MBTA Communities Working Group - Feb 2nd, 2023

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Meeting held via remote participation. Materials were available from https://www.arlingtonma.gov/Home/Components/Calendar/Event/31377/18.

(Claire Ricker, Planning Director) Ms. Ricker gives an introduction. DHCD published their final guidance for MBTA communities in August. It was clear that we wouldn't be able to have a proposal ready for April. It was also clear that we'd need to have some kind of campaign behind the effort, rather than just proposing a bylaw. Mr. Ricker thinks it's time for forward land use planning. The current plan is to bring a proposal to a special town meeting in October. It will have a 50% voting threshold, but it would be better to have it pass more decisively.

(Kelly Lynema, Assistant Planning Director) Ms. Lynema says the town's main goal is to comply with Section 3A of Chapter 40A, and that town leadership has indicated that non-compliance isn't an option. Our baseline goal is to come up with a plan for compliance.

We do a go-round, so that members of the working group can introduce themselves. The working group members are

  • Kin Lau
  • Laura Wiener
  • Mette Aadmdot
  • Ramie Schneider
  • Sanjay Newton
  • Shaina Korman-Houston
  • Steve Revilak
  • Vincent Baudoin

We were joined tonight by three members of the public: Susan Stamps, Steve Moore, and Mary Ellen Aaronow. Teresa Marzilli will be working with our group, but wasn't able to attend tonight.

Ms. Lynema provides a refresher of Section 3A and the MBTA community requirements. She shows a zoning map from the mid 20-th century. There were undeveloped areas of town that were still farmland, areas zoned for single- and two-family homes, and well-defined commercial strips along Mass Ave and Broadway.

In the 1970's Arlington passed a two-year moratorium on the construction of new apartments, and re-did the zoning laws during that time. Arlington, like other communities, changed their zoning in response to the construction of new apartment buildings. The new zoning districts reflected whatever happened to be there at the time. If a parcel was a gas station, it was probably zoned B4. If a parcel had an apartment building, it was zoned R5, R6, or R7. The bylaw reflects what the town was, at that particular point it time.

Ms. Lynema notes that the multi-family requirements for MBTA communities are about middle-tier housing, rather than tall apartment buildings.

A lot of communities in Greater Boston are in the same situation as Arlington. They've been subdivided into small residential lots, with mostly single-family homes; there aren't many larger parcels to work with.

Our multifamily district must be at least 32 acres. At that size, we'd have to allow housing at around 63 dwellings/acre. If we opted for the minimum density of 15 dwellings/acre, our district would be about 135 acres.

There's a question about affordability. Ms. Lynema says we can provide bonuses and incentives for affordable units, but we can't require anything beyond our current inclusionary zoning.

Mr. Lau thinks that blocks of 20--24 apartments make it easier to build affordable housing; it's more likely to pencil out. He suggests three stories, with some larger buildings. He says we'll have to figure out what the right blend is, and believes our sketch-up model will be helpful.

Ms. Schneider asks if MBTA communities can be coupled with 40R. She'd suggest doing that, if at all possible. Ms. Lynema says that is an option. Ms. Ricker notes that complying with MBTA communities doesn't relieve the town of it's responsibilities under Chapter 40B.

Ms. Stamps says she attended a Lexington Planning Board meeting where they discussed their MBTA zoning proposal. Part of this was allowing an extra floor for buildings with ground floor commercial. She asks working group members to keep that in mind. Ms. Lynema says we can try to incentivize ground floor commercial, but we can't require it.

Next, we discuss the results of the MBTA Communities survey. There were about 100 responses. Most people preferred a transect, where part of the district was lower density and part was higher. In terms of concepts, the majority favored putting the district along the commercial corridors, or in residential districts adjacent to commercial on the main corridors. A number of people asked about having the district near the Alewife T station, but we have less than 50 developable acres there -- much of the area is open space or wetlands. The lack of developable land around Alewife is why we're not tethered to that location.

Ms. Ricker suggests that we keep the West Medford commuter rail station in mind, as it's just over the border in Medford.

Ms. Lynema says that around 80% of the respondents indicated that they were homeowners. Only about 60% of Arlington residents own homes, so one of our challenges will be to bring renters into the conversation. Finally, she notes that the largest group of respondents by tenure had only lived in town for 1--5 years.

Ms. Lynema says that Arlington submitted its action plan to DHCD; she and Ms. Ricker would like feedback, and they're particularly interested in what people would change. Ms. Ricker wants to do something actionable, which mean something that will result in housing getting built.

Mr. Newton notes that our eligibility to participate in the state's fossil fuel pilot is contingent upon us adopting a multi-family district.

Ms. Schneider asks where Arlington is with respect to electrification. Perhaps all-electric or passive construction could qualify for bonuses. She also says that Mass Housing has subsidy programs targeting workforce housing. These programs are for people who make more than 80% AMI, but not enough to afford a million dollar home.

Ms. Lynema expects there to be a warrant article about a specialized stretch code at this spring's town meeting.

Mr. Revilak has been re-reading the town's sustainable transportation plan. It's made him think of certain challenges we face; namely, that there are large parts of town that aren't very walkable, because there's nothing there to walk too. While he likes the thought of trying to address that with the MBTA multi-family district, he thinks that might be left to a separate effort.

Mr. Baudoin suggests keeping things simple. He says that complexity isn't a neutral thing -- it benefits some, but not others. He thinks that overlay districts can be a layer of complexity, because of how they can interact with the underlying zoning.

Ms. Aadmdot also cautions against piling on too much. She thinks the primary goal is housing, and that's not easy to begin with. She thinks the focus should be on housing and transportation.

Mr. Lau wants to be sure that we can make the specifics work.

Ms. Korman-Houston agrees; we don't want to write zoning that's not developable.

The group would like to meet again in two weeks. Ms. Lynema will send out a poll for meeting availability.

Meeting adjourned.