Precinct 6, 7 Community Meeting - Apr 16th, 2019

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This precinct meeting was held in the Community Room of the Fox Library. Timur Yontar and Alex Bagnall facilitated, though Mr. Yontar spent a portion of the meeting running upstairs to answer the door. I'd put the attendance at around 30--35 people.

Mr. Yontar gives an opening presentation, and asks town meeting members to identify and introduce themselves.

Two members of the Arlington High School Building Committee -- Judd Pierce and Katie Loosian -- give a presentation about the high school rebuild.

The committee has been working on this project for a few years. School design is a multi-phase process. We're currently at the schematic design stage, which means there's still a lot more work to do. The MSBA has approved our schematic design.

Arlington High school currently houses a pre-school. The pre-school will be temporarily moved to Parmenter during the construction. Once the new high school is built, the pre-school will be moved back into the high school, and it will have a separate entrance.

Someone asks if a pre-school is an acceptable use for a high school building. Ms. Loosian points out that it's a current use.

Lisa Reynolds thinks the high school isn't an appropriate place to have a pre-school. She believes the pre-school should be permanently relocated to the Parmenter school building. Ms. Loosian suggests that Ms. Reynolds discuss the matter with Superintendent Bodie.

Ms. Loosian goes on to describe plans for the interior space in the school. There are a number of common spaces, which will be acoustically separated from each other.

Chris Loretti asks what question, specifically, is coming before town meeting. Mr. Yontar states that the question is for the bonding, to authorize the town to borrow $205M for the high school construction.

Someone asks where the school administrative offices will be located. They'll be on top of the wing that holds the preschool. The school committee felt there was a need to keep the administrative and payroll staff in the school building itself.

Someone asks why we need to keep the administrative staff in the high school building. Having them in another location would mean renovation or rebuilding elsewhere.

Phil Goff asks if MSBA has a formula for calculating their financial contribution. Ms. Loosian says the formula is actually a large and complex spreadsheet, which considers a variety of factors. We've had to negotiate over several of those factors.

Someone asks about the justification for the cost of the building. Ms. Loosian states that we've defined the basic educational program, and then designed the building to that program.

Mr. Loretti states that the MSBA reimbursement rate is the lowest of any school the town has built. He asks who made the political decision to have non-reimbursable uses in the school. Ms. Loosian asks Mr. Loretti if they should wrap up and end the presentation. Mr. Loretti states that they should. Another town meeting member asks the presenters not to go.

Ted Palluzo suggests that the current high school is completely substandard, and notes that our school accreditation is in danger of being revoked. We need a new high school because the current one is not in okay shape. It's a matter of getting a new one, or keeping the old one. There's asbestos in the old building, and it's starting to fall down.

Mr. Loretti states that if the whole meeting is going to be about the high school, then he's going to leave.

Someone asks who's on the High School Building Committee. The presenters recite a list of names, and then wrap up their presentation.

Mr. Bagnall invites me to talk about Article 16, and I take a chair in front of the room.

I proposed article 16 due to my concern about the increasing cost of housing, the increasing cost of land, and the role our zoning bylaws play in those costs.

I being by explaining the definitions of "affordability" that appear in our zoning bylaw. Affordable units must be "affordable" to a renter making 60% of the area median income, or an owner-occupant making 70% of the area median income. "Affordable" means that the household spends 30% or less of their monthly income on housing.

Arlington's area median income is around $100,000/year for a family of four, so that would be around $60,000/year for renters and $70,000 for owners. AMI also varies according to the number of people in the household, so a family of two has a smaller AMI than a family of four.

Our bylaw requires that inclusionary units remain affordable in perpetuity. For practical purposes, that translates into 99 years.

I describe Article 16 in five points:

  • Projects of six or more units are required to make 15% of those units affordable. That's part of the current bylaw.
  • Projects of 20 or more units are required to make 20% of those units affordable. That's a new provision.
  • Projects that produce more than the required number of affordable units are eligible for density bonuses. That means 15% plus one, or 20% plus one, depending on the size of the project. The density bonuses vary by use and district, but they involve reductions in lot size, setbacks, and open space. In some districts, the building could be a story higher.
  • Projects that produce the required number of affordable units are not eligible for the density bonuses listed in the article. The dimensional regulations in the existing ZBL apply.
  • Projects of 4--5 units are eligible for the density bonuses. There's no affordability here. The provision is intended to encourage more housing diversity, and to accommodate lots where a 6+ unit project isn't feasible.

Michael Ruderman states that Article 16 does not protect abutters from shadows. He states that he was one of the people who signed my warrant petition, and regrets doing so. Mr. Ruderman holds up a copy of my "Yes on 16" essay and says "there's a fallacy right here in the third paragraph, where it says that land costs are a significant portion of housing costs. Land is not a significant cost". There's verbal disagreement from the room. Someone says "look at your bill from the assessor -- the land cost is higher". Mr. Ruderman states that land costs cannot be high; if they were, then teardowns wouldn't be feasible. This statement is also met with verbal disagreement.

On attendee states that affordable housing laws are full of loopholes.

Joanne Preston states that she's interested in low- and moderate-income housing, but doesn't see Article 16 as providing either of these things. Ms. Preston holds up an aerial photograph of the corner of Mill Street and Massachusetts Ave. She states that the developer was able to get around our affordable housing bylaws by subdividing the lot and building single- and two-family homes.

I point out that the Mill Street/Mass Ave redevelopment is a good illustration of how difficult it is to create affordable housing, and how a municipality might not get affordable housing, even when a developer wants to build it.

The original proposal for the corner of Mill Street was for 46 condominiums, seven of them affordable. The ARB felt this was too much, and asked the developer to scale it back. The developer came back with a proposal for 32 units, five of them affordable. The ARB liked that proposal, and they went back and forth during the hearing process. The number of units moved around, between 32 and 35, but that's where it ended up.

As the ARB was getting close to approving the project, a group of residents informed the developer that they intended to challenge the special permit in land court. The developer was feeling a financial pinch from the project, and doubted their ability to endure a lengthy litigation. So, they subdivided and built what they could by right; the town got no affordable housing out of the deal.

Afterwards, we amended our zoning bylaw to discourage subdivision and phased development.

Janice Brodman fears the zoning changes out of concern that we'll make the same mistakes other communities have made. She's seen mistakes made over and over again. She notes that housing affordability isn't a problem unique to Arlington; it's a problem all over the world. She believes these articles were developed without the proper assessments having been done.

Ms. Brodman states that we're taking examples from Cambridge and Somerville, and that inclusionary zoning is a tool. She believes we'll either get nothing, or a bunch of luxury apartments. She states that inclusionary zoning is good, but there are other tools available.

We can learn from the experience of other communities. She thinks Article 16 will create cookie-cutter five-story buildings with vacant commercial spaces. She believes that we'll need large chain stores to fill large commercial spaces. We can take a year to study inclusionary zoning and the other tools available, and involve more businesses and residents. Ms. Brodman states that business owners want to wait on these changes.

Someone asks what other tools are available. Ms. Brodman gives two examples: transfer fees and developer incentives.

Rod Holland thinks there's no reason for pushing this change through right away. He believes the town needs the capability to answer what-if questions. The town has a nice GIS system, and we should use it for modeling.

A resident states that she got a double-digit property tax increase this year, and that the tax increases are pushing her out. She asks town meeting to address that, and to prevent double-digit tax increases from happening in the future.

Mr. Palluzo says he's hearing legitimate concerns about Article 16. He asks: if article 16 goes down, what goes down with it? Should there be amendments, and why hasn't anyone proposed amendments?

A resident states that they're interested in zoning. They believe it's important to respond to the need for housing, but in ways that are in harmony with existing buildings. They'd like to have a more inclusive process.

Jon Gersh thinks it would be nuts to give developers bonuses for developing less than six units. He believes the 4--5 unit provision of article 16 is a loophole.

I provide two counter-arguments to Mr. Gersh's statement. First, a typical buildable lot in Arlington costs around $360k. Putting two units on such a lot gives a land cost of $180k/household. Putting four units on the same lot gives a land cost of $90k/household. That's the kind of thing the 4--5 unit provision is intended to allow.

Second, subdividing into five-unit projects doesn't necessarily work in a developer's favor. There's a proposal before the ARB to develop 26 units at 10 Sunnyside Ave, on a 16,000 square foot lot. Subdividing would turn those 26 units into 15. If the developer is in a position to have the market rate units subsidize the affordable ones, and take a fixed margin on construction costs, then they've got a strong incentive to build the larger building.

Sean Tierney really likes the town, and he likes the affordable housing proposal. He reminds everyone that every project done under this article will require a special permit. Mr. Tierney states he's been attending article hearings. It's been a public process, and the ARB has responded to public input.

Beth Malofchik states that she was horrified by the message and methods used at the Jan 10th housing forum. She states that she didn't get her questions answered. She asks "what about the tree canopy". Ms. Malofchik lives in a block behind Winslow Towers, in an R4 district. She asks why the zoning bylaw favors single- two-family districts, but not R4. She states that the town stands to lose 900 ash trees this year due to insect infestation, and that green space knits our town together.

Mr. Loretti states that no one should think this was a normal process. Like Mr. Ruderman, he wishes he hadn't signed my warrant article petition. He states that article 16 was a citizen petition that was hijacked by the ARB, and that he's pissed about it. Mr. Loretti suspects that the Chamber of Commerce and Real Estate industry will support the measure at town meeting.

We move on to Article 15, Accessory Dwelling Units. Mr. Bagnall summarizes the ADU article and asks what people think.

Lisa Reynolds likes the ADU proposal. She'd like to add one to her home. She believes that residents want this sort of thing, but don't want to see it exploited.

One attendee found it ironic that a member of the Select Board argued in favor of this article, because they've done it in the past. Why fix something that's not broken?

Another attendee states that people were concerned about safety. The bylaw requires two points of egress, and the ADU must be completely contained within the original footprint of the house.

Another attendee states that the building inspector said these regulations are unenforceable.

Another points out that ADU's must be leased for a minimum of one year, so there won't be AirBnB rentals.

Beth Malofchik states that there's been no environmental study on building out lots, removal of trees, heat islands, or storm water runoff.

Mr. Loretti wonder why the ARB didn't look at revising the zoning map first. He feels that zoning is a tool for achieving a vision for the town, but that the ARB lacks such a vision. He suggests we put the changes off for a year, and do a visioning process first.

Ms. Reynolds states that we can't decide what the town will look like if we turn development over to the private sector. Mr. Loretti states that zoning allows us to influence what the private sector does.