MBTA Communities Public Forum - Jun 8th, 2023

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Meeting held in the main room of the Community Center. Materials (and a recording of the event) are available at https://www.arlingtonma.gov/Home/Components/News/News/12760/16.

Claire Ricker introduced our third public forum about the multi-family zoning requirements for MBTA Communities, aka "Section 3A". Ms. Ricker summarized the process so far, and timeline for bringing a zoning proposal to town meeting this fall.

Sanjay Newton explained why Section 3A matters for Arlington. It can help us achieve a number of goals laid out in our planning documents, such as having the ability to participate in the State's pilot fossil fuel ban, improving walkability and bikeability, improving mobility, increasing demand for local retail, and providing more housing options for people at various stages of life.

Zoe Muller of Utile gave an overview of the law's requirements. Arlington needs to provide a district of at least 32 acres, where multi-family housing is allowed by right, without restrictions on age or the number of bedrooms, and with a capacity of 2046 dwellings. She explains that "capacity" refers to what can be built on an empty parcel, without considering what might currently be there. It's a requirement on the total number of homes that could be built, and not a requirement for 2,046 more homes. Communities can choose to have smaller districts with higher density housing, larger districts with lower density housing, or some combination of the two. Ms. Muller shows a slide to illustrate different forms of "missing middle housing" -- varieties of housing between single-family detached homes, and mid-rise apartment buildings.

Ms. Muller shows a slide with the average density of Arlington's commercial centers. Arlington Heights has 10.34 dwelling units/acre, Arlington Heights has 11.48 dwelling units/acre, and Capitol Square has 14.37 dwelling units/acre. Multi-family districts for Section 3A are required to allow an average density of 15 dwelling units/acre, which is really an incremental change from where Arlington is today.

By complying with the law, Arlington will remain eligible for several types of state grants: MassWorks Infrastructure grants, Housing Choice Initiative grants, and the Local Capital Projects Fund. If we adopt the zoning this fall, we'll be able to participate in the State's Fossil Fuel Free Demonstration program.

Arlington is also obligated to comply with the law. Our governor has stated the importance of compliance for the Commonwealth's long term viability, and the attorney general has stated her intent to treat non-compliance as a violation of fair housing and anti-discrimination laws.

Steve Revilak presents the results of a public survey that was conducted in March and April. The survey was designed to solicit resident input on where the districts should be located, along with secondary goals that we might consider. 1033 people responded, including over 2200 comments. April 13th was the date with the highest response rate (243 respondents); this was shortly after an call for participation was sent to the Town Meeting member's announcement list. Mr. Revilak says he's glad to see town meeting members being engaged in the process.

Integrating sustainable principles was the strategy that received the highest support: 87% of the respondents felt this was important to include, or important but secondary to other options. There were a number of other strategies related to sustainability including: Encouraging multi-family housing near public transit (76% support), Encouraging multi-family housing in walkable and bikeable locations (73% support), and Avoiding flood prone areas (68% support). Mr. Revilak points out that the specific strategies didn't have as much support as the broader goal of integrating sustainable principles. He says that's okay: we're agreeing on the big-picture goals, but still working out the specifics.

Another major theme was Promoting development and vitality of commercial centers (82% support). Related to this are: Encouraging multi-family housing that includes mixed uses (71% support), Encouraging multi-family housing near commercial corridors (63% support), Encouraging multi-family housing along commercial corridors (60% support), and Encouraging multi-family housing in commercial centers (60% support). Again, there's broad agreement on the high level goal, even though we're still working out the details.

Mr. Revilak goes through the remaining items from the survey. These are: Providing access to shared community spaces (80% support), Encouraging multi-family housing that includes affordable units (77% support), Encouraging multi-family housing in all neighborhoods (55% support), and Encouraging multi-family housing on existing large parcels (46% support). Mr. Revilak points out that twelve of the thirteen strategies listed in the survey had more than 50% support, which means there's actually a lot we agree on.

Mr. Revilak moves on to the draft map. The goal of the survey was to help us draw a first iteration of the map. The survey results around, sustainability, commercial vitality and access, walkable and bikeable locations, proximity to transit, avoiding floodplains, and avoiding areas currently zoned as open space all went into that. He stresses that this map is just a draft, and he expects it to evolve over the summer as we ask new questions and continue the process of public engagement.

The draft map centers on the Mass Ave corridor. It consists of three sections: East Arlington, Arlington Center, and Arlington Heights, which is how many of us conceptualize the town. These areas are served by buses, bike lanes, and sidewalks. This map doesn't include any of the business or industrial districts, but it has the potential to put new residents close to them, which should address the goal of commercial vitality.

Rebecca Gruber introduces the table activities. There are two questions for each table to discuss. We've planned 40 minutes for discussions. Each table will have a facilitator to take notes, and attendees are encouraged to write comments on sticky notes and put them on the maps. This feedback will be made available to working group members.

Ms. Gruber also goes over a set of "norms" for the table discussions. These include: listening with the intent to understand, speaking with "I" statements, suspending judgment, agreeing to engage in a polite, constructive, and productive dialog, accepting a lack of closure, and turning to wonder when things get difficult.

I facilitated one table discussion, and the comments were:

  • Identify existing moderately-priced multi-family homes, and remove them from the proposed district.
  • Be conscious of the way that taller buildings could shadow nearby residential areas.
  • Look for areas in town where multi-family housing is under-represented.
  • No place in town should be sacred, and exempt from having multi-family housing
  • The wealthier areas in Jason Heights should be included in the multi-family district, even though this is a historic district. The historic district has several apartment buildings, so it should be okay to add more, as long as the architecture is appropriate.
  • Being able to walk to things is great, and we should encourage more walkability. We should make it possible for people to get around without needing a car.
  • It's important to have a sense of community.
  • The multi-family district shouldn't be solely located on the corridors. It should extend further into the neighborhoods.
  • We should be careful to avoid putting apartments in areas where you have to get around by car. That will just lead to more traffic.
  • The MBTA needs to improve it's quality of service. Buses should be more frequent and more reliable.
  • The buildings should be large enough to trigger inclusionary zoning, in order to provide affordable units.
  • We discussed allowing apartments large enough to trigger the higher energy efficiency standards in the state's enhanced stretch code. I got the sense that participants liked the idea of having more energy efficient buildings, but were concerned that it might make them more expensive.

In the end, our table agreed on these things: we should allow buildings that are large enough for affordability requirements to kick in; we should try to preserve existing moderately priced apartment buildings, by removing them from the multi-family district; and, we should try to provide access to transit while trying to improve the quality of transit service. We were still discussing whether it was important to have multi-family housing in all neighborhoods. Several of people at the table felt this was important, though several were skeptical.