A hullabaloo over history is brewing in West Newton Square, where a city councilor’s push to preserve a group of commercial buildings as local landmarks could impact city efforts to revitalize the neighborhood.
The proposals made by Councilor Julia Malakie, who represents West Newton, could affect five privately owned properties in the neighborhood, including a bank, an apartment building, and a former realty office expected to be knocked down to help make way for a new mixed-use housing development.
“Without more than lip service in support of preservation, we could lose some of our most iconic buildings in West Newton and other village centers as well,” Malakie told the Newton Historical Commission in a Jan. 2 e-mail.
In recent years, the stretch of Washington Street along the Massachusetts Turnpike has drawn new construction, including a pair of projects in Newtonville. Last year, the City Council approved a vision plan for the roadway from West Newton to Newton Corner that would encourage denser development, including more housing.
Malakie’s landmarking proposal, filed with the Newton Historical Commission, has been criticized locally by those who back additional growth in the area, including Doris Ann Sweet, a member of affordable housing group Engine 6.
The plan “could possibly get in the way of much-needed housing that needs to be built here, and that would be unfortunate,” Sweet said. “I don’t see it as looking at Newton’s history. . . . It’s really a way to outright thwart development.”
The city’s landmarking ordinance hasn’t been updated since being enacted in 1993. The City Council is due Monday to decide whether to temporarily suspend the ability of city councilors and the Historical Commission to nominate properties as landmarks while it updates the rule. (The mayor, director of planning and development, and commissioner of inspectional services would still be able to nominate landmarks.)
Malakie is proposing landmark status for the following properties: the red brick commercial building at 989-1003 Watertown St., erected around 1875 and now housing a CVS pharmacy; the former Davis Hotel at 978 Watertown St., built in 1831 and now home to Sweet Tomatoes restaurant; the Colonial Revival at 1 Chestnut St., built in 1932 and now home to Bank of America; the Brezniak Rodman Funeral Directors building at 1253 Washington St., which has a facade from 1926; and the green-roofed 1928 building that once housed the Carley Real Estate office at 1173 Washington St.
The Historical Commission is scheduled to consider two of the landmark proposals in late February, and the rest in March. The commission declined in January to consider two other properties Malakie proposed.
The former realty office and the funeral home properties are both slated for knockdown. An 18-month demolition delay for the realty office expired in January 2019; a separate demolition delay was imposed by the Historical Commission on the funeral home in May 2019 until November 2020.
If the Newton Historical Commission declares those properties as landmarks under a city ordinance, it would mean the commission could review and approve any changes to them, including demolitions, exterior renovations, and new construction.
Malakie’s proposal goes right to a thorny issue in Newton: How will the city preserve its historical buildings, some left over from the horse and buggy days, while encouraging development that meets today’s demands for housing and commercial growth?
The Washington Street plan approved by the City Council in December prioritizes preservation, but Malakie criticized the plan as insufficient.
“Looking ahead, I am concerned that attention to historic preservation in the Washington Street Vision Plan is minimal, and the language is weak, and essentially an invitation to developers to use historic buildings as bargaining chips/hostages to achieve larger projects,” Malakie said in her e-mail to councilors.
Malakie highlighted the 1928 building at 1173 Washington St. as the historically significant 50-year office of one of Newton’s first female real estate brokers and “an architectural gem” that should be preserved.
Under current plans the property, which is owned by Mark Development, would be replaced as part of a mixed-use project proposed under the state’s Chapter 40B affordable housing law.
“The city’s landmarking regulations are designed to protect valued, historic properties that contribute to neighborhood character, not to be used as a tool for neighbors opposing density,” Robert Korff of Mark Development said in a statement. “We are confident that our project will contribute significantly to the community.”
Kenneth Goldberg, who is a principal in the holding company that owns the CVS building, said in a phone interview that Malakie didn’t discuss the landmark proposal with his company before it was filed with the Historical Commission.
“We are not looking to knock it down,” Goldberg said of the building.
West Newton Square sits where Washington and Watertown streets meet amid a group of storefronts occupied by shops, restaurants, and banks. Nearby are Newton’s police headquarters and Newton District Court.
Through the windows of Judith’s Kitchen at the corner of Washington and Elm streets, the square is visible from the counter, where customers can buy prepared foods, sandwiches, and other items.
On a recent weekday afternoon, owner Judith Kalish and her husband, John Demaris, were at work inside the restaurant, which the West Newton residents opened in 2015.
Kalish said she values the look of the neighborhood’s older brick buildings, preferring them to the spartan look that is popular with newer construction.
“I always like when towns have historic buildings, so not everything is the same,” said Kalish, 53, during an interview at the shop.
She and Demaris, 58, said they would also support additional development for West Newton to make room for more customers and spaces for local businesses like theirs to open up.
“I want this downtown to compete with a Wegmans, with a Natick Mall. People are coming” here, Demaris said.
Richard Drucker, 45, an office manager at Precision Auto Body on Washington Street, said the city should encourage developers to create new space for businesses, particularly restaurants.
“They need to bring the people back,” said Drucker, who grew up in the city. “There needs to be more nightlife in West Newton.”
In the past, not all of those projects have been greeted warmly.
Sue Rudek, 63, is the fourth generation of her family to live in West Newton. She opposes the larger developments that have come to nearby Newtonville, and worries how similar projects could impact West Newton, she said in an interview at L’Aroma Cafe & Bakery, a coffee shop on Spencer Street.
“It feels like family,” Rudek said of West Newton. “It’s the comfort of knowing people in the neighborhood when you go outside; people are more friendly, not in-and-out strangers you don’t know.”
Howard Rosenof, 71, who spoke outside the CVS building on a recent afternoon, said he supports efforts to preserve the neighborhood’s older buildings.
“It creates a connection with our history — that is worth something to me,” said Rosenof, who has lived in West Newton for almost 30 years. “It’s important for the people who live here — we like the scene of a community that is established.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.