MBTA Communities Working Group - May 23rd, 2023
Meeting held in the first floor annex of town hall. Materials were available from https://www.arlingtonma.gov/Home/Components/Calendar/Event/32252/.
Review and discussion of open meeting law
(Claire Ricker, Planning Director) Ms. Ricker had a conversation with Town Counsel about open meeting law, and the handling of the group's draft work products. Town Counsel's advice is that any group that has the appearance of a committee should be treated like a committee for the purposes of open meeting law. A gathering of five or more members for the purpose of discussing working group business will constitute a quorum, and draft materials should be clearly labeled as "DRAFT" to avoid having the appearance of final work products.
Review and discussion of preliminary draft
(Rebecca Gruber, Working Group) Ms. Gruber sent a proposal regarding the format of the June 8th public meeting. She'd like feedback on how that proposal should be refined. We'll need to get specific about what we're soliciting public feedback on, and how we'll go about it.
(Claire Ricker) Ms. Ricker suggests releasing the survey results to the public at the June 8th meeting. One of the points that came across in the survey was a desire to preserve commercial space, and the draft maps reflect that -- the multi-family districts don't include any B or I district parcels. She asks the working group if that's something we still want to do.
(Mette Aamodt, Working Group) Ms. Aamodt notes a difference between Utile's presentation of the survey data and Mr. Revilak's compilation of the results. Utile focused on commercial vitality, but the sustainable principles was the strategy with the most favorable response. Commercial wasn't at the top.
(Rebecca Gruber) Ms. Gruber understands that the survey was partially about weighing tradeoffs, but a number of the respondents seemed unclear about that.
(Kin Lau, Working Group) Mr. Lau thinks the group should formally elect a chair.
(Claire Ricker) Ms. Ricker agrees. She thinks the group's informal meeting style has generally worked, though there perhaps an excessive amount of back and fourth at the last meeting. She asks Mr. Revilak to act as the group's clerk, for the purpose of creating meeting minutes.
(Steve Revilak, Working Group) Mr. Revilak accepts the role.
(Sanjay Newton, Working Group) Mr. Newton volunteers to serve as chair. Working group members agree to this proposal; Mr. Newton is now the group's chair.
(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau asks if we can have a go-round, where each working group member shares their thoughts on the draft maps.
(Note: we have two maps from Utile on the table, labeled V1 (with two sub-districts), and V2 (with three sub-districts).
(Sanjay Newton) On the V2 map, Mr. Newton would like to see the East Arlington district move west, so it's farther away from Alewife Brook and anchored around Capitol Square. He'd also like the yellow district to extend south, perhaps to Gray Street. Finally, he'd like to see the Arlington Heights district extend further up along Park Avenue.
(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau urges the group to think about the long term -- 50-60 years out. He doesn't think reliance on the MBTA should be a strong concern; it can change over time, perhaps in response to new housing being built. He'd like us to address the question of density, and discuss the number of multi-family units that would work on the parcels we have.
(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak agrees with Mr. Lau in taking the long view -- this is about steering the direction for things to take shape over the next half-century or so. Redevelopment happens slowly. He agrees that the East Arlington district should move west. Cambridge's modeling of 2070 SLR/SS events estimates a flood elevation of a little over 11' NAVD88, and he'd advocate for having the district at higher elevations. This would have the benefit of including some of the larger parcels in the vicinity of Winter Street. Mr. Revilak took a bike ride through all of the streets in the yellow district, and noticed that several had two-hour parking restrictions for a few blocks off Mass Ave; he sees this as an existing tie to the business districts, and thinks including that area was a good call. He also suggests having the Arlington Heights sub-district extend up Park Ave, as the parcel sizes are reasonable, and it's right next to the Heights business district. Mr. Revilak prefers the V2 Arlington Heights sub-district to V1.
(Shaina Korman-Houston, Working Group) Ms. Korman-Houston disagrees with Mr. Lau regarding the MBTA. Bus lines will attract development, though it will happen slowly. She'd prefer a combination of the two East Arlington sub-district proposals, which emphasizes Mass Ave. Mass Ave in East Arlington is essentially the gateway to town, and what we have is kind of dead-looking. She's interested in getting Utile's feedback on flood plains, because today's locations aren't necessarily representative of what we'll have in the future.
(Mette Aamodt) Ms. Aamodt encourages the group to start with the end goal in mind, and take a holistic view. Arlington has a large number of planning documents, but it's a very piecemeal approach. Working on a bunch of different goals at once generally means you're not getting very far at all. Ms. Aamodt questions the benefit of converting two-family district to three-family. She believes that two- to three-family conversions are unlikely, unless the third unit goes in the basement. Ms. Aamodt encourages a cluster approach, anchored around Arlington's three commercial districts.
(Shaina Korman-Houston) Ms. Korman-Houston agrees that would be a lost opportunity.
(Mette Aamodt) Ms. Aamodt sees Kelwyn Manor and the area around the Thompson School as having the most opportunity in East Arlington.
(Teresa Marzilli, DEI Department) Ms. Marzilli wishes to support existing and new businesses, access to the MBTA, and sustainability.
(Vince Baudoin, Working Group) Mr. Baudoin agrees with the desire to articulate something bold. He formed a Strong Towns group in Arlington, and they did a mapping exercise over the weekend. They coalesced around an approach that's oriented around transit, encourages incremental development, encourages mixed-use, and provides new commercial opportunities that aren't necessarily in the existing B districts. He'd prefer a corridor approach to clusters. Mr. Baudoin went back to the 1946 zoning map and proposes a continuous corridor that excludes the existing B and I district parcels. This fills in the gaps between our piecemeal business districts, and he'd like to see mixed-use allowed there too. The corridor district includes 150' or so on either side of the corridor. There'd be a buffer district away from the street, with lower-scale residential development.
(Rebecca Gruber) Ms. Gruber sees a lot a areas in town that have desirable parks, but there's no talk of adding housing there. Not all people want to live on the corridors. She'd like to ensure that we involve decision makers, and integrate the community into the process.
(Sanjay Newton) Mr. Newton thinks we had good forums in November and March, and over 1000 people responded to the first survey. He thinks that what we heard brought us to where we are now; we'll hear more afterwards and can move forward from there.
(Teresa Marzilli) Ms. Marzilli says the Housing Corporation of Arlington is talking to their tenants about his effort, and hoping to get them involved. Groups like the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization are also interested, and we have the summer to continue engagement.
(Mette Aamodt) Ms. Aamodt says it's not a good idea to present something that you wouldn't want to live in yourself.
(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau says that the zoning requirements for MBTA Communities is meant to encourage housing. The secondary goals that we've been talking about -- things like business development -- are nice, but the law is purely about housing. He encourages working group members not to lose sight of that.
We have a lot of material to cover tonight, and the group decides to split into sub-groups for the next half hour or so. One will discuss the maps and the other will discuss the public forum scheduled for June 8th. We'll reconvene at 20:10 to report out on the sub-group discussions.
Ms. Gruber, Ms. Marzilli, Mr. Newton, Mr. Revilak head to a conference room to discuss the June 8th meeting; the remainder stays to discuss maps.
We discuss the idea of running the public forum like a charette. We'd like an environment where people can hear and understand other's perspectives. The rationales need to be clear, along with the traeoffs we have to consider. Tradeoffs we discussed include:
- Height. Buildings require elevators at four stories, and this provides an environment where residents can age in place. Below four stories, you're going to have stairs.
- Number of Units. Arlington's inclusionary zoning applies to buildings with six or more residential units. Allowing buildings at that scale creates the opportunity for affordable housing. Allowing less than six units by right means no affordable housing.
- Size. Arlington recently voted to adopt the state's specialized stretch building code. Above a certain number of square feet, multi-family housing is subject to higher energy efficiency and sustainability requirements. Allowing multi-family buildings of that size creates the opportunity for more sustainable energy-efficient homes. Requiring smaller buildings implies a lower sustainability standard.
- Commercial Vitality. According to Utile, it takes roughly one household to support 30 square feet of retail. So, a 3000 square foot retail establishment needs around 100 households to support it. Allowing more homes creates the opportunity to support more vitality in our business districts. Allowing fewer homes limits the opportunity for that vitality.
Next, we discuss ideas for the agenda and presentations. A rough outline would be
- Opening presentations (20 minutes). We discussed three presentations: background on MBTA Communities, the first iteration of maps, and the process for table exercises. Ideally these presentations would be given by three different residents (i.e., not staff or consultants).
- Mapping exercise (40 minutes). The exercise would be done at tables, in small groups.
- Report out (20 Minutes). Each small group would report to the entire meeting.
The Arlington Heights Neighborhood Action Plan included a section about a group mapping exercise. Groups were given maps and post-it notes, and asked to come up with a design for the Arlington Heights commercial district. This could be a useful way to provide residents with an opportunity to provide input: sticky notes on a map. Having one map per group should encourage dialog and discussion among group participants.
In addition to mapping, groups would be asked to answer several questions about tradeoffs. Again, this is an opportunity to gather input, and to get people thinking and talking.
We'd like to create participation opportunities for residents who aren't able to attend in person. We can ask ACMi to record the opening presentations, so they're available for later viewing. A survey with the tradeoff questions could be useful.
When soliciting feedback for the Sustainable Transportation Plan, there was a map based survey, where respondents had the ability to put pins on a map, and provide comments with each pin. Such a survey tool could be useful for collecting feedback on the first iteration of maps.
Boston recently completed their 2030 Master Plan. Postcards were one of their outreach tools: residents wrote comments on the cards, and either dropped them in a box, or mailed them in. We can consider providing something like this for in-person outreach during the summer (e.g., farmers markets).
(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau summarizes the discussion from the mapping group. Although they were unable to reach a consensus about how to draw or change the draft maps, there was a preference for allowing buildings with more than three dwellings.
(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak summarizes the discussion from the public participation group.
(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau asks if Utile can do massing models of six-plexes.
Ms. Ricker asks if there are six-plexes in town that we could look at. Mr. Revilak suggests 15 Medford St.
(Rebecca Gruber) For the June 8th meeting, Ms. Gruber says she'd like to help people understand the pros and cons of the various approaches we're considering.
(Vince Baudoin) Mr. Baudoin suggests seating people in neighborhood-specific groups.
(Rebecca Gruber) Ms. Gruber says she's enamored by Utile's rule of thumb that it takes one household to support 30 square feet of retail.
Next Tuesday's meeting will focus on the June 8th public forum. We also hope to receive map updates from Utile by that time. Between now and then, working group members are encouraged to think about what tradeoff questions to ask, and how to frame the first iteration of the maps (i.e., how they were influenced by public input from the survey). We'll also need volunteers to do the actual presentations.
Ms. Marzilli has put together a flyer, and they encourage working group members to distribute them. They've brought some printed copies tonight, and will email a PDF version.