Zoning Bylaw Amendments Neighborhood Meeting - Apr 4th, 2019

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Tonight was DPCD's third neighborhood outreach meeting, to present zoning changes to town meeting members. It was held at the Hardy school library.

I spent the first thirty minutes sitting in Hardy's lobby, directing people to the library, and handing out copies of an essay I wrote about Article 16, and why I proposed it. I came up to the meeting room just as Erin Zwirko was finishing her presentation on Article 16. As I walked to the back of the room, several participants started arguing about landscaped open space, and about what articles were related to one another.

Kin Lau asks the audience to let Ms. Zwirko continue, so we can get through the other residential zoning articles.

Article 8 (Open space requirements for multi-family and mixed use) was largely moved into Article 16. What remains is mostly footnotes.

Article 9 (Townhouses) stands on its own. The article changes the definition of townhouse structure to encompass 3--8 units.

The ARB voted no action on Article 10 (Upper story step backs)

For Article 11 (Reduced Height Buffer Area), the buffer area isn't changing. The ARB can reduce the buffer area if a special permit applicant performs shadow studies and shows the effects of shadows and glare will be negligible.

The ARB recommends no action on Article 12 (Corner Lots).

Article 13 (Apartment building parking lot requirements) received a no-action vote, as the substantive changes were moved to Article 16.

Article 14 adds the R7 district (high-density apartments) to the list of districts eligible for transportation demand management.

Article 16 provides several benefits to residents and businesses. Residents stand to get get more housing diversity and more options for younger and older families. Businesses would have more options to relocate and expand, and there would be more opportunities for employees to live close to where they work. There are no changes to the review processes used by the Redevelopment Board, the Historic Commission, the Historic Districts Commission, or the Conservation Commission. Finally, there are no pending projects waiting for these amendments to pass.

Question: what is the fire department's position?

The fire department hasn't given a position. However, any new projects will have to meet applicable fire codes.

Comment: I work in open space, and I see this whole thing as being an unmitigated disaster for the Mass Ave Corridor.

Asia Kepka: I live next to the Lahey clinic and there's no open space, and my driveway gets plowed in over and over again. A few years ago, someone threw a lit cigarette into my yard and almost burned by house down.

Comment: For town meeting, it would be nice to see some calculations about the potential net change to open space.

Comment: I like the reduction in setbacks. Many houses are built too far back on the lot, and out of character for the neighborhoods in East Arlington.

Ms. Zwirko states that none of the articles would change residential setbacks in the R1 and R2 districts.

Question: We can't rent all of our storefronts, so what good is additional commercial space?

Additional space gives businesses the flexibility to relocate and expand. Although we have a number of vacant storefronts, Arlington's commercial space has a very high occupancy rate. Retail storefronts are only one kind of commercial space.

Comment: There's no sustainability. Our businesses pay the same tax rate as residents; there's no business tax rate. We're going to turn into a town full of trophy homes.

Ms. Zwirko points out that new residential units make a substantial contribution to the tax base.

Question: Are our tax rates based on square footage or cubic footage?

Tax rates are based on the assessed value of the property.

Comment: The school committee has a five-year plan, and the planning department isn't planning in conjunction with the school department. The new apartments near Stop and Shop rent for $3000/month. Property owners along Mass Ave are getting letters from developers, asking if they're willing to sell. Our old apartments will be torn down, and the new ones will be more expensive.

Comment: Some people live in inexpensive apartments, and there's a danger of displacement for them. Mass Ave is one of our main tax corridors. In Chicago, changing zoning around transit districts increased land values. The building at Mass ave and Main St. in Central Square (Cambridge) has 300 units. Most of these are studios. (This speaker mentioned that she teaches housing economics at MIT.)

Ms. Zwirko states that none of these bylaws address displacement, but DPCD would like to work on that. For example, condo conversion regulations are an effective way to counter displacement. Ultimately, the mix of units in a building is determined by the property owner who develops it.

Question: What are the benefits to existing residents?

The majority of residential districts are not changed. These article will not affect residential neighborhoods (in the R0--R3 districts).

Comment: We're in a bind because of money, and we don't want to change the character of the town. It's important to explain to people how these changes will benefit them.

Ms. Zwirko states that older children may want to move back into the town, but will have a difficultly affording it. These changes will provide options for them. They'll also provide options for seniors to downsize.

Comment: Brigham square brings in $440k in property taxes, but we pay $600k/year for students who live there. Outside organizations like MAPC worked on these bylaws. They weren't written by residents.

Ms. Zwirko points out that the process used for these articles was very typical of the process we use for zoning amendments. The Master Plan Implementation Committee chooses goals, and works on them in conjunction with the ARB and planning department. She also points out that zoning amendments need a two-thirds vote from town meeting; if town meeting members don't vote for them, then they won't be adopted.

Question: Can you talk about environmental impacts?

We haven't done any environmental impact studies in conjunction with these zoning articles. These studies happen when individual projects are reviewed.

Comment: Two things are evident to me. First, not one citizen group got involved in this process. You have to involve residents. These changes will have a bigger impact than a tax override. You can reverse a tax increase, but you can't reverse a five-story building. Second, the claims about the articles aren't honest. All of our local towns have a two-story limit. Two stories brings foot traffic; taller buildings do not. Small businesses were horrified when they heard about this. Also, the master plan is very broad, and could be interpreted in a variety of ways. This is a huge decision, and town meeting members have a duty to question these sorts of things.

Comment: I don't find the process problematic. We're having a process right now. Lots of things are voted on at town meeting, and never discussed elsewhere. Town meeting will spend fifteen minutes debating budget articles, and two days talking about chicken coops. Developers can redevelop properties right now. How many rental units are protected from market rate increases? Affordable housing is expensive to create. I've spent my career working in affordable housing, and creating it is hard. There are 200 communities in Massachusetts that haven't built affordable housing in over a decade.

Question: How could this play out? What about mixed use? Where is the parking for commercial spaces? People need to drive, because we're not a walkable community.

Ms. Zwirko points to existing parking provisions in the ZBL, which are not being changed. Mixed use buildings have separate parking requirements for residential and commercial spaces. The commercial parking requirements depend on the specific use.

Jenny Raitt points out that projects done under these bylaws would be subject to special permit review, and the reviews are public meetings. Projects are examined on a case-by-case basis.

Question: Can you talk about why things don't get built? What are the obstacles?

Ms. Zwirko cites minimum lot size and minimum lot area per dwelling unit as major obstacles. There's also the issue that regulations in the ZBL don't match what's already built.

Comment: The 4--5 unit bonus. That's not really a bonus. That's upzoning.

Ms. Zwirko states that the proposals for 4--5 unit buildings is very close to buildings that already exist.

Question: We recodified the zoning bylaw last year. Why is it still incredibly complex to read? Why can't it be in plain English, like a credit card agreement, or a software license agreement?

Comment: I'm concerned that we're about to have a costly high school renovation, like Newton. What would be the harm in delaying this for a year? I credit you for three years of work on this, but I don't think there's been enough public outreach.

Question: Can you guarantee that there will be no more ugly buildings?

Question: Is there commercial space in the new development going up on Summer Street?

Ms. Zwirko states that there is office space on the first floor of the Summer Street development. She points out that past projects do not predict what future projects will look like.

Several of the meeting participants get into a back and fourth about whether town meeting really debates articles or acts as a rubber stamp. The folks engaged in this back and fourth both claimed to be town meeting members. It was kind of amusing.

Beth Malofchik: I'm concerned that you're asking less than five percent of residential neighborhoods to absorb these changes. During an earlier meeting, someone said "don't worry these changes won't affect R2". What's so special about R2? We need to protect trees, and we need to think about resiliency.

Ms. Raitt points out that Ms. Malofchik's statement implies that some of the changes should happen in single- and two-family districts. Carl Wagner jumps in with "she didn't say that". Someone else counters "oh yes she did". There's more commotion, as people argue back and fourth.

In response to the sustainability aspect, Ms. Zwirko points out that these articles direct development towards areas that have the infrastructure to handle it, which is a best practice for sustainability.

Question: Can you explain where the affordability requirements in Article 16 came from? Ms. Zwirko states that 15% for six or more units comes from the current bylaw. She invites me to explain where the 20% at 20 or more units comes from.

Steve Revilak: My proposal for this article was influenced by Somerville's inclusionary zoning. Somerville requires 15% for 6--7 units, 17.5% for 8--17 units, and 20% for 18 units or more. But their bylaw has a number of other provisions -- it's not just a percentage. They provide density bonuses for larger projects, which wasn't part of my original proposal. Somerville also has a nice way of tailoring affordability requirements. They took a set of income brackets -- 50% AMI or lower, 50--80% AMI, and 80--110% AMI -- counted the number of people in each bracket, and then counted the number of housing units available to each bracket. They used this information to tailor the affordability requirements. It's very much a needs-based assessment. We haven't done that kind of study, but I'm hoping we can in the future. Without the study information, I took Somerville's top percentage (20% for eighteen units or more), and proposed something slightly more conservative.

Carl Wagner claims that developers get around the bylaw by subdividing properties into 5000 square foot lots, and building five units per lot. I counter by saying the transition from 0--1 affordable unit isn't the only one. There's also the transition from 1--2, 2--3, 3--4, and so on. If you cost out projects of different sizes, you'll see that some configurations are more advantageous than others. Here, "advantageous" means producing housing at a lower cost, or providing a better return for developers. The optimal size is really project specific. Nineteen units may provide a better return than five. Mr. Wagner repeats his earlier claim: developers will just subdivide to get around the law.

Comment: I know this project was motivated by a desire to increase the tax base. I'm particularly wondering about the impact on services. Will the fire department have the equipment necessary to handle these new buildings?

Ms. Zwirko states that every community around Boston has a shortage of housing, and that we need multi-pronged approaches to addressing it.

Question: I'm confused about how article 16 is related to the other articles. How will this be handled at town meeting?

We'll likely ask the town moderator to take the articles out of order. Article 16 will go first. If that doesn't pass, then the related articles will be dropped, as they'll no longer make sense.

Comment: It seems like there's a lot of unknowns here, which makes me nervous. I asked the planning department for information about the financial impact, and they suggested I contact the finance committee. I contacted the finance committee, and they suggested I contact the planning department.

Ms. Raitt states that she was the one who spoke to the resident who made the previous comment. Ms. Raitt says it was a quick conversation, but there was more to it than the commenter just portrayed. (The commenter acknowledges this.) DPCD is working with the Town treasurer and the town manager's office to develop a financial projection. This should be available in time for town meeting.

At this point, it's slightly after 9:00pm, and DPCD ends the presentation. We never got to ADUs, or any of the other zoning articles.