permit.
  • Minimum lot frontage has also been significantly reduced. Combined with the removal of minimum lot size, this one change could allow certain neighborhoods in our city to be significantly transformed. If this is adopted, developers as of right could more easily take down a house on a larger property, subdivide that land, and put up two houses on lots that do not meet current requirements. In fact, subdivision of existing lots should not be the primary concern. The incentives under lower frontage requirements without lot size minimums to assemble adjacent conforming and non-conforming lots to create two legal lots will certainly spur property speculation and encourage more demolition of homes, a central problem that rezoning was supposed to address. 
  • One of the late additions to this proposal was the global change to eliminate single family zones. As proposed, existing homes could be subdivided into up to six units by right. This would certainly affect density, green space, and parking issues. It could also create new infrastructure demands on schools, streets and sanitation. If there is a desire to increase housing options through such a change, its adoption should require extensive community discussion, and an independent review of legal issues and its and economic impact. We also believe that abutters should be able to weigh in on multi family conversions by requiring a special permit when such conversions are proposed . 

We believe that based on the evidence we and others have presented, the proposed zoning plan disregards many of the original goals of the City Council for updating the city’s zoning code. As the proposal has evolved, it has become increasingly clear that it is being driven by ideology and not an evidence-based approach to updating and improving the city’s land use policies. The lack of objective quantitative analysis of issues with current zoning by the Planning Department is unacceptable in a city which touts its high standards for transparency and professionalism. 

Moreover, to advance such dramatic changes to our neighborhoods at a time when the public cannot effectively participate because of the pandemic is divisive, cynical and unnecessary. Is this what we envisioned for a process toward improved zoning? There are simply too many changes in this proposal that are so diametrically opposed to the controls currently in place. Does such unstudied dramatic change to land use make sense now? 

We believe that strategically-targeted incremental modifications to the Zoning Code would be a much more effective way to improve and rectify problems on the ground. Changing all the controls will create chaos, driven by conflicting policy objectives and too many unforeseen consequences. Conversely, if we improve the current code based on clear objectives and analysis, the results are likely to be far better. We can modify the Code to strategically improve what is on the ground with modest modifications that help preserve neighborhoods and can allow for reasonable and controlled growth. 

We hereby request an opportunity to present our analysis and conclusions at a ZAP meeting as soon as it can be scheduled. Such a presentation will allow a more detailed and dynamic discussion of the many substantive concerns that have been raised by us and many other residents with the proposed rezoning. We encourage other professionals who may be working privately with members of the Committee to make their views public and participate.

Thank you for your consideration.


Steven Garfinkle

Peter Sachs, Architect

Marc Hershman, Architect

Robert Fizek, Architect

Stephan Hamilton, Architect

Schuyler Larrabee, Architect

William Roesner, Architect

About one week after this group sent the letter, three city councilors (Marc Laredo, Lisle Baker and Pamela Wright) sent a memo to Deborah Crossley (the committee chair) and cc’ing the mayor, senior city planners, and the city solicitor. It requests the following:

  1. The Zoning and Planning Committee should hear dissenting views directly from a group of local architects who recently wrote that they have been excluded from the group advising the Planning Department about its zoning proposals;

  2. The Zoning and Planning Committee should be advised by the Law Department how homes which might become nonconforming under the proposed new zoning can be protected or find relief if changes need to be made;

  3. The Zoning and Planning Committee should have an opportunity to discuss the current Planning Department proposals, including whether alternatives involving our current zoning code should be considered.

More details are in the memo, which is available on the city website (in PDF form). But one section of the memo from the three councilors stood out (emphasis mine):

As an institutional matter, we remain troubled by the manner in which this entire process is proceeding. While we appreciate the expertise that the Planning Department brings to this effort, it is the City Council, and not the Planning Department, that needs to debate the merits of any proposal and decide how to proceed. Instead, we have had repeated presentations by staff with questions that they want answered in order for them to work on their proposals.

The decision whether to continue to use Floor Area Ratio (FAR) as a check on oversized residential construction is a good example. While the Department offered a brief written response about FAR in the attachment A to its last memorandum dated September 25, the Committee itself has not had a chance to discuss whether to discard this tool that originated from a prior Planning Department’s advice. If FAR it does not work well presently, are there ways to modify it so it can be improved? What are the experiences of other communities that use FAR? Have any other communities adopted FAR and then abandoned it? If so, why?

The same types of questions need to be asked of other elements discussed in the September 30 architects’ memorandum. These are key policy decisions that need to be made by the Council initially through the Committee, not by staff, with thoughtful deliberation after considering all points of view. Instead, what we appear to be doing is assuming the new framework is sound, and responding to questions about the details. This strikes us as backwards, especially since the original idea of fixing some specific issues such as oversized construction and front-facing garages has been superseded by this grand redesign for Newton zoning that the Department, but not yet the Council itself, has endorsed.

In summary, policy about zoning ends and means should be explicitly decided by the Council, not implicitly by the Planning Department. A way to begin frame that decision is to provide the members of the Zoning and Planning Committee, on behalf of the Council, some time to discuss the current Planning Department proposals, including whether alternatives involving our current zoning code should be considered.

I alluded in my last post to some of the tactics used by developers to undermine local democracy in Newton, such as providing huge cash injections to “grassroots” groups that support high-density housing. The developers (Northland) won the vote as a result.

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.

Now we’re seeing a situation in which architects have been invited to participate in the discussion. Guess what: their well-articulated concerns have also been ignored. Does anyone see the pattern here?

What’s going on now should be setting off alarm bells across the city, in every neighborhood. “Upzoning” or “unzoning” (or whatever you want to call it) will primarily benefit developers, not residents. Any house that can be torn down, chopped up, and divided into overpriced multifamily units will be. The result: more luxury apartments, condos, and townhouses that are out of reach to all kinds of ordinary people, including:

  • Seniors and disabled people living on fixed incomes
  • Teachers, firefighters and other public workers
  • Recent immigrants
  • Young people who grew up in Newton trying to move back to their hometown
  • Anyone earning the Massachusetts median income of ~$77,000 per year or less

Just as we’ve seen at Trio Newton (studio rentals starting at $2,600 per month) and 28 Austin Street (rents starting at $3,700/month for a 2-bedroom apartment), a sheen of affordable housing will be tacked on to these projects to give the appearance that officials are, as Councilor Jake Auchincloss once claimed in an election flyer, “holding developers’ feet to the fire.”

I’ll close with the same excerpt from The Newton Villages Alliance newsletter that I quoted last week:

The proposed overhaul of Newton’s zoning code for higher density will lead to a transformation of Newton to a much more expensive, congested, urban environment. In the process, well-financed property speculators will be the winners and existing residents the losers as investment capital pours into our community for the sole purpose of extracting as much profit as possible.

Comments are welcome below.

“Upzoning” in Newton: A tool to turn over the city from one class of people to another? (Updated)

Rezoning is in the news again in Newton. I have deliberately avoided most of the coverage. Developer kingpins aided by pliant politicians and high-density CODS housing activists and their southside allies on the City Council always seem to get what they want around here. Local elections are undermined by millions in developer-funded PR campaigns and outright cash injections to pro-development activist groups, while local residents protesting the luxury developments are ignored, demonized, and even publicly bullied by a southside city councilor, Brenda Noel (Ward 6).

After the dust settles, we’re inevitably left with thousands of units of luxury housing that do nothing to bring down housing costs in the city of Newton.

Hundreds of luxury apartments have already been thrown up in Newtonville. They include 28 Austin Street, the parcel across from the Newtonville Star Market which the former mayor and city councilors agreed to lease to the developer for just $1,050,000 for 99 years, over the protests of Newtonville residents. The 28 Austin Street website now boasts “luxury boutique living,” starting at $3,700 to rent a 1,050 square feet apartment:

28 Austin Street Newtonville apartment price

(2021 Update: Meryl Kessler, the spouse of the developer behind 28 Austin Street, is running for Newton’s Ward 3 councilor-at-large seat, currently occupied by Andrea Kelley and Pam Wright. Kessler’s platform includes “revitalizing Newton’s village centers”)

Across the Pike, developer Mark Development didn’t have to rip up a signed agreement with neighbors and local councillors like it did for Riverside. Instead, the former mayor and the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce helped get him what it demanded, again over the objections of neighbors:

“This is terrible news for Newton and Newtonville. Robert Korff had proposed a thoughtful project that would have addressed a desperate need for workforce housing, generated foot traffic for our village businesses and provided wonderful community give backs,” said President of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber Greg Reibman in a statement to the TAB. “But no thanks to an obstructionist political group and a few city councilors, Newtonville might end up with a building that is even taller than the proposed five stories and without a public art space, shops, bike and sidewalk improvements, or any of the other amenities Robert had offered.”

“Workforce housing?” What a joke. Mark Development of course ended getting what it wanted, which was 3/4 luxury rentals that no ordinary workers or middle class people can afford.

This piece of commentary in the local newspaper summed up what everyone now knows: Dumping thousands of units of luxury housing is a tool of wealth creation for developers. It does nothing to reduce housing costs in Newton:

The belief that more housing will add affordability for Newton is a false premise as well. A look at Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, South Boston, East Boston, Charlestown, Waltham, Watertown tells us all we need to know: large developments drive up land prices, drive up rents and make naturally affordable housing less available and less affordable. It creates a tiered class with subsidized housing for those who qualify, and expensive housing for everyone else. These are the facts and wishful thinking doesn’t change this reality.

Here are the facts concerning the former Orr block. The low-cost apartments and small businesses on Washington Street in Newtonville were quickly demolished to make way for Mark’s new replacement for the Orr block, Trio Newton. The work is wrapping up now. Have housing prices dropped as high-density housing activists have promised, because hundreds of new units are now being added to the supply?

No! If anything, it’s gotten more expensive to live in Newtonville. The facts are in the numbers. On Google, Trio promotes “luxury apartments in Newton.” Click through to the Trio website, where the least expensive option is apparently $2,600 per month to rent a 600 square foot studio!

Good luck if you’re a senior on a fixed income, a new immigrant, disabled, or a young person who grew up in Newton and wants to move back to your home town. Using the 30% rule of thumb for housing costs, excluding utility costs, and generously assuming Mark Development isn’t stacking additional fees on top of the listed rental prices at Trio Newton, you would need an annual income of $104,000 to afford the least expensive studio apartment.

At nearby 28 Austin Street, a young family would need an income of at least $144,000 to rent the cheapest 2-bedroom apartment (1,050 square feet). The most expensive (1,365 square feet) 2 bedroom unit, at $7,500 per month, would require an annual income of $300,000.

Note that the median household income in Massachusetts is $77,378, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The development battle has now turned to single-family housing. The mayor, city planners, developers, and some city councilors want to abolish single-family housing, by “upzoning” wide swathes of neighborhoods currently filled with existing single-family homes and convert them to luxury condos and townhouses by right.

It will happen in Newton Corner. The Lake. Newtonville. West Newton. Auburndale. Newton Lower Falls. Newton Upper Falls. And so on.

If you thought the first wave of Newton tear-downs that eviscerated the stock of older, small single-family homes in the city was bad, wait until the new plan gets underway. Don’t think for a second that the vast majority of multifamily units under such a scheme would be built for anyone other than those who can afford, as 28 Austin puts it, “luxury boutique living.” The remaining working class and middle class households in the city of Newton will be pushed out, while the developer class will be left laughing all the way to the bank.

The Newton Villages Alliance got things right in its latest newsletter, noting:

The proposed overhaul of Newton’s zoning code for higher density will lead to a transformation of Newton to a much more expensive, congested, urban environment. In the process, well-financed property speculators will be the winners and existing residents the losers as investment capital pours into our community for the sole purpose of extracting as much profit as possible.

For a taste of what’s to come, check out this video which chronicles the failure of upzoning in Austin.