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The town’s Zoning Board of Appeals held its final public hearing earlier this month on the 43-unit affordable housing project proposed to be built at 10 Sunnyside Ave. by the Housing Corporation of Arlington, with a possible occupancy date of 2026 should it be approved. The meeting, some 80 minutes long, was the last chance for Arlington residents to give opinions on the ZBA’s draft of its zoning decision for the project, which included several conditions.

And it was the HCA’s last opportunity to provide information before the board adjourned to a final vote on the matter. Deliberations are set to begin on Sept. 5, with a decision expected to be made by Sept. 24, said ZBA Chair Patrick Hanlon at the Aug. 15 meeting.

At that meeting, outside counsel for the ZBA, Paul Haverty, provided a summary of the application along with ZBA’s many conditions.These were broken down into subsections including project design; construction; traffic and safety concerns, particularly those that pertain to emergency responders; water, sewer and utilities; and waiver decisions -- to name a few.

Nevertheless, in a later interview with YourArlington, Erica Schwarz, HCA’s executive director of the HCA, said, “We were very pleased with the outcome of the meeting, because there is a draft decision that would have our zoning approved with lot of conditions that we are prepared to meet.”

She continued, “The meeting allowed us and the members of the zoning board to go through some of those conditions and provide some clarification and fact checks. There were some items that we felt didn’t reflect prior conversations, and we talked that through. There were some items where the zoning board was asking us for some additional detail or just data to fill in some blanks. And there are other items where we just wanted to confirm we understood the item properly, and what they would be asking us to commit to.”

At the meeting, Mary O’Connor, the attorney representing the HCA, asked for changes in the language of the application, beginning with the issue of bicycle parking spaces: ZBA’s demand to reduce the proposed 70 long-term spots to 60 and to cut the 10 short-term spaces to five.

Schwarz later described her nonprofit agency’s reasoning thus: “We requested a slight change, to guarantee that we can meet the requirements, because we’re in the relatively early stages of our design. And when you move through the advanced stages and have to add all the details into a building -- all of your HVAC systems and properly engineered support systems for the structure -- that can sometimes impact how much work and how much space you have. So for the bike parking, we requested that the language [instead] read that we would commit to a slightly lower number just for the building to function properly.”

At the meeting, O’Connor said she thought some rules the board wanted in the Property Management Plan were overreaching -- specifically the pet policy, smoking policy and staffing policy. She said further that HCA had no issue with expectations on building security, transportation management policy, public access, trash removal or vegetation management.

O’Connor also requested a waiver seeking the reduction of the drive isle – the space within the parking garage – from 23 feet to 22 feet.

Nearby residents voice objections

Hanlon then opened the public-forum portion of the meeting; two people had requested to speak.

Roberto Costa said, “The project is too big for the area, [and it has] too many waivers. The building should fit in the footprint that it should fit.”

Leah Broder said, “The building is outsized for the site, and paving 89 percent [of a property] close to a brook and urban wilds is not a good idea.” Broder also asked the board to not approve earlier start times to construction.

Hanlon then presented a letter from the Concerned Citizens of Michael Street – a block away from the proposed building -- with 25 signatures, asking for several things:

        • For abutters to be included in construction updates;
        • No contractor parking on Michael Street;
        • No overnight street parking permits/stickers for 10 Sunnyside Ave. residents to park on Michael Street;
        • Making Michael Street one way toward Sunnyside Avenue except for abutters;
        • Keeping the building height/size to that currently allowed; and
        • Improving all-around safety including snow removal

Hanlon closed the public forum segment and, with no comments from fellow board members, the meeting adjourned. Artist rendering of proposed 43-unit affordable-apartments-building at 10 Sunnyside Ave. hoped to open in 2026.

HCA’s view on neighbors

In the YourArlington interview, Schwarz said that residents living within several blocks of the site had concerns, were active and involved throughout the process -- and that HCA was interacting with them.

“Early on, we held two meetings, one in person and one on Zoom, targeted specifically for people who lived in that neighborhood. We wanted to connect with them, to give them early information and to hear what their concerns were,”

Some desired changes are outside both the ZBA’s and HCA’s purview, such as deciding about overnight parking and making Michael Street one-way-only.

But Schwarz hopes to continue to work with the residents and the town to improve conditions, such as the way Sunnyside Avenue itself functions; she noted its traffic flow, its width, its being relatively dark at night and its lack of a designated crosswalk at the end where pedestrians have to cross Broadway to get to the bus stop on the other side of the street.

Chapter 40B Housing

As far as the proposed height and density of the building, Schwarz said, “Even if we had not pursued the 40B comprehensive permit tool, which lets you override some of the local and existing zoning, we actually met most of the underlying zoning that was there anyway. We did use 40B to have smaller setbacks and to overcome an open-space requirement that essentially would have prevented any level of feasible housing on the site.”

Chapter 40B Housing is a program created by Massachusetts allowing developers to override local zoning bylaws in order to increase the number of affordable homes in municipalities in which less than 10 percent of the housing is defined as affordable.

“We felt that it was a really suitable location for a building of this size and scale and that actually, at the end of the day, [the proposed apartment complex] will enhance that block, enhance the neighborhood and not bring negative impact as far as traffic,” Schwarz said.

“As a former community organizer myself, I always appreciate people standing up to organize about something they care about -- and I hope the neighbors feel that we listen to them. We look forward to being very collaborative with them and in touch with them during the construction process.”

Rehabilitation more than development

The HCA is not primarily focused on constructing buildings. Rather, it usually acquires existing buildings and rehabilitates them in its effort to remedy the lack of affordable housing in town.

“We are prioritizing heavily in acquiring buildings that are already built, to capture them and make them affordable. That’s been an essential part of making sure we have enough housing that actually meets the incomes of the average person in Arlington and in Greater Boston,” she said.

The parcel at 10 Sunnyside Ave. is the HCA’s second new construction project and will meet Passive House standards. Passive House is a certification for making a building extremely healthy and energy efficient, and it is increasingly popular for many reasons. “It takes a holistic look,” said Schwarz. “[10 Sunnyside Ave.) will be the most energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable building that we willl own once completed.”

HCA also is starting to look at how to do some major retrofits of existing buildings to bring them up to current energy-efficient standards. “That will take some time. So it is exciting to be able to build a building from the ground up that will meet these standards.” 

April 5, 2022: Zoning demystified

This article by YourArlington freelancer Tony Moschetto was published Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023, based on the ACMi public-television-station recording of the Aug. 15, meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals and an interview with Housing Corporation of Arlington Executive Director Erica Schwarz.