Efficient and disciplined city government
Jake chronicled best practices in cities like Boston, New York, Chicago, Austin, San Francisco, and even Panama City while at the Project on Municipal Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School, and he knows what works and what Newton can adopt. As councilor, Jake is helping to ensure that we hold administration officials accountable to rigorous metrics so that taxpayers get the maximum benefit per dollar.
Jake is not shying away from analyzing the city's plan to get control of its $1B+ in pension and health care benefit liabilities. Adjusting and implementing this plan over the next generation will require policy-makers who are well-versed in finance. With an MBA from MIT Sloan, Jake is well-equipped to understand the risks, including inflated investment return and discount rate assumptions and the use of overly conservative mortality tables and medical inflation rates, as well as the challenges, most notably restraining OPEB costs for new employees while still investing in infrastructure and competitive salaries.
Another priority is better pavement management for the city's roads and sidewalks. We are under-maintaining our surface infrastructure and Newton's drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians have noticed. As councilor, Jake is collaborating with Public Works to codify service agreements for quality control, timeline, and budget, just like Somerville has successfully done. Furthermore, he will work to apply the data-driven modeling that informed the Capital Improvement Plan to road and sidewalk maintenance, so that projects are chosen quantitatively, not politically.
Newton’s taxpayers are some of the smartest and most productive workers in the world; we should expect our government – and the Council – to match that standard.
The Garden City and the walkable city
Like an increasing number of planning experts, Jake uses walkability as the lens through which to evaluate development. As the Ward 2 representative to the Land Use committee, Jake will not vote for any special permit that does not materially and quantifiably enhance the walkability of the respective village.
Quality of life depends upon a peaceful residence within easy reach of a vibrant village center – a walkable destination for Newton residents, not just a ZIP code and vehicle thru-way. Right now, Newton’s walk score averages only 51 out of 100 – even Los Angeles is better! Brookline, by comparison, scores 79. You can learn more about walkability here and check out your own street’s walk score.
Newton should catch up to its peers by implementing dynamic parking technology and traffic regulations that ease congestion while promoting pedestrian comfort. And the city can pull ahead during the current revision of the zoning code, which presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to embed walkability in Newton’s DNA.
The Council should create incentives for the local retail and restaurants that make each village distinctive, and should pro-actively zone for the information economy, especially the biotech firms that offer high-paying jobs and new revenue.
Housing for young families and seniors
Land prices in Newton are surging, and this is fundamentally a good problem to have. Newton's land is valuable because we have safe streets, great schools, a welcoming, progressive, and educated population, and proximity to Boston's booming economy.
That's the good part of the "good problem". The problem part is that expensive land foments gentrification, which erodes a pillar of Newton's quality of life: socioeconomic diversity. One in eight Newton households, many of them seniors, currently earns less than $25K annually, and they are under increasing pressure to sell their homes as property taxes increase. When they sell the house, developers snatch up the property and, through new construction, increase property values further in the neighborhood. The gentrification becomes self-accelerating.
Newton has two levers to control this self-accelerating trend. The first is floor-to-area ratio (FAR), especially as it applies to single-family development. By restricting the volume of new homes, the zoning code can exert modest downward pressure on prices for young families moving into Newton. The FAR restriction has the important corollary benefit of preserving green space and neighborhood character.
The second lever is density. By putting more units onto a fixed area of land, the unit prices decrease because, without raising the fixed cost of land, the developer earns more marginal revenue with each new unit. Residential density at appropriate scale, when adjacent to retail, has the important corollary benefit of enhancing the walkability of the villages. However, density has chronic public costs to infrastructure, schools, and congestion that need to be evaluated alongside the benefits.
Newton needs to use both levers, thoughtfully, to diversify its housing stock for seniors and young families. The Council is taking up zoning reform next term for the first time since 1987. Jake is advocating that it use this once-in-a-generation opportunity to codify a consistent, predictable approach to village zoning so that neighbors and developers know what kind of neighborhoods they are buying into and what kinds of projects they are investing in.
One approach may be to adopt overlays that outline, for each of Newton's villages, residentially developable plots in tightly circumscribed village centers and modest FAR restrictions in the surrounding neighborhoods. Newton will thus be pushing on both levers comprehensively instead of haphazardly.
Smart investments for the best public schools
Newton’s schools are its pride. We should honor that tradition and prepare for the future by guaranteeing every Newton child an enriching Kindergarten and pre-Kindergarten experience.
Currently, Newton is falling behind other cities on early education. To keep Newton’s schools great, Newton's elected officials should work with the Commonwealth towards providing income-graduated pre-K vouchers. Academic studies have indicated financial and civic returns on investments in pre-K.
The science is compelling: young minds who learn and play in positive, stimulating environments are put on a course to success, and their future classmates and teachers benefit, too. Newton should take the lead in the Commonwealth in meeting this civic imperative.