Arlington Redevelopment Board - Mar 11th, 2019

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The redevelopment Board held hearings on four articles this evening:

  • Article 6: Density and Dimensional Requirements for Multi-Family Uses
  • Article 7: Density and Dimensional Requirements for Mixed Use
  • Article 8: Open Space Requirements for Multi-Family and Mixed Use
  • Article 9: Townhouses

Jenny Raitt provides the opening presentation. This process started with the Master Plan which was adopted in 2015 and then endorsed by town meeting. It's a long term (5--15) year plan. The master plan is about planning for change. Change is inevitable, and we should plan for it. These articles focus on the health of our commercial districts, and on the higher density residential districts. Low-density residential districts are not affected. However, all of these areas abut low-density residential districts, and there are a lot of questions there.

Housing costs are going up. The master plan notes the need for a variety of housing at different price points. The proposed articles are about addressing mismatches between what's in the zoning bylaw and what's already built. Our goals are well-designed housing (through the environmental design review process), accommodating multi-modal transit options, amenities, and housing diversity.

Our zoning bylaw created a lot of non-conforming lots. These articles would make many of them conforming. They also adjust dimensional restrictions, which greatly limit built-out possibilities.

While Arlington has a number of vacant storefronts, our overall commercial occupancy rate is 98.8%.

Erin Zwirko speaks next. She goes through specific changes in each of the articles.

The board opens the hearing for public comment. (Note: I've done the best I could with names, but some are probably spelled wrong.)

(Rachel Stark). Ms. Stark supports increased density, if it's done right. She likes infill development, and affordable housing. She wonders what affordability guarantees there will be.

Ms. Zwirko notes that any new development would be subject to our inclusionary zoning requirements, and there is an article which proposes to increase them.

(Pat Diehl). Ms. Diehl was a town meeting member in the past, and she remembers articles being fairly benign. She's concerned about scale and scope, and believes residents have no idea that this is coming down the pike. She'd like to defer the articles for another year. She thinks the articles appear to be coming from a cookie-cutter template.

(Don Seltzer) Mr. Seltzer produced his own build-out visualization study of the corner of Broadway and River Street, along with another visualization to show morning shadows. He questions whether the changes are really proper. He believes these articles will turn Massachusetts Avenue into a cold, dark cavern.

(Steve Revilak). As I've told the board before, I believe these are a moderate changes which will be beneficial to the town. I think it's important to compare what we're proposing with what we have now.

The zoning rewrite of 1975 was a reaction to multifamily housing in general, apartments in particular, and to public housing (i.e., Winslow Towers, which led to a two-year moratorium on the construction of new apartments). Our zoning rewrite was a multi-pronged approach to population control. The recodification tried to limit the population by limiting the amount of housing, and by favoring single family homes, the most land-intensive and expensive form of housing there is.

By the planning department's own build-out analysis, the 1975 ZBL would reduce the maximum build out potential by some 4,800 housing units. That's 4,800 households that are not welcome to come and live in Arlington.

Now, I'd like to jump ahead to a memo I sent the ARB in February, which appeared in your Feb 25th Board packet. In this memo, I used our 2018 assessors data to graph out the cost distributions of different types of housing, and for the town as a whole.

If you take all of the housing in the town -- from the smallest studio to the largest mansion, the median cost is about $439k/unit.

Single family homes come in well above that. They have a median of $618k unit. Every other housing type comes in below the town-wide median of $439k. Even our newest and most expensive apartments -- the ones built on the Symmes site are less; they come in at around $412k unit.

We have a housing affordability problem in Arlington, and in the Metro Boston area. Having done the analysis for my Feb memo to the board, I feel very comfortable saying that the easiest way to address this is to allow people to build something other than single-family homes. We need more multi-family housing, and I appreciate the town's efforts to address that need.

(John Gersh). There is a housing problem in Arlington, but this is a sledgehammer change. He's not sure about the master plan. These changes would allow the building by the Stop and Shop to be taller. Mr. Gersh says that Arlington is still a town. He asks if any town meeting members were consulted about Arlington joining the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition's Housing Task Force. He believes these changes will make a few people very wealthy.

(Keith S.) People live in town because it's a nice place. People care about this town. He asks a question about buffers and open space, and whether we're changing the character of this town. He asks if there's been an environmental impact study.

(Patricia Worden). Ms. Worden states that the only kind of housing Arlington needs is affordable housing, and that these amendments would do the opposite. She believes that housing diversity is the opposite of what the Master Plan calls for. She believes these articles are a dream for developers and a disaster for the town. Town leaders need to protect housing rights. Ms. Worden clams that 40% of Arlington renters pay under $1,500/month and 80% pay under $1,999/month; but, new units rent for $3000/month. More people will stress town infrastructure and the schools.

(Michelle Nathan). Ms. Nathan is a new resident who's tried her best to understand the zoning changes. She supports affordability, diversity, economic diversity, and small businesses. She was shocked at Vicki Lee's in Cushing Square; she didn't like it. She's like to see more public input. Ms. Nathan asks what the financial impact will be if every building is redeveloped, and if we'll push out small businesses. She believes there's no protection against buildings being torn down. She believes 15% is too low a number for inclusionary zoning, and asks why none of the bylaws require net zero buildings. She doesn't want open space on the top of buildings, because it won't be regulated. The previous owner of her home said that property taxes went up 30% this year.

(Barbara Thornton). Ms. Thornton states that there were 1.5 billion people on the planet when she was born. There are 7 billion now. Not all of them live in Arlington, but some will want to. She applauds the master plan process. We've spent a lot of time talking about Arlington High School. She believes our kids aren't going to be able to live here. Arlington will become like Chestnut Hill -- a network of very expensive houses. By having fewer people and more valuable homes, we risk losing people to walk into our neighborhood shops. Ms. Thornton thinks most of the problems she's hearing are about the visual appearance of buildings. We need to look deeper than that. She's hurt by the idea we're moving too fast. We have to get out and make this happen.

(Pam Hallet). I missed the first part of Ms. Hallet's comments. She ended by saying that businesses come and go, because they don't have enough support from people.

(John Worden). Mr. Worden states that he's lived here for over 50 years. Back in 1970, he stood before the planning board and urged them to reject a plan by the Mugar family to build three high-rise towers. He acknowledges that the 1975 zoning bylaw was not perfect. He states that changes to Mass Ave affect us all, and asks attendees to imagine Mass Ave lined with buildings like the one near the high school. He appeals to the board to be gatekeepers for these articles.

(Elise Salinger). Ms. Salinger just moved to town, and found it welcoming. After sitting through some of these comments, she wonders if young professionals are really welcome here. She asks people to think about who we're being welcoming to. Ms. Salinger believes the plan is targeted. Mass Ave is an amazing transit corridor, and you need people and vibrancy to keep businesses alive. She likes this plan, and hopes it's just the first step. She'd like to see a robust conversation about it.

(Wynelle Evans). Ms. Evans states that no one in this room has said they don't want affordable housing, but these amendments have no incentive to create affordable units. She's also concerned about displacement when redevelopment begins. Ms. Evans is glad to see the Housing Corporation of Arlington developing 100% affordable units. She's opposed to landscaped open space on rooftops. She believes we have to address affordability in concrete language.

(Joanne Preston). Ms. Preston just came from a meeting of Tenants for a Livable Arlington. She states that most of these tenants live in brick apartment buildings, and those buildings are the ones most likely to be torn down. She believes that developers are building luxury apartments because that's where the money is.

(Susan Stamps). Ms. Stamps says the work of the ARB and planning department is well-appreciated. She has mixed feelings about saying what she doesn't like. She believes the town is supportive of the Housing Corporation of Arlington and would like to see more affordable housing, but she doesn't think this is the answer. She suggests we discuss these changes over the next year. Ms. Stamps like Chapter four (Environment) of the Master Plan, and she believes we need to develop in harmony with the environment. She believes this town loves our trees and green spaces. We can't focus on housing and ignore the environment.

(Kate Casa). Ms. Casa supports the proposed amendments, and believes that modest density is good both socially and economically. These changes would provide more housing options, and would increase diversity. People are looking for homes near vibrant commercial areas. Ms. Casa believes that Arlington will not stay the same, and these changes will help us respond is a positive way. She'd like to see sustainable housing near mass transit.

(Beth Elliot). Ms. Elliot supports the proposed changes. She doesn't see this as an attack or an assault. Rather, it's more of an invitation. Many of these changes conform to existing uses. More density is the only way to move the needle on affordable housing. Ms. Elliot asks people to thing about changes that would increase inclusionary zoning or the economics of development. You need market rate units to subsidize the affordable ones. Think about what you'll gain rather than what you'll lose.

(Asia Kepka). Ms. Kepka bought a two-family home on Silk street. She doesn't have parks around her; instead, she's next to a large commercial building. The owner of the commercial building had to use Ms. Kepka's yard in order to paint it. Ms. Kepka states that her tenants are moving because they can't afford to stay in Arlington. She's not against affordable housing, but would like to see examples of where more development brought lower prices. Ms. Kepka believes that working-class people can't start their lives like she did. Paving our city will not create a vibrant community.

(Aram Hollman). Mr. Hollman begins by thanking people for listening. He believes that the primary purpose of these articles is not to create affordable housing. Rather, the goal is to raise taxes and increase the population. Any affordable units created will only be a dent in the problem and not enough to be worthwhile. Mr. Hollman believes our record is not very good. In 21 years, there are been approximately 1,000 units built in the town, and approximately 400 came from three developments. Of these 400, only 44 were affordable. Large projects only create so much affordable housing. Mr. Hollman suggests a 1% real estate transfer tax, which would go towards funding affordable housing. He suggests election of the redevelopment board rather than appointment, and asks people to look at Mass Ave in Cambridge, or at Cambridge Park Drive.

(Karen Kelleher). Ms. Kelleher supports these articles, and believes they'll double down on the things we like about our community: dense, walkable, and near public transit. They'll help support businesses. Affordable housing requires a lot of money, and the cost of housing is a function of being in the greater Boston area. Ms. Kelleher believes that aesthetic issues are important, but there are trade offs. These proposals aren't radically different from what we have today. Waiting two years will not fix the problems.

(Carl Wagner). Mr. Wagner is very concerned about these articles. He believes we need grassroots involvement from the community. He suggests putting these changes off, until taxpayers can weigh in.

(Chris Loretti). Mr. Loretti is concerned about the consistency of the articles with the master plan. He believes we're seeing changes that go well beyond townhouses. He doesn't see R5--R7 mentioned in the master plan, and the master plan implies leaving the B1 district as-is. The Master Plan says that floor area ratio should be increased, but not as much as these articles propose to do. The Master Plan says that open space is critical, and these articles will reduce it. Reducing the amount of open space by 10% in all lots in town would be more space than there is in the open space district. He believes that changes to usable open space should be withdrawn.

(Steve McKenna). Mr. McKenna appreciates everyone coming to voice their opinions. You're doing it for the love of the town. There's been a lot of talk about developers. One developer that would be very hurt is Pam Hallet. Developers provide housing for people who need it. These bylaw changes will increase our housing stock, create new business opportunities, and bring more income to the town. These things are critical to Arlington. Most of the properties on Mass Ave were built before 1930, and they need revitalization. Look at Lexington; Lexington allowed mixed used in their town center. Belmont is creating more housing and business opportunities. Arlington needs to approve these articles to remain relevant. These proposals are well though out, reasonable, and specific. We will not becomes New York City. Each development opportunity will require approval from the ARB. We are located in a hub full of growth. The planning department knows the importance of these changes and they're highly educated.

(Adam Auster). Mr. Auster thinks this is a large bundle of stuff. Town Meeting Members might need explanations of things like FAR, and color copies of the zoning maps. He believes that people are fearful of the shapes of buildings, but hopeful about their uses. Mr. Auster believes that setbacks are more important the higher the buildings are.

(Beth Melofchik). Ms. Malafcheck finds the specter of these density articles frightening. She believes these articles deviate from the master plan. She would like to see climate resiliency addressed. She believes these articles will benefit market rate real estate developers. She believe this is a grab by specific interests. She wants to see healthy neighborhoods and is horrified by what will happen in the R4 district. She'd like to see climate resiliency.

(Peter Bloom). Mr. Bloom asks what percentage of people will feel sufficiently informed after the fact. He asks the board to try to reach people who are hard to reach. Consider mailing copies of these articles to every in town. Mr. Bloom wishes that the exhibit cases in town hall could be used to communicate things like this. He doesn't like the idea of open spaces being on balconies or roofs.