Arlington Engagement Initiative - Jan 24th, 2019

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This meeting was scheduled back-to-back with an ITAC meeting, and I arrived a few minutes late. The town partnered with CHAPA on this event, to get people engaged in housing issues.

Jenny Raitt provides an update on feedback received about the town's multi-family zoning initiatives. During the 1970's, many communities changed their zoning based on 40A, which is the Massachusetts Zoning Enabling Act. Our town rewrote the zoning bylaws in 1975, and population reduction was a major goal of that effort. The town lost population -- about 11,000 residents in the three decades following the recodification.

Our Feb 2018 recodification was a cleanup of the bylaws, in preparation for implementing policy changes recommended by the master plan. The plan requires zoning changes, and the zoning changes have to follow the master plan.

There are 164 communities in the greater Boston area that are trying to figure out issues around housing, and changes in household size. Household sizes are decreasing, which means we need a greater number of housing units per given population. Equity and diversity are goals in Arlington, and housing diversity can help there.

The multifamily articles focus on R4--R7, and the business district. These districts are mostly located along the town's main corridors: Mass Ave, Broadway, Summer Street, and parts of Pleasant Street.

We tried to get the public involved during last year's recodification, but weren't as successful as we wanted. That's why CHAPA is helping with this effort (i.e., the multi-family zoning changes).

MAPC is providing technical assistance for this effort. They've done a zoning audit and parcel analysis. We've been working with them for around 7--8 months.

DPCD directory Jenny Raitt describes some of the comments her department has received to date. She groups them by category.

Some comments were related to density. There was support for smaller building and lot sizes. There were also concerns about affordability. Smaller building and lot sizes tend to produce more affordable housing. Many areas of R4--R7 have small lot sizes, and dimensional and density regulations can severely restrict what can be built.

Some commenters though the town was too dense, and that there were too many people. Our population is about 10,000 less than it was during the 1970s. Arlington is the 12th densest community in Massachusetts, but our density is close to that of neighboring communities.

Another group of comments focused on open space. The current proposal would eliminate the usable open space requirements for these districts, and double the requirement for landscaped open space. There were concerns about stormwater, the environment, and the desire to preserve open space as a public amenity.

Another group focused on parking. These comments were divided. Some felt that parking requirements could be reduced even further; others felt that one space per unit wasn't enough.

There were concerns about loss of control over the development process. The Zoning Bylaw gives the ARB a lot of control over larger projects, through the environmental design review process. The ARB has a set of design standards for commercial development.

Some commenters expressed concern about a lack of public input. This process has been going on for a very long time. The master plan was adopted in 2015, after several years of work. The housing production plan was adopted in 2016, after a year of engagement. The HPP focuses on multifamily development and mixed-use in the right areas of town.

Ms. Raitt pauses to take a few questions.

I ask a question related to something I'd heard at a recent Select Board Meeting. Adam Chapdelaine reported that several communities were working with MAPC to compare master plans, and to identify areas where communities could work together in pursuit of regional goals. I asked if the director could elaborate on this. Ms. Raitt suggested I look for "Metro Commons 2050" on MAPC's website.

Laura Kiesel expressed concerns about the lack of representation from renters and low-income tenants.

Ms. Raitt and Erin Zwirko summarize next steps in this effort. The ARB will hold zoning article hearings every Monday in March. The first Monday (March 4th) will likely be devoted to sign bylaw changes. The ARB will start hearing residential articles on the second Monday (March 11th).

DPCD is currently doing a build-out analysis for the zoning changes, to determine the overall growth potential, and the number of affordable units that could be produced. They're also working on shadow studies and visualizations. These materials should be ready during Feb.

DPCD is planning to do four neighborhood meetings about the zoning changes. These will take place closer to the end of March.

Next, we break into small groups for a discussion exercise. Group members should answer three questions:

  1. When did you move here, and into what kind of home?
  2. Where do you live now?
  3. If you stay, what kind of living situation will you want?

My girlfriend and I moved here in 2007. We were renting an apartment in Somerville when we decided to buy a home. We didn't want to be landlords, so we were interested in a single-family or condominium. We looked at roughly a dozen houses in Cambridge and Somerville -- our preferred area. They were either in rough shape (i.e., knock-downs), or out of our price range. Our realtor showed us a house in Arlington; it was with our budget, and we bought it. Though our target area was Cambridge and Somerville, living 200 feet over the Somerville line was good enough for us. We bought a small single-family attached home, and still live there today.

If we stay, I suspect our home will become victim to a storm surge, particularly when sea level rise causes the Amelia Earhart Dam to become ineffective as a flood barrier. I think there's a good chance I'll live to see our house washed underneath some bridge in Medford. When that happens, we'll relocate rather than rebuild. By that time, I might be old enough that shoveling snow is no longer fun, and a condo might be more appropriate.

Those were my responses to the questions. After the small group discussions, we took turns reporting back to the larger group. Here's a summary of comments given to the larger group:

  • I moved here because it was affordable.
  • I came here for the green space and the trees.
  • In the future, I'd like a smaller place to live
  • I'm concerned about rent increases.
  • I'd like to downsize in the future, but I'm concerned about being able to do that while staying in town.
  • I came here for the walk-ability. I like not having things spread out too much.
  • Living here, I've really gotten to know my neighbors. It's easy because we're so close together.
  • I first moved here to live in a group home, and I eventually wound up buying the house. In the future, I'd be interested in turning it back into a group home.
  • I like being close to public transportation.
  • I'm concerned about the increasing cost of taxes.
  • I'm concerned about the level of affordability for younger generations.
  • I'd like more housing flexibility, where adult children could live with their parents, or where elderly parents could live with their children.

Finally, we talk about engagement. How can we get other folks interested, involved, and in the room?

One idea was to make meetings more informal and less official. Perhaps they could be held on a weekend, with pizza, and limited to an hour. They could be held at a coffee shop, or someone's home.

We could try to use technology, like Skype, Zoom, or teleconferencing.

Perhaps we could do segments on ACMi. These days you don't need cable to watch ACMi's programs, you can do it from their website.

We can use analog stuff, like flyers at laundromats and bus stops. A tenants group found this approach particularly useful.

We could ask for a few minutes to speak at other group's meetings, or at a church.

DPCD regularly meets with local business leaders. This could be another opportunity to talk about multi-family housing.

We could write op-eds and letters to the editors.

Whitney Demetrius will set up a Google form, to enlist volunteers for outreach efforts. She'd like to have a few people commit to using some of these strategies to get other people involved.

The next engagement meeting will take place on the 4th Thursday of February, which is Feb 28th.