Difference between revisions of "Arlington Redevelopment Board - Jul 20th, 2020"

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Meeting conducted via video-conference.

Docket 3625, 882--892 Mass Ave. Continued hearing. The applicant would like to construct a mixed-use building at 882--892 Mass Ave.

(Robert Annesse, Attorney for the Applicant) Since the last hearing, we've met with Rachel Zsembery for feedback on the building's design. This harkens back to the days when Ed Tsoi was on the board. As an architect, he'd meet with applicants and provide guidance. For this project, we met with Rachel and Kin.

Mr. Annesse wants to get to the issue of whether the ARB can grant the relief requested. Mr. Annesse thinks it makes no sense for the ARB to have jurisdiction over the main thoroughfares in town, but be unable to grant certain types of relief on those thoroughfares.

Section 3.4 of the zoning bylaw contains language about granting flexibility with respect to how the ARB acts. Section 3.4.2 defines the ARB's jurisdiction. Section 3.4.4 says that EDR standards shall not be regarded as inflexible, and should encourage creativity and innovation. Mr. Annesse believes the ZBL gives the ARB power to grant the relief his client is requesting. That language was put in years ago, and shame on us if we've never used it.

Mr. Annesse states that we always hear from a certain element at these hearings, who always have negative things to say, and never anything constructive to offer.

In an effort to address the open space issue, we've provided an alternate set of plans. One meets the open space requirements, but requires removal of two parking spaces. Going that route, we'd need to ask for parking relief, which the board has the ability to grant. We still need relief from the upper-story step-back, and Section 3.4 gives the ARB ability to grant that relief. In the days of Ed Tsoi, we always got help in order to make a project happen.

(John Murphy, Designer(?)) Mr. Murphy hopes that the number of people they've worked with helps. These designs have gone through almost ten iterations. We'd get rid of the residential units on the first floor if we could. We've increased the height of the ground floor so there's room for signage, and have made the commercial space larger. We're pursuing restaurants as prospective tenants. This project will not be economically viable if we remove the three residential units on the first floor. We have environmental contamination to deal with. There's a need and demand for housing. Why take away something that's needed in this town? Deep commercial spaces don't rent well, especially if they're too big and too spread out. Commercial tenants only want to pay for what they need. We've put a lot of time, effort, and money into this design, and we think it's the best we can do.

(Adam Wagner, Architect) We've made significant design changes based of feedback from Kin and Rachel. We increased the first floor height by two feet and reduced the height of the upper stories by six inches. That makes the first floor look more important and allows for a sign band. There's a lot of storefront space on the first floor now, and it looks more like retail space. We broke the corner of the building into smaller components so there's less of a large, flat surface. We're currently thinking working out to run an exhaust hood up to the roof.

(Rachel Zsembery) We discussed how to make the commercial space more usable. I appreciated the accommodations made for a restaurant and basement storage space. I appreciated changes made to the corner; it adds differentiation between the different levels of the building. The entrance is a little dark. Maybe continue the beige fiber cement finish that's used on the side of the building. Ms. Zsembery asks the applicants to explain their usable open space calculations.

(Aaron MacKay, Civil Engineer) We tried to maximize green space. The zoning bylaw suggests that usable open space is for things like swimming pools and tennis courts. That requirement seems oriented to larger projects, but this is a small space. The area to the south of the dumpster pad is close to 25' but not completely there. The usable open space calculations were based on residential gross floor area.

(Rachel Zsembery) Ms. Zsembery is interested in giving landscaped open space relief, rather than usable open space relief. Usable open space should provide an amenity.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau likes the project. He's okay with granting relief for the side yard. He asks if the applicants could add something like a BBQ grill and picnic tables -- some kind of a place for tenants to socialize. Provide a function that people can use. The developer has been good to work with, and they've taken our comments to heart. This is a good fit. The existing building will come down, no matter what. The environmental contamination isn't the owner's fault. Mr. Lau is fully supportive of the project, and for granting relief.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson thinks we're making a lot of progress. He appreciates the effort to accommodate a restaurant in the commercial space. The corner entrance doesn't look good. He agrees with Ms. Zsembery's suggestions. He asks if open space calculations were done on the basis of residential gross floor area.

(Aaron MacKay) Yes. The open space calculations appear on the plans. We reduced the number of parking spaces in order to create open space. We are concerned about the minimum driveway width.

(missed a little here)

We don't have room for angled parking spaces. We needed 90 degree parking for maneuverability.

(John Murphy) We moved the building back two feet, added a five-foot buffer in the rear, and shrunk the overall dimensions of the building.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson asks if 60 degree parking is doable.

No. Angled parking is better for one-way traffic. That would require a driveway loop, and an additional curb cut.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson asks if there can be at least one electric vehicle charging station.

The applicants have no problem committing to an EV charging station. They're also willing to commit to Mr. Lau's outdoor amenity area.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson agrees that the applicants can use the current east-side setback. He thinks this will look fine from the next residential lot. He's not comfortable with granting relief for the fourth-story step-back. There are a number of places where the bylaw specifically gives the ARB the ability to adjust regulations; upper-story step-backs are not one of them. He also doesn't believe the applicant has made a compelling case for waiving the step-back requirement. He believes the step back in not required on the Lockeland side of the building, but is required on the Mass Ave side.

Because we've moved the building back two feet and shrunk it, having a 7.5' step-back would make the upper story apartments unlivably small.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson doesn't think that's consistent with the EDR special permit criteria.

(Robert Annesse) Mr. Annesse asks about equity. His clients didn't cause the environmental contamination, but they'll have to pay $1.25M dollars to clean it up.

(Kin Lau) Gene asked for a compelling reason. The applicants moved the building back 2' to allow more sidewalk space, and to provide more room at the bus stop. He thinks that's a compelling reason.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson wishes that was acknowledged in the regulations. He believes the applicants need to adopt a TDM program because of the parking space reduction.

(Robert Annesse) Mr. Annesse says they're providing covered bike storage, and bicycle and car share facilities on site.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson asks about GFA and FAR. He asks if the basement was included in those calculations.

The GFA was calculated on the four stories above grade. It didn't include the basement.

Mr. Benson would like an explanation for why the basement wasn't counted.

(David Watson) Mr. Watson appreciates the work that the applicants have put in. He agrees with some of the thoughts his colleagues have stated with respect to relief, but takes a more expansive view of what the ARB is able to do. He's not convinced the applicants have made their case. The ARB needs to maintain a degree of consistency with respect to other cases. He'd like to understand why a 7.5' upper-story step-back would make the fourth floor apartments unlivably small.

With the 7.5' step-back, each apartment on the fourth floor would have around 350 square feet. That's pretty small, even for a studio. However, we could accommodate the step back by moving the building forward two feet, up to the property line.

(Robert Annesse) Moving the building back has a benefit to the town. It provides more safety to people waiting at the bus stop.

(Rachel Zsembery) Ms. Zsembery thinks that the usable open space calculations were not done correctly. Those spaces are actually landscaped open space, but she's okay with giving relief for them.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson asks if the applicants can have fewer apartments on the fourth floor.

It's a matter of economics. We need a certain number of units to make the project economical. In addition, we have to support the inclusionary zoning bylaws, and pay for environmental cleanup.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau says it's more economical to stack units, so that plumbing is aligned. Not stacking creates a higher cost.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson thinks the applicants should be able to remove one unit and reconfigure the fourth floor.

(David Watson) Mr. Watson thinks it should be easier to move the bus shelter, rather than moving the building.

(Robert Annesse) The town suggested that we move the building. They never suggested moving the bus stop. We'd rather move the building forward to the property line, rather than remove apartments from the fourth floor.

The chair opens the hearing to public comment.

(Wynelle Evans) Ms. Evans says she cares deeply about her town. She looked at the architect's website. The projects shown there look completely generic. They should look more visually appealing. This building represents my worst nightmare.

(Rick Pelletier) Mr. Pelletier asks if the commercial space will have dedicated parking.

The applicants removed two parking spaces in order to add open space. Those two parking spaces would have been reserved for the commercial space. The commercial space doesn't require dedicated parking, because it's smaller than 3000 square feet.

(Don Seltzer) Mr. Seltzer sent the board a set of materials outlining dimensional issues. He claims these plans make the dimensional issues worse. The parking isle is too narrow. There's not enough room for two rows of parking -- only a single row will fit. The bylaw is very specific about what constitutes usable open space, and only the southwest corner qualifies. A 14,000 square foot lot is not adequate for 21 apartments. The building should only be 2--3 stories.

(Annie LaCourt) Ms. LaCourt is a board member of Foodlink, who's been renting one of the storefronts in the existing building. She says that Foodlink was not kicked out. She supports the project. We need housing. She prefers to have buildings at a consistent distance from the street, and we won't get a good streetscape until there's more development done in this area. This building should be the same height as the building next door. We need to do whatever we can to get this type of housing. Arlington is too uniformly single-family.

(Joanne Preston) Mr. Preston says that 55% of Arlington's housing is multi-family, which is a higher percentage than Belmont or Winchester. She says she hasn't seen any figures from the developer showing that reducing the number of units would make the project unviable. She believes that residential units are very profitable. She asks if there will be a wheelchair ramp, and thinks the commercial space is too small. It took two years before the commercial space across the street was rented.

(Chris Loretti) Mr. Loretti thanks the board for including his written comments in the docket. He believes that the board has flexibility in how it conducts EDR hearings, but no flexibility regarding the ZBL's requirements. Mr. Loretti says he served on the ARB with Ed Tsoi and they never had ex-parte meetings with applicants. Those meetings should not happen. The applicant for the Brigham Square apartments obtained a variance from the ZBA before coming to the ARB. The ARB is not a one-stop shopping place. Mr. Loretti says he's never seen a developer act with such a sense of entitlement. He asks where the ARB gets authority to reduce usable open space, and thinks that all ex-parte meetings should be reported.

(James Fleming) This building could easily go to five stories without looking imposing. Developers should pay more attention to aesthetics. He suggests using a red brick exterior, to match the apartment building next door. He asks why there's so much nitpicking. The developed needs to ensure the spaces are rentable.

(Danuta Forbes) Ms. Forbes thinks the building should have something around the windows. She'd like more commercial space. She agrees that we need more housing, but not a generic looking building. The color scheme could be better.

(Ben Rudick) Mr. Rudick thanks Mr. Bunnell for his service. He hopes the ARB can continue to provide a mechanism for remote participation. Remote participation makes it easier for people to get involved, and more people are participating. Mr. Rudick formed a group called Arlington Neighbors for More Neighbors, who are for abundant housing. There's tremendous support for this. We, meaning the greater Boston area, have not done a good job and building housing, and we need to do what we can to catch up. As a real estate analyst, nothing I've heard tonight does not ring true. He'd be worried about obtaining financing in the current environment. He hopes the project can move forward.

(John Worden) Mr. Worden hopes that everyone saw the article in the Globe's business section about how the virus spreads in crowded housing. Density is not a good idea. (note: Mr. Worden in confusing overcrowding with density; Mr. Benson corrects this later). Arlington has done it's share. We have more neighbors, but how many commercial spaces? In 2016, some of us urged there to be a minimum percentage on the amount of commercial space in mixed-use projects. The board should stick to that. The entire first floor should have commercial space. What happened to the honorable one on the board? The step-back requirements are in the bylaw. If the applicants need a variance, then they should go do the ZBA. This has been done before. The project should still be viable with one fewer unit. Arlington is fully developed and has been for many years. Oversized excess development is not good. The board should not blow off promises made to town meeting.

(Aram Hollman) Mr. Hollman says this is too dense, there's not enough parking, and the living spaces are inadequate. Businesses should not be wholesale converted to residential. The applicants are pleading poverty. The town should not give away the store. Affordability is still an issue. Only three of these units will be affordable. We should not be converting commercial space to residential.

(Richard Pelletier) Mr. Pelletier support's the project. There's a demand for housing, and the board has been working with the developer. We have unrented commercial spaces in town, so I don't understand why we're requiring so much. But we do need residential.

(Don Seltzer) Mr. Seltzer presents a list of GFA calculations that he disagrees with.

(Stepped away for a moment. When I returned, the public comment period was over.)

(Rachel Zsembery) Pushing the building back makes me feel like the setback undulates the face, and avoids having a sheer wall.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau appreciates that the applicants were willing to set the building back more than the required amount. They've made a genuine effort to pull the building back and leave space for the public. He's very comfortable with granting relief for the upper-story step-back. He's fully supportive of the project. He encourages the applicant to make tweaks to the exterior color, and amenities in the open space. This is a mixed-use project which addresses several needs. All apartments are single-bedroom, and the building will have an elevator. Not many one-bedroom apartments have an elevator in the building. This will allow people to age in place.

Mr. Lau thinks it's unfair to compare this retail space with what's across the street. If this project isn't approved, we'll have a hole in the ground for a long time. These kind of apartments provide a place to live when people are starting out. Not everyone can afford a $750,000 house.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson is conflicted. This is a good project. Mr. Benson points out that COVID spread is not related to density. It's due to overcrowding -- too many people living in a single apartment or house. He believe the lower level is a cellar, but intended to support the residential apartments. He'd like the proponent to show their gross floor area calculations. He believes our bylaws are ambiguous; there are numerous places where they don't provide specific guidance or authority. He asks how moving the building back prevents there from being a 7.5' foot step-back.

There's discussion in response to Mr. Benson's question.

Mr. Benson doesn't believe the board has the ability to negotiate on the upper-story step-back requirement. He can't vote for relief, even though he likes the project.

(David Watson) Mr. Watson likes the project and wants to find a way to make it work. He also doesn't like the ambiguity. Our ZBL is messy, and that's what concerns him. Maybe a variance is the way to go. He's honestly not sure what to do. This is the right type of project, even if I don't like the way it looks. The applicant is asking for a lot of relief, and he's not sure if the ARB should grant all of it.

(Robert Annesse) Section 3.4.4 talks about open space and its purpose. Shouldn't that imply that the ARB has discretion to make adjustments? If that weren't the case, the language about flexibility wouldn't be there. These apartments will be rented by younger adults, or seniors trying to age in place. At the last hearing, Pam Hallet noted the need for one-bedroom apartments. Mr. Annesse asks Mr. Watson if the step-back is the only issue.

(David Watson) When that language was added, due consideration wasn't given to the fact that we're a redevelopment authority, and not just a planning board.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson agrees that the ARB has flexibility with respect to open space and parking. He says we could move the whole building forward, and then move the top story back a little. He'd be okay with that. Mr. Benson would like some direction, so we don't continue to go round and round on the subject.

(Rachel Zsembery) Ms. Zsembery asks if the board can get an opinion from Town Counsel.

(Andrew Bunnell) Mr. Bunnell says town counsel agrees that the ARB has flexibility, especially when it comes to meeting town goals. An empty lot is not a good outcome. Leaving issues of design aside, he fully supports the project. The board has always tried to advance the idea of affordable housing. He's 100% behind this project.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson also spoke with town counsel. We agreed that there was a textual and a non-textual way to look at the bylaw. We ended up in different places with respect to where the ARB's flexibility ends.

(David Watson) Mr. Watson thinks the current proposal is better than moving the building forward two feet. Perhaps we can get clarity on the GFA calculations.

Aaron MacKay says they can provide written GFA calculations.

(Jenny Raitt) The public process has shaped the outcome of this project. We've consulted with both town counsel and inspectional services. We continue to head down the correct path. Everything we're doing is within the scope of what the ARB is allowed to do. The ZBL has answers to some of the questions that have come up (e.g., around gross floor area). Ms. Raitt urges the ARB members to review the ZBL. The EDR process was designed by a former ARB, to get better development outcomes on the town's main corridors. There are a lot of challenges, and it's difficult to apply some of the regulations to our parcels. Ms. Raitt reads a few sections of the ZBL. The Housing Production Plan is also a factor -- it says what we need in terms of housing. EDR is not an inflexible set of requirements. Are there adverse affects that outweigh the benefits of this project? The applicant has been responsive to ARB suggestions, and additional requirements can be built into the order of conditions.

(Robert Annesse) Mr. Annesse suggests other language in the ZBL that might cover the step-back issue.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson doesn't feel the section Mr. Annesse mentioned gives the ARB unbridled discretion. He likes the project and thinks it would be a benefit to the town. He'll have to think about this some more.

(Andrew Bunnell) Mr. Bunnell is reluctant to continue the hearing, because the ARB hasn't asked the applicant to do anything concrete.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson is still stuck on the upper-story step-back and GFA calculations.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau doesn't want to set a precedent where one person holds up a project. He'd like the board to vote and decide yes or no. It's okay if board members have different opinions. Mr. Lau thinks we shouldn't twist applicants around, because that will discourage development. Developers want consistency. Ambiguity doesn't help.

(Andrew Bunnell) Mr. Bunnell agrees; nitpicking has served the board poorly. All five of the board members have said this is a good project, and we're entrusted with the authority to make a decision. He doesn't feel this helps Arlington's reputation as a place that's difficult to develop in.

(David Watson) Mr. Watson says the project is better than when we started. Wider sidewalks are more beneficial than the step-back. He says he could vote in favor of this project.

(Rachel Zsembery) Ms. Zsembery moves to approve the project with conditions. These conditions include

  • Outdoor amenities
  • Continue to massage the design of the corner of the building
  • a TDM plan
  • At least one EV charging station
  • Final signage (for the commercial spaces) must be approved in separate hearings, according to our sign bylaws.
  • Venting for restaurant use.

Board approved, 4--1 (with Mr. Benson voting in the negative)

(left the meeting at this point).