MBTA Communities Visioning Session - Mar 9th, 2023

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Meeting held via remote participation. Materials were available from https://www.arlingtonma.gov/Home/Components/Calendar/Event/31499/18. Approximately 120 people attended.

Planning Director Claire Ricker gives opening remarks. Ms. Ricker thinks this is an opportunity for Arlington to imagine what our town will look like in twenty or thirty years. The town convened a working group to direct outreach and to work on what will become a multi-family proposal for town meeting. Last year, we learned that our district is not tethered to the area surrounding the Alewife Train station. Ms. Ricker says the state requires us to create a zone where multi-family housing is allowed by right, but it's not a mandate to build. The district only creates potential.

Ms. Ricker says that the goal of tonight's meeting is to get a sense of what the community values in such a district. The meeting is being recorded, and there will be a Q and A session once we return from breakout groups. She believes that our best proposals will come from community input. We can support what the community values.

Assistant Planning Director Kelly Lynema gives a presentation to explain the state legislation, and what it means for Arlington.

Ms. Lynema says we have an assignment from the state: to create districts where multi-family housing is allowed by right. Housing here is really expensive, and that cost makes it challenging for the town to find staff. Arlington is one of 175 communities affected by this new legislation.

Arlington, and much of the MBTA community region is redeveloping -- there's not a lot of undeveloped land around Greater Boston. Arlington issued over 300 building permits for new construction between 2019--2022, and only one of them involved a building with 3--10 units. Most of the permits were for the reconstruction or rehabilitation of single- and two-family homes, 40B applications, and projects from the Housing Corporation of Arlington. We're not building anything in the middle.

Arlington's zone must be at least 32 acres, and it must allow buildings with three or more dwelling units, with no restrictions on age or the number of bedrooms. The district must have a capacity of at least 2,046 units. We can have several districts, but each one has to be at least five acres in size, to prevent spot zoning.

Ms. Lynema says that Arlington is categorized as an adjacent community, so our capacity is 10% of the housing units listed in the 2020 census. Capacity doesn't mean 2,046 new homes; instead, it's the potential for what could be built by right in the future.

Ms. Lynema sees the requirements as a way to allow gentle density. There's a range of ways that can look, but it's not something we currently allow.

Ms. Lynema shows some screen captures from https://residensity.mhp.net/ which is a tool for measuring housing density. MBTA communities requires our multi-family zone to allow at least 15 dwellings/area. That level of density is similar to what we already have in parts of Arlington.

Next, Ms. Ricker talks about incentives. She says that Arlington is required to establish these districts, and there are penalties for breaking the law. These include the loss of two funding sources for infrastructure, and a loss of funding for public housing. We're using MassWorks funding to improve the intersection of Mass Ave and Appleton Street, and we received a $250k housing choice grant for planning work. The state appears to be taking the position that non-compliance means that cities and towns will have to fund their own housing authorities. Of the 175 communities affected by the legislation, only 8 are taking a wait and see approach, or considering non-compliance. Passing this zoning will also make Arlington eligible to participate in the state's fossil fuel ban pilot program. Mr. Ricker says that compliance matters because this gives Arlington a chance to live its values.

The next section involves breakout groups. There's a set of survey questions (answered via survey monkey) and a map to go with each question. There are 13 questions, each with five answers:

  • This goal is important to include
  • This goal is nice to have, but secondary to other goals
  • I am neutral about including this goal
  • I am opposed to including this goal
  • I am unsure what this goal means

The questions are:

  • Encourage multifamily housing around public transportation routes (MBTA bus lines, Alewife station).
  • Encourage multifamily housing in walkable and bikeable locations (e.g., near existing sidewalks, multi-use paths, bike lanes).
  • Encourage multifamily housing that includes affordable units.
  • Encourage multifamily housing to include mixed uses (e.g., first floor business or commercial uses)
  • Promote development, vitality, and growth of commercial/business districts.
  • Integrate sustainable principles into new multifamily housing.
  • Provide access to shared community spaces such as recreational parks and open spaces, plazas, and public buildings.
  • Encourage multifamily housing along our commercial corridors (i.e. Mass Ave, Broadway, Summer Street)
  • Encourage multifamily housing in our commercial centers (i.e. Capital Square, Arlington Center, Arlington Heights)
  • Encourage multifamily housing near, but not necessarily along, our commercial corridors
  • Avoid locating new multifamily housing near flood-prone areas
  • Encourage multifamily housing on existing large parcels
  • Encourage multifamily housing in all neighborhoods in Arlington

The breakout groups last for approximately 50 minutes, at which point we all return to the main room.

In terms of the overall timeline, tonight was the kickoff for visioning. In a few days, a survey with visuals will be made available to residents who couldn't make it tonight. Staff are putting together meeting kits, so residents can run their own meetings, have discussions, and provide feedback to the planning department. These outreach efforts will continue until mid-April.

Afterwards, we'll work with Utile, the town's technical consultant, to construct several scenarios. These will be presented to the MBTA Communities working group, refined, and then taken back to the community. This project will involve several iterations, but we do have a deadline of passing the zoning in November. The first step is to figure out where the districts will go; then we can work out the details.

The new zoning will be presented as a warrant article. The Redevelopment Board will hold hearings and make a recommendation to town meeting. Town meeting is the town's legislative body, which consists of 252 members. They'll vote on the proposed zoning, hopefully in October. If this passes, we'll be able to participate in the state's fossil fuel pilot.

Next, we move on to questions and answers.

Question: With the visioning kits, how do you know you won't be hearing from the same people more than once?

Answer: We might get duplicate responses. But it would take a lot of work for one person to skew the result of the entire process.

Question: I didn't hear much about infrastructure issues, like the capacity of our water and sewer systems. Does DPW have some kind of report on what areas of the town can handle additional development. And, is there any change we can get reciprocity from the state on our home rule petition to establish a real estate transfer fee?

Answer: We're working with town departments on this effort, and keeping them involved. At its peak population, around 55,000 people lived in Arlington. If the infrastructure is in question, this will be a great time to update it, and MassWorks is a good program for doing so. Arlington continues to advocate for state adoption of our transfer fee petition, but we probably can't hold this process hostage for that. The Affordable Housing Trust Fund Trustees are working on an Affordable Housing Overlay proposal, which might pair nicely with the MBTA zoning.

Question: Can we ask the working group for more specifics about what the carrots and sticks are, in more detail, in dollars?

Question: Since Arlington passed an ADU bylaw, wouldn't our two-family districts meet the regulations already?

Answer: No. ADUs aren't treated as separate units, and they're size-limited.

Question: Can we amend the ADU bylaw, so that two family zones become compliant with the MBTA multifamily requirements?

Answer: We need to figure out where the districts will go first.

Question: What kind of commitment has the MBTA made to improving service? The T doesn't seem to be trying to improve service?

Answer: The T's condition is very challenging. A number of folks from town have met frequently with T staff working on the better bus project. The MBTA's goal was to improve reliability, and we hope they do improve. We've let them know that the new service is not ideal for Arlington. It's a big question mark.

Question: My issue is parking and congestion. It think parking and traffic congestion will be a huge part of planning future growth, and allowing overnight parking will put pressure on businesses.

Answer: These are definitely issues we'll have to address.

Question: What planning is being made for possible school enrollment?

Answer: When school enrollment becomes a problem, it happens in the elementary schools. The elementary school capacity peaked in 2019, and we added extra classrooms to handle the increase in students. There's currently capacity in the elementary schools. If new housing is built, it will happen gradually, over time. (This answer came from former School Board member Jennifer Susse, rather than planning staff.)

Question: Are will still relying on the McKibben report for school enrollment growth?

Answer: The previous answer was stated in terms of actual enrollments, which correspond well with the McKibben report.

Question: If these zones are created, would the town be able to limit the size of buildings? Do we have any say over large they are?

Answer: The size of buildings in controlled by zoning. The details have to be worked out, but they should reflect the vision and goals of the community.

Question: Will all the heights be the same? Can different areas have different height limits?

Answer: The height limits can be contextually based, and different in different areas.

Question: I read a Globe Article that says Brookline will need a super-majority vote from town meeting to pass their MBTA zoning, because they're including commercial elements. Will we need a super-majority too?

Answer: We're probably looking at a simple majority. Brookline is trying to do two things at once: establish multi-family zones, and a form-based zoning code.

Comment: I've very excited about the idea of missing middle housing, and I look forward to continuing this conversation.

Meeting adjourned.