MBTA Communities Working Group - Aug 1st, 2023

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Hybrid meeting held in the Arlington Police Department's community room. Materials were available from https://www.arlingtonma.gov/Home/Components/Calendar/Event/32588/.

Approve meeting summaries from prior meetings

The working group approved summaries of their July 18th and July 25th meetings. Both summaries were approved by votes of 7--0.


Claire Ricker and Steve Revilak will be at the library on Saturday, to hold office hours.

Sanjay Newton and Ms. Ricker will be at the farmers market on Wednesday.

Review of Bonuses, Dimensions, Maps, and Planning Products

(Sanjay Newton, WG Chair) Mr. Newton suggests we start by sharing our observations from the July 25th public forum.

(Clair Ricker, Planning Director) Ms. Ricker says she heard a 60/40 split between opposition and support. Some speakers appreciated a bold plan, some felt we should do less, and some wanted the bare minimum. There was divided feedback from the meeting.

Mr. Ricker felt there was a clear message about the 10' front yard setback being too small. Her department provided the working group with a memo which recommends 15' on Mass Ave and Broadway, and 20' in the neighborhood residential district. Staff also recommend a 3.5 story limit in the neighborhood multi-family district, rather than four stories.

We are still waiting to hear back from the state, regarding what we'll need to provide in order to demonstrate that a 15% affordability requirement is economically feasible.

Ms. Ricker has been working with (Environmental Planner) David Morgan on sustainability elements, and staff has submitted a memo to this effect. The memo suggests a modified version of the SITES criteria as a way to offer a bonus for open space and sustainable development.

Staff's memo also suggests considering some of the larger commercial parcels for the multi-family district. It's currently possible to develop mixed-use buildings on these parcels via special permit, and this would offer a by right option. Ms. Ricker feels the open space bonus is more likely to work on larger parcels, and they'd be attractive to affordable housing developers using Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) funding, as LIHTC generally requires at least 25--40 units. Ms. Ricker notes that the larger parcels would also be attractive to 40B developers, and the town has less control over that process.

(Vince Baudoin, WG) Mr. Baudoin asks Ms. Ricker to explain the thinking behind the 3.5 story limit for the neighborhood multi-family district.

(Claire Ricker) Ms. Ricker says it's 1 story higher than the 2.5 story limit for R1 and R2. During the forum, she heard speakers say that four stories was too tall for those neighborhoods. The half story provides extra room for the top floor, and gives families an option for expanding, adapting, and staying in place. She also felt that a four-story building on two parcels might be a bridge too far.

(Kin Lau, WG) Mr. Lau disagrees with the 3.5 story proposal. He says that Arlington has many 4--5 story multi-family buildings with flat roofs. The flat roof can be white and reflective, which helps avoid heat islands.

(Vince Baudoin) Mr. Baudoin says he's interested in a way to provide for incremental increases.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau suggests looking at buildings we already have. He'd like to push back on the proposal to increase the front yard setbacks. He's concerned that too large a setback requirement might prevent a project from penciling out, particularly for smaller developers. He also disagrees with the idea of pushing tree planting requirements onto developers.

(Sanjay Newton) Mr. Newton disagrees with Mr. Lau, with regards to tree planting requirements.

(Rebecca Gruber, WG) Regarding flat roofs, Ms. Gruber wonders if we could consider a maximum height of 3 stories. She notes that our bylaw contains an exception for average setbacks: a builder can take the average of the existing front setbacks, even if that's less than the minimum setback requirement.

(Steve Revilak, WG) Mr. Revilak had three take-aways from last weeks forum. The first was front yard setbacks; a number of speakers asked for 15', and Mr. Revilak would like to honor that request. The second is height; a number of speakers felt that four stories was too tall for the neighborhood residential district. Finally, there was capacity. A number of speakers felt that a 12--15k unit capacity was too much. Mr. Revilak says we were not helped by the way the model treated our input parameters, he believes the model capacity is an overestimate, perhaps by a factor of two.

(Laura Wiener, WG) Ms. Wiener asks about adjusting the rear setback in addition to the front. She asks what people see as the purpose for the 20' rear setback.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau thinks we need to look at parcels, and how this will work. He'd like to take a more detailed look at setbacks.

(Claire Ricker) Ms. Ricker thinks that "do not preclude" is an important thought to keep in mind. Trees are things that the public wants, and she advises the working group against precluding them.

(Sanjay Newton) Mr. Newton says we're trying to do something across districts, rather than something piecemeal.

(Claire Ricker) Ms. Ricker wonders how difficult it would be to get a variance for setback requirements.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak thinks it would be hard. One of the variance criteria is that an applicant has to demonstrate that the literal enforcement of the zoning laws would create a hardship, owing to conditions of soil, shape, or topography that affect the parcel for which the variance is sought, but not the zoning district as a whole. Mr. Revilak says the Zoning Board of Appeals took that requirement very seriously, when he was a member of that board.

(Vince Baudoin) Mr. Baudoin says that trees are great, and he likes them. He thinks that housing people more efficiently in a developed area like Mass Ave will help prevent developers from clearing land further out. He thinks it's important to think about trees outside of Arlington. Mr. Baudoin notes that Mass Ave is a wide right of way, 100' wide in places. He thinks that making it wider goes against the principles of compact walkable urbanism.

(Shaina Korman-Houston) Ms. Korman-Houston thinks it's worth considering a smaller rear setback.

There's discussion about the current number of existing dwellings in the proposed district. Mr. Revilak made a rough estimate, based on the land use codes in the parcel list, and came up with around 2148. Mr. Baudoin estimated 3000, via MHP's Residensity tool. So, our back of the envelope estimate is between 2000--3000.

(Shaina Korman-Houston) Ms. Korman-Houston asks if those buildings could be built under Arlington's current zoning.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak answers in the negative.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau thinks that we're looking at the ability to add another 5000 dwellings over time. He notes there were similar concerns from town meeting over Accessory Dwelling Units. Some town meeting members claimed that thousands of them would be built in no time at all. To date, there have only been six.

(Vince Baudoin) Mr. Baudoin thinks that SITES standards would be great for large projects, but he's concerned they might over-burden smaller ones.

(Claire Ricker) Ms. Ricker notes that the SITES standards would be for a bonus, and not a mandatory regulation.

(Rebecca Gruber) Ms. Gruber asks about the 250' figure from the planning department's memo.

(Claire Ricker) Ms. Ricker says that 250' works out to around two parcels on either side of Mass Ave and Broadway.

(Rebecca Gruber, WG) Ms. Gruber sees the need for better education and communication. During the public forum, she heard speakers that wanted to welcome new people to Arlington, but also didn't want the town to feel very different as the result of doing so. Ms. Gruber says this is the original problem we started with.

(Shaina Korman-Houston) Ms. Korman-Houston says that not everyone who lives in Arlington lives the same way.

(Rebecca Gruber) Ms. Gruber says that the people who lived on streets in the proposed district were concerned about them changing. They thought it might feel different if all of the properties were redeveloped.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau disagrees. He says that Arlington is currently a community for dual-income households who can afford $1M dollar homes. People who can't do that aren't coming here, and people who work in the town can't afford to live here. Mr. Lau has a son, and says that his son won't be able to afford to live here.

(Sanjay Newton) Mr. Newton says he heard a clear direction from the redevelopment board: that we shouldn't include any commercially-zoned properties in the multi-family district.

(Rebecca Gruber) Ms. Gruber agrees with Mr. Newton.

(Laura Wiener) Ms. Wiener says this is work that needs to be done.

(Rebecca Gruber) Ms. Gruber thinks it would be okay for the working group to suggest specific parcels to the ARB, but she doesn't think that should be part of the proposal.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak notes that one of Tuesday night's speakers had the same suggestion, and recommended specific parcels for inclusion.

(Vince Baudoin) Mr. Baudoin says he's not inclined to change the group's position on omitting parcels that are currently zoned business or industrial.

(Laura Wiener) Ms. Wiener has a comment about the affordable housing bonus. We'd talked about a one-story bonus for providing more affordable housing than required. She says that each story increases efficiency and sustainability. Ms. Wiener suggests we could capture some of that for additional affordable housing.

(Shaina Korman-Houston) Ms. Korman-Houston has been assuming that the state would allow us to keep our 15% affordability requirement. With the bonus, the higher you build, the more affordable housing you'd get. She says that construction costs are typically around $350/square foot, but you do get efficiencies from more floors. For example, you only have to build one basement, and you only have to purchase the land once. Affordable housing brings in less rent, and the question is where the turning point is. Based on Arlington rents for new buildings, Ms. Korman-Houston thinks the turning point is around 25% affordable, at 80% AMI. She thinks that Arlington's 60% AMI requirement should be used for the bonus units, and that HUD affordable rents for the area are similar to market rents in existing (not new) apartments.

(Rebecca Gruber) Ms. Gruber asks Ms. Korman-Houston if she was considering an affordable housing bonus for the neighborhood multi-family district.

(Shaina Korman-Houston) Ms. Korman-Houston says the bonus is straight math, and could apply anywhere. We just haven't decided.

(Sanjay Newton) Mr. Newton asks if this analysis would hold for smaller projects, like six, ten, or fifteen units.

(Shaina Korman-Houston) Ms. Korman-Houston thinks the math is good for eighteen to twenty units, or larger. But things really change for projects smaller than that.

(Sanjay Newton) Mr. Newton asks if there's a different bonus we could put together for smaller projects.

(Shaina Korman-Houston) Ms. Korman-Houston says she'd have to run the math.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau thinks the magic number is 24 units, and largely affordable housing development doesn't make sense at smaller scales. He says these buildings typically require lots of 100'x200' and around four stories in height.

(Shaina Korman-Houston) Ms. Korman-Houston suggests having something available for smaller projects -- it will either get used or not. She says the current proposal involves tiers of 15%, then +7.5%, then +2.5%. Ms. Korman-Houston thinks we could also go with 15%, then +5% and +5%.

(Rebecca Gruber) Ms. Gruber suggests going with +7.5% and +2.5%, if the math will work.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau says he's reluctant to go with less that four stories by right. Buildings shorter than four stories aren't required to have elevators, and there are fewer accessibility requirements. Mr. Lau thinks this will provide fewer options for aging in place.

(Sanjay Newton) Mr. Newton says we're trying to put together a package, where the different pieces work together. He thinks the applicability of bonuses will change over time, and the analysis will have a shorter lifetime than the zoning itself. He thinks the bonuses will need to be periodically revisited.

Mr. Newton also had concerns about what might be precluded in the setbacks. He's sensitive to the concern for getting less housing, but he wants fellow residents to feel excited about this proposal.

There's back and forth discussion about open space and setbacks.

(Vince Baudoin) Mr. Baudoin says he could support a 15' front setback requirement, but not 20'. He thinks 20' would be too substantive.

There's a motion to endorse 15' front yard setbacks in the neighborhood residential district. Motion passes 6--1 (Mr. Lau voted in the negative).

(Vince Baudoin) Mr. Baudoin thinks we're trying to force buildings back away from the street, in the hopes that someone will use that space to provide a public benefit. He thinks that buildings on Mass Ave and Broadway are very low for the width of the street. Mr. Baudoin would prefer a 10' front setback on these streets, and have trees planted in the right of way.

(Rebecca Gruber) Ms. Gruber asks if SITES recommends a specific setback.

(Sanjay Newton) Mr. Newton thinks it depends more on how the space is used.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak regularly travels down Broadway. There are a number of pillbox apartments long the street, with 15' setbacks. One has a tree in the front yard, and the others have lawns. Mr. Revilak thinks this feels okay. He tends to prefer small setbacks -- to him that feels like the building is stepping out to greet you -- but he thinks the 15' setbacks on these apartments are okay.

(Sanjay Newton) Mr. Newton suggests offering setback relief when using SITES, because they have to meet other standards.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak has been looking at new construction in Somerville, and he's really impressed with the rain gardens that are being incorporated into projects there. He'd like to see something similar in Arlington.

(Shaina Korman-Houston) Ms. Korman-Houston asks if the setback could vary with the width of the street. For example, having larger setbacks on narrower streets.

There's discussion about who would enforce standards like SITES. (It would be town staff, in one capacity or another.)

(Vince Baudoin) Mr. Baudoin suggests not making setback relief part of site plan review.

There's a motion to endorse 10' front yard setbacks for residential buildings on Mass Ave and Broadway, and 0' setbacks if there's ground floor commercial. The motion fails, 3--4 (Ms. Gruber, Mr. Newton, Mr. Revilak, and Ms. Wiener voted in the negative).

There's a motion to endorse 15' front yard setbacks for residential buildings on Mass Ave and Broadway, with 0' setbacks where there's ground floor commercial. Motion passes, 4--3 (Mr. Baudoin, Ms. Korman-Houston, and Mr. Lau voted in the negative).

There's back and fourth about parking. Mr. Revilak reports that one of the ARB members expressed a preference for one space per dwelling unit, which could be reduced by 75% via a transportation demand management plan. Mr. Revilak also notes that the compliance model interpreted the minimum parking requirement of zero as "no parking is built in the district at all", and the space turned into excess capacity. The group agreed to using a minimum of 0.5 spaces/dwelling to model capacity, thinking that would more accurately reflect what gets built. The group still prefers a minimum of zero and a maximum of one space per dwelling, as discussed in a previous meeting.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau thinks it will be important for us to have an accurate count of existing dwelling units in the proposed district, so we understand the increase in capacity as well as the capacity itself.

There's discussion about heights, and what to do about the transition from the four-story neighborhood multi-family district, to existing 2.5 story districts. Mr. Revilak suggests a lower limit on multi-family parcels that border non-multi-family ones, in order to taper the height down. Ms. Ricker will work on a proposal for this.

Discuss working group report

(Sanjay Newton) Mr. Newton is interested in taking the lead on drafting the working group's final report. Mr. Baudoin, Ms. Gruber, and Mr. Revilak are interested in helping out.

Next steps

The working group will definitely meet on August 15th.

The group may have an August 7th meeting, but this is still TBD.

Meeting adjourned.