Map of how land is currently used in Newton

Zoning: Where We Are Now

City Council to Vote on VCOD Proposal

On October 26th, the Zoning and Planning (ZAP) Committee voted for the latest draft, Version 3.1, of the Village Center Overlay District (VCOD) zoning proposal to go to the full City Council. The Council will discuss the proposal on November 6th, and dedicate an entire meeting on November 15th to consider its formal adoption.

This moment is the culmination of nearly three years of engagement and work on the part of ZAP, the Planning Department, and citizens of Newton. At the start of 2021, the Zoning Redesign project began to focus on village centers at ZAP’s request.

Extensive engagement was conducted across the City and involved thousands of residents over the course of a few years. ZAP Committee members and the Planning Department incorporated feedback throughout this process into VCOD versions 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 and finally the most recent version, 3.1.

The final version that will be voted on by the full Council reflects the many considered changes and amendments, which have been incorporated into this latest version.

8 Important Things to Know About VCOD Zoning

Capacity, Compliance, Concentration – It is important to grasp the three c’s of the Village Center Overlay District.

The proposed zoning allows for housing capacity for future development under zoning rules not actual development of housing which will occur incrementally over decades.

The City of Newton is just one of twelve MBTA rapid transit communities that must come into compliance with the State MBTA Communities Law by December 31 of this year.

The entire VCOD zone is concentrated in around 3% of Newton’s land area with the overwhelming majority concentrated within a ½ mile of a Green Line or commuter rail station.

Attainable, Accessible, and Affordable Housing – The type of housing envisioned to be developed in our village centers is intentionally geared toward smaller in-fill buildings. Because the units are smaller, they will likely be more attainable than today’s large single-family or condominium units with sizes that lead to extremely high prices (Newton’s median sales price in 2023 was $1.8 million).

The majority of new housing units, to be built on upper floors, are going to be accessible and amenable to one floor living, something that downsizing seniors here in Newton and elsewhere might find attractive.

It is also important to note that 17.5- 20% of any housing built over 6 units will be permanently affordable for households at 65% of area median income. More housing, particularly multifamily housing, is needed for seniors looking to age in place, young families just starting out, and young adults hoping to live in the city where they grew up. Research shows that building more housing helps stall rising rents or even lower the cost of housing.

Smaller and Climate Friendly – The proposed VCOD limits the bulk and height of what can be built in our village centers.

For example, the buildings at both Trio and Austin Street are much bigger in building footprint than what could be built under VCOD rules. The VCOD zoning discourages developers from building on large sites and ensures buildings fit the scale of our villages.

A special permit is required for any new building on a lot that is over 30,000 sq. ft. and the zoning district that allows the largest buildings (generally reserved for the core of village centers) limits buildings to 4.5 stories and a 15,000 sq. ft. footprint.

For reference, Trio on Washington Street in Newtonville could not be built under the VCOD zoning. Trio is on a lot that is over 120,000 sq. ft. and contains two large buildings, the smallest of which has a footprint of about 20,000 sq. ft.

Preservation of existing buildings is incentivized – The Multi Residence Transit (MRT) zone, which is a residential zone acting as a transition from the commercial areas to the surrounding neighborhoods, allows more units and a larger footprint when the existing house is kept and converted to multiple units.

Preservation of existing buildings in the VC2 and VC3 zones will also be incentivized by allowing nonconformities and expanding the allowed uses for existing buildings, creating a pathway for conversion of underutilized office or industrial spaces to residential.

The village center zoning complies with state law – The MBTA Communities Law requires Newton to update zoning to allow at least 8,330 units of multifamily housing to be built by-right near transit.

This is a big number, but it does not consider any existing housing and assumes every site is a blank slate and is maximized with new housing without providing any parking on site.

The proposed zoning meets state requirements and distributes the zoning across the city with much of it within a quarter mile of a commuter rail or Green Line station.

Given the increased frequency in service, the zoning allows for approximately 33% more units around the Green Line stations as compared to the three commuter rail stations.

Change will happen incrementally and over many years – According to the US Census, Newton added just 672 total housing units between 2010 and 2020, a period of time which included very favorable economic conditions.

Additional housing is needed to reduce the pressure on the existing housing and to stabilize rising housing costs. 

However it will not all happen at once and some areas may never redevelop because the existing buildings are close to or exceed the size allowed under the new zoning, the site has been recently developed, or the owner lacks interest in redevelopment.

For example, of the areas with current zoning that allows for at least a two-family home, 40% of the lots contain a single-family home. This suggests that even when zoning allows two-family development many owners choose to have a single-family home.

We are prepared for new residents – New construction takes several years from submitting for a building permit to when people are actually living there. This allows the City to plan across departments and coordinate services once we have important details regarding the location, type and size of building proposed and can understand how it might impact city services and schools.

The zoning is focused on areas of the city that are already largely paved, have existing infrastructure, and have access to transit, resulting in fewer vehicle trips, fewer resources consumed, and fewer trees lost than new single- and two-family homes.

The latest version of the zoning reflects many modifications – Since Version 1.0 was released a year ago, the Zoning and Planning Committee has:

  • increased protections for residential neighborhoods (greater setbacks, reduced building heights, increased building step backs),
  • increased open space requirements,
  • added a minimum parking requirement in residential neighborhoods,
  • eliminated a zoning district,
  • removed areas from the VCOD maps (most notably areas in Nonantum, West Newton, Newton Highlands, and Route 9), and
  • changed the zoning on particular parcels to require smaller buildings (for example, allowing 3.5 stories instead of 4.5 stories for much of Walnut Street in Newtonville).

Why We Believe Newton Needs Updated Zoning

We believe our new zoning ordinance should enable us to significantly increase our housing opportunities—in number and kind, for all sorts of people, all across the city—and improve our response to climate change.

Adding more homes, especially within walking distance of village centers and transit stops, will help revitalize areas that made Newton a desirable place to live well before the advent of zoning in 1922 and the predominance of transit by automobile.

Newton’s current zoning code has not been substantially updated since the 1950s.

A quick example of a problem with the current code – even though people already live in Newton’s villages in the older buildings (most built before zoning), our current zoning code doesn’t allow new buildings with housing in our villages. To build housing now, builders need to go through the extra step of rezoning just that one lot.

It is well past time for a change.

Where We Are Now

Over the years Newton has developed plans for improving the city – from the Comprehensive Plan approved in 2007, to the Zoning Reform Group of 2011, to housing, climate, economic and transportation plans. Based on this groundwork, Newton has been developing new zoning.

Beginning in 2021, planning for new zoning has focused on Newton’s village centers. Also in 2021, the state passed the MBTA Communities Law requiring cities and towns to develop zoning that would allow more people to live near transit. 

Previous Drafts of the Text and Maps

Version 1.0 of the new zoning for the village centers was released in December 2022 after multiple phases of community engagement (see below) and discussion in the Zoning and Planning Committee.

Version 2.0 was released In April 2023 after additional feedback from the community and from city councilors. At this point, the zoning for the MBTA Communities District was defined as a subset of the village center zoning.

Public hearings on Version 2.0 were held in June and July 2023. The Zoning and Planning Committee continued to refine the zoning text and maps over the summer and early September.

Version 3.0 was released on September 12, 2023 and a public hearing was held on September 26, 2023.

Amendments to the zoning text and maps were considered during October after hearing the public testimony.

The Zoning and Planning Committee voted on October 26th in favor of the latest version, 3.1, of the VCOD. It now goes to the full City Council for discussion and a vote.

To comply with the MBTA Communities law, Newton needs to pass new zoning by the end of the year.

A Bit of History of the Process

Ever since the Comprehensive Plan was developed in 2007, Newton has been working its way towards developing a new set of rules for development.

First in 2011, the Zoning Reform Group developed a plan to revise and update Newton’s zoning including a set of themes to guide the development of a new code.

A number of studies were completed to develop plans for specific aspects of development in Newton including:

A Pattern Book was completed in 2017 to help understand the development patterns of Newton’s villages and lay the groundwork for developing a new zoning code that would address these patterns.

Finally, in 2018, an initial draft for a new zoning code citywide was developed. Meetings were held throughout the city to help people understand this draft and to gather feedback.

The Zoning and Planning Committee of the City Council (ZAP) started their review of this draft in 2020 by looking specifically at the residential areas throughout the city. However, after much discussion, it was clear that there were still many questions and a range of thoughts on the proposal.

Community Engagement: Our Vision for Village Centers

Beginning in 2021, planning for village centers zoning began. One of the first steps in this process was to reach out to the community to see what people thought the city’s goals should be for our villages. Close to 2,000 people gave input through vision kits, on-the-spot surveys and an on-line forum.

Based on the takeaways from the community engagement and from the analysis by the Planning Department and Utile, the city’s consultant, the new zoning code will strive to:

  • Create more communal & public space + activation
  • Increase accessibility to buildings and infrastructure within Village Centers
  • Incorporate climate resiliency through built structures and green spaces
  • Help small businesses to begin, stay and thrive in Village Centers
  • Make permitting process easier, clearer, and multi-tiered
  • Add more diverse housing options and encourage mixed-use projects (although to what extent had a spectrum of opinion)
  • Prioritize safe and accessible routes to and through village centers, especially walking and biking

Developing a Zoning Framework

At the start of 2022, Utile presented an economic analysis of Newton’s current zoning showing how it negatively impacts the village centers. At the same time, Utile began to outline ways that zoning could help the city meet the goals that people said were important during the initial phase of the community engagement.

Based on the community feedback and the economic analysis, Utile and the Planning Department developed a 12-point framework for making changes to zoning in the villages. To address both the different sizes of Newton’s villages and the diversity of scale within the villages, the framework proposed 3 tiers of zoning. Each tier represents different scales of development with different height limits and different size buildings.

This proposed framework had 12 points that were carefully considered in May and June by the Zoning and Planning Committee (ZAP). Many Councilors not on the ZAP Committee attended these meetings to weigh in on the framework. After each point was discussed, a straw poll was taken to get a sense of the extent of agreement among the Committee members. There was unanimous support for most of the 12 points and the balance had support from a super-majority of the committee.

Community Engagement: Zoning Framework

The second phase of the community engagement occurred during September and early October 2022. The Planning Department and Utile developed visual materials to help clarify the options within the framework. These materials were on display at the Library and are still available online.

Over 90 people volunteered to hold meetings throughout the city to present the ideas and gather feedback. There were also on-the-spot discussions in places people gather, focus groups, and a citywide virtual event. The online feedback survey had over 1,000 responses.

This feedback was compiled, analyzed and then presented at a Zoning and Planning Committee meeting in November 2022.

Developing Zoning Code and Maps

Taking the framework and writing an actual zoning code is very complex and technical and involves the city’s Planning and Law Departments plus the city’s consultants, Utile. A first draft of the village center maps showing the different zoning districts was presented at ZAP in October 2022. In November, a first draft of the zoning and design standards for village centers was presented.

Community Engagement:
Feedback on Version 1.0 of the Zoning Code and Maps

In December 2022, Newton’s Planning Department held a series of community meetings centered on each of the villages to inform people of the proposed zoning and to get feedback. The summary of those meetings was presented to the Zoning and Planning Committee in January.

The Zoning and Planning Committee held a meeting on January 9th and another on January 23rd to hear public comment from community groups across the city. Over 30 groups presented at the meetings.

Community Engagement at Any Time

Of course throughout this process City Councilors welcome comments and feedback from the community and from groups in the community. To send an email to all of the councilors, use citycouncil@newtonma.gov. To send an email to all members of the Zoning and Planning Committee, use jnorton@newtonma.gov

Public Hearing City Council Newton, MA

Download