Arlington and MBTA Communities Zoning - Nov 17th, 2022

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Meeting held via remote participation. Materials were available from

(Claire Ricker, Planning Director) Ms. Ricker says the planning department is kicking off a year-long process to adopt policy that could lead to much more housing in Arlington. MBTA Communities Zoning is a state initiative that came out of the 2020 Housing Choice Bill, and it's meant to address the state's housing shortage. In 1980, Massachusetts had average housing costs; today we have the fourth highest housing costs in the nation. During the last 30 years, we've permitted half the number of homes that we did in the previous 30. There's very little multi-family housing that gets built by right, and the intent of the MBTA communities legislation is to allow more of that. She says the planning department is willing to make this presentation as many times as needed, to ensure that people understand the intent of the legislation.

(Kelly Lynema, Assistant Planning Director) Ms. Lynema says this will be the first of many meetings, and she expects the discussion to evolve over the course of the year. The department is planning to do outreach, formulate several scenarios, and eventually come to a recommendation for town meeting. She says the department didn't come into this meeting with a plan; they're mainly interested in having a discussion, though they do have some rough sketches of what an MBTA communities district could look like. Ms. Lynema asks people to approach the process with an open mind, and she hopes that people can bring their knowledge and expertise to the table.

The state has given us an assignment: to find an area (or areas) where multi-family housing can be allowed by right. The law doesn't require housing production; instead, we're just required to create the potential for future housing production. Ms. Lynema says that 175 communities are dealing with this. The law requires multi-family to be allowed by right, suitable for families with children, without size or age restrictions, and at a gross density of at least fifteen units/acre. The legislation tasked the Department of Housing and Community Development, with developing a set of guidance. Ms. Lynema summarizes how the guidance applies to Arlington.

  1. The guidance establishes a set of community categories. Arlington is considered an "adjacent" community.
  2. Capacity. Arlington has 20,461 homes, and our district needs to have a capacity of 2,046. Capacity means the number of homes that could be built, if nothing was on the land already. It's not in addition to what's already there.
  3. There's a reasonable size criteria. For Arlington, the size is 32 acres. This gives us a range of options. For example, we could choose to allow the full capacity in 32 acres, which would give a gross density of 2046/32 = 64 dwellings/acre. Or, we could opt to base the district on the minimum density, which would be 2046/15 = 137 acres. The size of the district will depend on the density. Ms. Lynema says we're talking about missing middle housing, and there's a range of opportunities. She says that triple-deckers typically provide 11--30 units/acre, depending on the parcel size.
  4. District location. Ms. Lynema says our district is no longer tethered to the area around the Alewife T stations. This gives us a lot of opportunities to figure out where the appropriate locations are.

Ms Lynema says that individual districts have to be at least five acres in size. DHCD recommends that they be along transit lines, but this isn't a requirement. Communities can't require special permits, but they can require site plan review. In terms of affordability, Arlington's inclusionary zoning policy can be applied, with DHCD approval. But, the affordability requirements only kick in at six units, and whether to allow six units by right will be another topic for discussion. Communities can't impose requirements on multi-family development that aren't applied to other forms of housing; higher energy efficiency standards for example. We can't require mixed-use development, but we can allow it. We can also think about density bonuses for providing affordable units.

(Claire Ricker) Ms. Ricker wants to answer some of the questions that were asked in the chat. One asks: if two-family by right had passed in the last town meeting, would that have met the requirements? No. In the state law, multi-family means three or more units; two-family isn't considered multi-family.

Another question: will ADUs count. Again the answer is no, because ADUs are considered an accessory use.

(Kelly Lynema) Ms. Lynema talks about the possibility of using an overlay district, but says that will depend on what the community decides. Ultimately, we'll have to figure out where the district will go, and what it will look like.

Ms. Lynema moves on to compliance. She knows there are a lot of opinions around housing, zoning, and density, and density will be part of the discussion. She says the Redevelopment and Select Boards have indicated that compliance is important. The department also wants to communicate this process to town meeting members, so they understand what's happening. Compliance will allow the town to remain eligible for three sources of state funding: Massworks, the Housing Choice Initiative, and the Local Capital Requests Fund. Ms. Lynema says that Massworks in the most important of the three. We just received a $300k grant for design work on the Mass Ave and Appleton Street intersection, and these grants can be as high as $20M.

(Claire Ricker) Ms. Ricker says that Massworks is the fastest way to get things built, and it will help move the Mass Ave/Appleton improvements forward. She says we're hoping to apply for a construction grant next year. Doing projects through MassDOT's normal process typically takes much longer.

(Kelly Lynema) Ms. Lynema says the state may require compliance as a condition of eligibility for other programs. It's already become a requirement for participation in the fossil fuel ban. Town meeting passed the fossil fuel ban in 2020, with 92% of town meeting voting in favor. Participation will be a key step for getting to net zero emissions by 2050. However, we'll only be able to participate if we're compliant with the MBTA communities requirements by January 2024. Compliance could help us meeting existing planning goals for more housing, and reducing single occupancy vehicle use. It could increase the number of customers for retail, and potentially reduce the number of people who drive through Arlington on their way to get someplace else.

Ms. Lynema moves on to the project timeline. The town is creating a working group, and we plan to start outreach efforts this winter, along with surveys. We'll also submit an action plan to the state. In the spring, we hope to present some options and proposals for a compliant district. There will be more listening and revising during the summer, before final recommendations are brought forward for review. We expect a special town meeting in the fall. Ms. Lynema invites residents to apply for seats on the committee, including residents with communications and public relations experience. She says that the DEI department's engagement coordinator will be helping with the effort. The action plan is due by Jan 31, 2023; it will lay out a timeline for achieving compliance.

The conceptual designs will come out of conversations about what our multifamily districts will be, what kind of housing will be allowed by right, and what our goals are. We plan not to touch any of the existing parks or open space districts in town.

Ms. Lynema shows a series of slides to illustrate different district options. The district could be along Mass Ave and Broadway, where are commercial districts are. We could also set the district back, behind the commercial corridors. We could do a series of small districts, spread throughout town, perhaps with commercial components. This would be more like the 15-minute neighborhood concept. The district could be located along multi-use paths, like the Minuteman Bikeway, or around bus stops, to try and get increased bus service. The district could be laid out along bus routes, or adjacent to open space districts, to provide more equitable access to open space.

We move into the question and answer part of the meeting.

(Rebecca Gruber) Ms. Gruber asks if the district has to be uniform. For example, can part of the district allow six-family homes while another allows four-family.

(Kelly Lynema) Ms. Lynema says we have the ability to have MBTA sub-districts, so that option is available to us.

(Jennifer Susse) Ms. Susse is excited about the conversation, and thinks we should see this as an opportunity to discuss what we want to be. She'd like to see a few proposals. For example, one to address missing middle housing, and one with an affordable housing overlay. She thinks the town should do more than the bare minimum.

(Kelly Lynema) Ms. Lynema says that we may decide on an MBTA district that doesn't trigger inclusionary zoning requirements. She thinks there should be two conversations, which could be done at the same time, or different times.

(Sue Janowitz) Ms. Janowitz asks what an overlay district is, and when the buildings would get built.

(Kelly Lynema) Ms. Lynema starts by answering the second question. Ms. Lynema says that Arlington is a redeveloping community. When land becomes sufficiently valuable, the owner or a buyer might want to do something different with it. Change isn't required; rather, we just have to allow the owner to do something different.

(Claire Ricker) Ms. Ricker answers the question about overlay districts. She says the overlay will apply to areas where we decide to achieve this goal. The overlay would allow MBTA compliance, but keep the existing zoning in place. Overlay districts are a way to provide options.

(Carl Wagner) Mr. Wagner says there's been some push-back from the other 174 communities, and he thinks we can get more by stalling or not complying with the requirements. He doesn't think we should go into this by thinking we have to say "yes". Mr. Wagner says he only found out about this meeting last night, and he hopes people who live in the affected areas will become aware of what's happening. Mr. Wagner thinks that Arlington is being punished.

(Kelly Lynema) Ms. Lynema says the department is open to giving this presentation multiple times, so people are aware of what's happening.

(Alex Bagnall) Mr. Bagnall asks if Ms. Lynema could talk more about contiguous vs non-contiguous districts.

(Kelly Lynema) Ms. Lynema says the the guidelines call for a district or districts. Each area has to be at least five acres, and the maps she presented earlier we intended as starting points for conversation.

(Mette Aamodt) Ms. Aamodt is a multi-family housing developer, and she's excited about this as a planner. She sees this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and notes that Massachusetts zoning hasn't changed in a meaningful way in a long time. As a builder, it's almost impossible to build things in the area. She's 100% in support of compliance.

(Pat Hanlon) Mr. Hanlon thinks we shouldn't treat this as a contract. He says it's a legislative mandate, like driving on the right side of the road. He hopes the town doesn't treat this as a request, and says the state could impose additional sanctions later. He thinks we ought to concentrate the development around our transit corridors, and there are lots of redevelopment opportunities there. We may be able to improve options for commercial development at the same time. Mr. Hanlon says that almost all of Arlington's current density came from a time before our zoning ordinance was enacted, and that zoning ordinance was written to stop it.

(Kelly Lynema) Ms. Lynema notes that both the ARB and Select Board felt that compliance was important.

(Len Diggins) Mr. Diggins notes that we have a number of plans, such as the Housing Production Plan, Fair Housing Action Plan, and Connect Arlington.

(Alan Jones) Mr. Jones is a member of the town's finance committee. He says that different scenarios can have different financial impacts, and asks if that will be considered.

(Kelly Lynema) Ms. Lynema doesn't expect to see an onslaught of new development, and notes that families in multi-family homes tend to have fewer children in the schools than families who live in single-family homes. She'd like to work with the Finance Committee and Fiscal Resources Task Group. Ms. Lynema says she'd like to know what amount of commercial development Fincom wants see. If we had some goals, we could work towards them. She'd like to talk with the finance committee, especially early in the process.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak wants to follow up on Mr. Diggins' comment about plans. He believes that the plans Mr. Diggins mentioned contain building blocks that could be used to create an MBTA compliant district. He sees this an an opportunity to implement planning goals we've already set for ourselves.

(Matthew Owens) Mr. Owens asks how mixed use would be handled, and if a special permit be required for the commercial use.

(I missed Ms. Lynema's answer)

(Kelly Lynema) Ms. Lynema says there were suggestions (in the chat?) about putting the districts along our north-south arteries, and perhaps along routes to the West Medford commuter rail station. She notes that single-family homes are allowed by right in our central business district, B5, but three-family homes aren't allowed by right in R3.

Meeting adjourned.