Arlington Redevelopment Board - Oct 7th, 2019

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The meeting starts with a handful of administrative notes: the 833 Mass Ave hearing (CVS pharmacy sign replacement) is continued to Nov 4th, but the property owner is here to speak with the board this evening. 1207--1211 Mass Ave (proposed hotel) will be continued sometime in November. The proposal for 93 Broadway (Springboard Schools) was withdrawn without prejudice.

833 Mass Ave. Next, the board wishes to speak with the owner of 833 Mass Ave. 833 Mass Ave is a CVS pharmacy. Next to the pharmacy (and on the same property) is a boarded-up, abandoned house (called the "Atwood house") and the board wants to discuss the abandoned building with the property owner. The property owner is Robert Noyes and he's represented by attorney Robert Annese. Mr. Annese addresses the board.

Mr. Annese and his client are aware that the building is in rough condition, and they've talked with the building inspector about it. The Atwood house has existed at least since the 1950's. They're aware of the trespassing issues and complaints, and have retained architect Monte French to work on a potential building renovation. Mr. Annese says the building is in poor condition, as confirmed by their structural engineer. At this point, the structural engineer has done a preliminary assessment, and they plan a more thorough assessment in the future.

Mr. Annese says that a prior ARB hearing for 833 mass ave prohibited the removal of the house within 24 months, and that time period has long passed. Mr. Annese says that he and his client are contemplating a mixed use rehabilitation, but a thorough structural inspection needs to be done first. They're open to ideas with respect to what can be done with the building.

Kin Lau says it's been ten years since the CVS project was approved. He encourages the owner to do something with the abandoned house. Mr. Lau believes the property is a nuisance, but he's willing to work with the owner. He recognized the skin of the building is in rough shape, but believes it's structurally sound. Mr. Lau suggests re-boarding the windows.

Chris Loretti offers public comment. Mr. Loretti was a member of the ARB when the CVS was approved. He states that Mr. Annese was incorrect; when the CVS was permitted, the redevelopment board wanted to prevent the building from being torn down.

Adam Chapdelaine will arrive at 8:00pm to give a presentation. The chair mulls calling a recess vs. approval of prior minutes. The board decides to take minute approval out of order.

Housing in Arlington. Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine is scheduled to give a presentation titled "Housing in Arlington: Why this is our Issue and What Should we do?". Jenny Raitt expresses appreciation to the board, for their willingness to continue the housing conversation. She advocates for resetting the conversation, rather than trying to pick up from last spring, and looks forward to the engagement process.

Mr. Chapdelaine presents. Last spring's proposal for multi-family housing didn't go far. He'd like to talk about why the issue is important, and have a broader conversation about housing.

Arlington is part of Boston's regional economy and housing market. We should to consider how that affects us, along with possible solutions to help relieve housing pressure.

The Metro Mayors Coalition consists of 15 communities. There's been a lot of regional job growth and population growth, but less home growth. Housing is expensive, because demand has been outpacing supply. Regional job growth is likely to continue and between 2015--2030 the area will need 185,000 new homes to accommodate this.

Arlington is becoming gentrified, but we still have low-income residents. 30% of our households are cost-burdened, and low-income seniors spend an even greater portion of their income on housing. Rental units are being converted to condominiums. That's good for the town's tax base, but it means the units become more expensive. Mr. Chapdelaine doesn't intend to propose any solutions tonight.

Arlington has 57 affordable units in the development pipeline, via the Housing Corporation of Arlington. We use community development block grant monies for affordability, weatherization, and preservation efforts. The town also monitors our subsidized housing inventory.

There are 1.4M people living in communities that belong to the MMC. The MMC has worked on climate change preparations and the opioid epidemic. Now, we're turning our attention toward housing. If the 185,000 goal were apportioned by land area, Arlington's share would be 7%. But that's not how the partnership works. Communities do not get mandates from the MMC. Instead, we want each community to have a dialog, and determine what its share should be.

Arlington could look at inclusionary zoning, or increase the amount of housing allowed along commercial corridors. Zoning is not the only tool at our disposal, though.

For next steps, the Select Board has agreed to have a joint meeting with the ARB. The focus is on engagement, and we don't expect concrete recommendations until fall 2020, at the earliest.

Don Seltzer (who's generally opposed to new development) presents next. Mr. Seltzer restates the MMC's goal of producing 185,000 units of new housing, and says it's the one-year anniversary of when this effort was announced. Boston set a goal of producing 69,000 new houses, but other cities have been hesitant to set goals.

Mr. Seltzer continues, noting that 185,000 - 69,000 = 116,000 which would represent a 34% in housing in the other MMC cities. He believes that any increases in Arlington would have to be done in our R4--R8 districts, which make up 5% of Arlington's land area.

Mr. Seltzer explores some possibilities for where we could put additional housing. For example, we might convert some of our business districts to residential. We might fill in Spy Pond and put the housing there. Replacing Winchester country club with housing is another option. He asks what kind of impact new housing would have on the town's infrastructure.

Mr. Seltzer says that Arlington is in the middle of the MMC, according to density. Five cities have a lower population density than Arlington. If the communities that are less dense than Arlington built out to Arlington's density, then we'd be a long way toward meeting the MMC's housing goals. He says that Arlington has done its share of housing production, and we should be more concerned about our shrinking commercial base and the need for more affordable housing. Most of our subsidized housing units were created by the Arlington Housing Authority and non-profits. Some were created by commercial developers, mostly in Mill Brook Square.

The Metro Mayor's coalition isn't considering commercial tax base. Among MMC communities, Arlington's commercial tax base is dead last. We're not like other communities, and have to be very careful about converting commercial districts to residential. Mr. Seltzer claims that 40 students live in the Brigham Square apartments, and it costs $580k/year to educate them. At the same time, the property only brings in $400k/year in property taxes.

Mr. Seltzer closes by asking the town to address the following issues: Eliminate loopholes in our inclusionary zoning bylaw, protect residents and businesses from displacement, don't sacrifice the commercial tax base, bring back the Residential Study group to look at Accessory Dwelling Units, strengthen our stormwater bylaws, and look at climate resiliency.

Kin Lau asks Mr. Seltzer if his density calculations takes parks and public open spaces into consideration. Mr. Seltzer says they don't; his density figures are just land area divided by population. The figures were taken from the US census bureau. Mr. Lau thinks he needs to take non-buildable land into consideration. Mr. Seltzer believes that 185,000 new units won't bring housing prices down; it will only stabilize the market.

Steve Revilak presents next. His presentation is based on a written memo to the ARB, and covers a housing survey done at town day. Mr. Revilak's prepared talk appears below.

A group of us approached Envision Arlington about collaborating on a town day activity: a housing survey. The idea was to have a form of public engagement that got people thinking about housing, and also allowed us to get input from the community. I volunteered at Envision's town day booth, and I'd like to present the results of the housing survey. I'm doing this as an individual volunteer, and not on behalf of any organization.

The survey consisted of six poster boards, each containing a housing-related issue. Participants were given three adhesive dots, and asked to place them on boards with the issues they felt were most important. Participants were also given the opportunity to write comments on post-it notes.

Approximately 339 people posted 1017 dots on the boards or on post-it notes.

My written report shows the issues in the order they appeared on the board. For this presentation, I'm going to jump around a little.

Housing affordability came out as the prevailing issue, with 308 dots. Based on the written comments, "affordability" meant very different things to different people. The comments ranged from "we don't need more housing", to requests for more multi-family housing, transit-oriented development, and a red line extension. There's a lot of distance between those views.

Social justice came out as the second issue, with 197 dots.

That was our top tier: Housing affordability, and Social justice.

The middle tier consisted of Lifestyle options (149 dots) and doing more with existing resources (143 dots).

Filling out the bottom tier were Setting a ten-year housing goal (119 dots) and Maximizing Flexibility of Home Space (81 dots).

Some observations: and again, these are coming from me as an individual.

  • People seemed most concerned about affordability, aka the cost of housing. Housing prices in Arlington, and Metro Boston in general have been on an escalator ride up since about 2000 or so, so the concern is understandable.
  • There was some appetite for bringing back rent control. Unfortunately, state law doesn't allow us to do much in this area. Aside from perhaps looking into voluntary rent control programs.
  • There's a recognition of the importance of older "naturally affordable" apartment buildings. Arlington was very pro-growth in the 1950s and 1960s; which is fortunate, because it allowed those buildings to be built in the first place. The downside is that we haven't allowed more of these into the pipeline. At some point, they're likely to be refurbished or upgraded, at which point they'll probably become more expensive.

I also tried to do some devil's advocate reasoning about affordability, to get a better sense of the pros and cons. Because there are pros and cons to the issue.

This line of though was inspired by a question from Envision Arlington's last town survey, which asked "What was your household income in 2018". The largest group of responses was "more than $200k"; and 71% of respondents indicate having an income of $100k or more. I knew we were an affluent community, but I didn't realize we were quite that affluent.

Which goes back to the escalator: steadily increasing home prices mean that every year, a new resident has to make more money to live in Arlington (or be willing to spend more on housing). Combine that with the amount of residential turnover we've seen in the last 15-20 years. I really get the sense that we've quietly done a lot of gentrification during the past two decades. And our housing prices are more or less in line with our income levels.

Gentrification isn't inherently bad. This has helped give us the resources to rebuild the schools and fund the town budget. We're renovating town buildings, and increasing the staffing levels in town departments, and doing what we can to improve services. As a town meeting member, I feel like we're finally getting around to a lot of deferred maintenance, and many residents benefit from this. Good financial management helps too, but it doesn't happen without capital.

So despite housing costs, the status quo of Arlington's housing policy kind of works, at least for a sizable chunk of the population. That's the pro side.

On the con side, there are potentially downsides in the areas of losing diversity, increasing regional traffic congestion, and failure to meet regional housing demands. I assume our gentrification has caused some displacement, due to rising costs. But to the extent it's happened, it seems to have taken place quietly and over time.

In summary, I see this as the beginning of what's likely to be a very long conversation. But at least we're getting the conversation started.

David Watson thanks the presenters. He thinks we need something that works for Arlington, and something that's supported by residents of the town. Whatever we do, it should be right for Arlington.

Barbara Thornton also submitted written comments, and would like to summarize them for the board. She hopes that the board will be bold and consider Arlington's role in the region. Her report is based on material in a book by David Rusk, which shows how local governments can work together to achieve good results. One of the examples addresses commercial tax inequities. Ms. Thornton would like us to consider Arlington's roles and responsibility as part of the region.

David Watson asks if this approach requires a county government. Ms. Thornton says is doesn't; there are a variety of ways communities can work together.

Mr. Watson asks if the MMC has thought about ways to consider disparities in commercial tax base. Adam Chapdelaine believes this could be a difficult sell. Arlington has wealth, but since it's residential, we can only access that wealth via overrides. Communities like Brockton have a large commercial tax base, but their residents are lower-income.

Patricia Worden speaks next. She thanks Don Seltzer for his presentation. In Ms. Worden's opinion, the only housing Arlington needs is affordable housing, or housing for seniors. She encourages the use of CPA and CDBG funds for affordable housing, and the establishment of an affordable housing trust fund. Ms. Worden says that Arlington's non-residential tax base is 5.6%, but communities like Cambridge and Boston have a nearly 50% non-residential base. She states that Arlington rent is inexpensive, and that 45 Boston tenants are evicted each day.

Jennifer Susse would like to say a few words about schools. She says one can't take the average cost per student, and use that as the basis for the cost for new students. One has to consider the school's enrollment growth factor, which is more like $7000/student.

Ms. Susse is concerned about the loss of housing diversity, which could lead Arlington to become a community like Lexington, where people move in with toddlers and move out when they go to college. She'd like housing that allows families to downsize. We need a mix of families without kids; some can be younger families and some can be older. She believes it takes at least a year to have a dialog like this. She asks the ARB to trust the process. There are a lot of ideas in town and a diversity of opinions. She hopes the board will present the issues, and work with the community on the plan.

Pat Hanlon was expecting a more fiery discussion. Tonight's conversation was open and thoughtful. The objections are a well-received response to the problem, however we're defining what the problem is. Mr. Hanlon believes housing diversity matters. For example, a person with mobility challenges would benefit from housing without stairs. This isn't all about zoning. Ms. Worden and Mr. Seltzer had some good ideas, and they should be considered. Mr. Hanlon sees numerous questions to address: what will be produced by a zoning change, what can we get out of inclusionary zoning, how do we treat big-A vs small-a affordability? We need to consider the financial impacts on the town, and whether inclusionary zoning will hollow out the middle of our housing market. We also have to consider the environment. Not enough housing in Boston means people spend a lot of time commuting in, and several of the most congested roadways in Massachusetts are right around here. There are lots of questions, and we don't have the answers yet.

Chris Loretti asks if the MMC has considered any steps to reduce job growth in the region. Adam Chapdelaine says no. Mr. Loretti believes that elected officials have to start saying "we don't need more jobs".

Arlington Heights Action Plan. The ARB meets two of the applicants for the group that will work on the Arlington Heights action plan. They both have professional experience in planning.

Jenny Raitt says more people have applied for positions on the Arlington Heights Action Plan Committee than any other committee she's advertised. There are a lot of areas for the committee to explore. Years ago, a group of residents from the heights came to the town and asked for improvements.

The board votes 4--0 to approve the appointments. Rachel Zsembery is nominated to be the ARB's representative on the Action Plan committee.

Open Forum. Chris Loretti asked the board to clarify listing correspondences received. Mr. Loretti sent the board a follow-up correspondence from an earlier meeting, and expected to see it in the board's packet.