MBTA Communities Working Group - May 16th, 2023

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Meeting held in the first floor annex of town hall. Materials were available from https://www.arlingtonma.gov/Home/Components/Calendar/Event/32216/.

Presentation of Preliminary Draft

Utile used MHP's tools for establishing compliant zones. The preliminary draft assumes three family homes, but we could consider more density in some places.

(Will, Utile) Will says Utile is working with a number of different communities, to establish multi-family districts that satisfy Section 3A. What we're seeing tonight is a very first pass at something that could work for Arlington, but also something we can take and modify. It is not the final version.

One sub-district has to be half the area submitted for compliance. The three districts on this map total more than 32 acres, and satisfy the requirement of at least fifteen dwelling per gross acre. Arlington's capacity requirement is 2046 homes, and the law is silent on who might eventually occupy these dwellings. Section 3A requires that the housing be without restrictions based on age or number of children. We cannot require ground-floor commercial; this is about housing production. Will's general advice to communities is not to plan for things you don't want to see. Don't assume that a bonus for ground floor commercial will actually produce ground floor commercial. This is by-right housing, and it's important to get the by-right aspects right.

Based on Arlington's survey:

  • 82% of respondents prioritize vitality of business districts,
  • 80% prioritize shared community spaces,
  • 75% prioritize locations near public transit, and
  • 73% prioritize walkable and bikeable areas.

With that in mind, Utile tried to construct districts that would support and supplement our business and industrial districts. Right on Mass Ave might not be the best place; there are advantages to locating the district immediately behind it.

Will says that site plan review is acceptable, but it cannot be discretionary.

(Claire Ricker, Planning Director) Ms. Ricker says that Arlington currently has no site plan review. The closest thing is the Environmental Design Review process that the Redevelopment Board uses for special permits. She envisions the ARB taking the role of site plan review.

(Will) Will moves on to inclusionary zoning requirements. DHCD's regulations say that a 10% inclusionary requirement is as high as communities can go, without providing a justification and a financial analysis. The state just released additional guidance regarding what is "feasible" and there are technical assistance grants available to communities, to help them assess this.

Will thinks it's appropriate to line the districts up with this.

There's back and fourth about whether to put the districts right on Mass Ave. Mette thinks that's the most appropriate place. Other group members prefer having the district set back, to prevent existing commercial properties from becoming residential. Mette thinks that an MBTA zone on Mass Ave, if done right, could increase the amount of commercial space in town. This is something we'll have to work out as we go through map iterations.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau would like to shrink the footprint, and allow six dwellings by right in some places. A six-plex gives us one inclusionary unit.

(Will) Will notes that three-family homes meet all of the compliance models, but due to building codes, they're probably the most expensive type of housing to build. There are additional building code requirements that for three units or more, such as sprinkler systems. More units makes it easier to spread that cost around. He's skeptical that there will be many builders interested in building three family homes. The triple decker used to be Boston's inexpensive form of housing, but that's no longer the case today.

Some of the dimensional assumptions Utile used were 3.5 stories, three units per building, and setbacks that would work for a triple decker.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak notes that the Miro board includes a histogram of lot sizes, and the median falls right around 5000 square feet. He thinks that's a workable size for a triple decker, but could be challenging for larger apartments.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau says the ARB prefers to keep B districts out of the multi-family zone, and even to pull back from them. He'd like to see us produce housing that allows people to age in place, rather than having to leave town when they downsize. He'd like to see four or more stories, since elevators are required at that height.

(Vince Baudoin) Mr. Baudoin notes that we can require ground floor commercial in some areas, but we wouldn't be able to submit them to DHCD for compliance. He thinks that more people will help to attract businesses. He thinks that avoiding B districts on Mass Ave seems dubious, though.

(Will) Will says that, as a rule of thumb, one unit of housing can support about 30 square feet of detail. That's just a back-of-the-envelope number though.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak asks, for confirmation, that 3000 square feet of retail would need 100 homes to support it.

Will answers in the affirmative.

Another member of Utile's team suggests focusing on magnet areas.

There's a comment that three family homes should go in single-family districts, rather than areas that already have two-family homes. You'll get more of an advantage in going from one to three, than from two to three.

(Vince Baudoin) Mr. Baudoin would like to see us set a few dimensional thresholds, like height, but not limit the number of dwellings. He thinks we should let the building size determine that. He says that density tends to be a planner's term that doesn't reflect how people experience their neighborhoods.

The map we're looking at shows three districts: one in Arlington Heights, one near Arlington Center, and one in East Arlington. The group agrees that three zones is probably a good starting point, though we might only submit two for compliance.

(Vince Baudoin) Mr. Baudoin suggests sharpening the narrative, and developing a story of why the map is the way it is.

(Rebecca Gruber) Ms. Gruber asks how we can include people outside of these areas.

(Will) Will notes that post World War II the majority of American household lived in single-family homes and had two kids. That's much less the case today -- people are having fewer children, and there are many households with only one or two people. We're also living longer, and the need to age in place is a relatively new thing. An empty nester living alone in a large single-family home is likely to be interested in an option for smaller multi-family units.

Utile asks working group members to provide feedback on the map. They suggest writing comments on the map and photographing them. Alternatively working group members can use a PDF editor to mark up comments there.

Next Steps

There's a question about meeting schedules. Town meeting is over, so we'll meet on Tuesday nights for the next few weeks.

Meeting adjourned.