First zoning hearing for Mugar project draws 100, raucous opposition

Board backs town 'safe harbor' number; developer says it will appeal

An estimated 100 people crowded a Town Hall hearing room to overflowing Tuesday, Sept. 27, as they expressed sharp concerns over a proposed residential project for East Arlington, near Alewife, at the first Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) hearing on Thorndike Place.

Oaktree Development of Cambridge has applied for a comprehensive permit to build 219 townhouses and apartments, of which 25 percent, or 55 units, will be affordable housing.Zoning Board of Appeals logo

The Town of Arlington, however, is trying to keep the 17-acre Mugar site undeveloped. Before the hearing, about 35 held signs on the Town Hall steps as rush-hour traffic passed.

John Yurewicz, a longtime Arlington resident, says the project will affect views, flooding, traffic and wildlife. He doesn’t think the project should go through "because someone wants to break a rule. Why do we have to change stuff?" he asked, before receiving thunderous applause from fellow residents.

At the end of the 1 1/2-hour hearing -- frequently interrupted by audience comments as well as complaints that the lack of microphones meant official speakers could not be heard -- the board voted unanimously to support the town’s view that its amount of affordable housing is above the limit required to defend it against a 40B project. It is known as a "safe harbor."

Robert Engler, representing Oaktree, said the developer expected to appeal that stance, as it disagrees with the town’s number. The next hearing was scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 18, but an appeal would delay the hearing for months.

Painting of Nathan Robbins looms above members of the Zoning Board of Appeals at the first hearing about the Mugar project.Painting of Nathan Robbins looms above members of the Zoning Board of Appeals at the first hearing about the Mugar project.

Oaktree Vice President Gwen Noyes said Oaktree proposes to build environmentally "good" buildings. They will implement all best environmental practices in order to preserve Mugar properties for future generations.

Oaktree says the bulk of the land will remain undeveloped; 11 of the 17 acres will stay as conservation land. Moreover, this project will provide several long-term benefits, including eliminating storm water and trash that often collects.

In 2010, the Arlington Planning Commission and Watershed Association worked with Mugar. Together, they proposed multifamily buildings on this land. Ogletree believes it has a viable plan, a "constructive, working process” that benefits everyone, including Arlington. Noyes is “optimistic the project will be a win-win for all of us."

This project will also add to the town’s tally of affordable housing. Oaktree says Arlington’s is currently insufficient, and this project addresses this need.

Affordable-housing statistics

All 40B projects must be considered by Arlington’s ZBA. Chapter 40B is a 1969 state law intended to increase affordable housing, but more often used now to skirt local zoning rules. 40B enables local zoning boards to approve affordable housing under flexible rules if at least 20 to 25 percent of the units have long-term affordability restrictions.

Arlington’s ZBA unanimously endorses the finding that more than 1.5 percent of town land is dedicated to affordable housing. Town Counsel Doug Heim has concluded that Oaktree’s numbers on Arlington’s affordable housing are incorrect. 

Heim said the town is currently at 1.56 percent. This doesn’t mean the board will reject the applications; however, the 1.5 percent forecloses an avenue of appeal. 

Arlington Town Meeting member John Belskis, long an opponent of 40B, added that the percentage could actually be higher, 1.6 or 1.7, because the data does not include 130 units of affordable housing that he said he has uncovered.

Meanwhile, the ZBA hopes to have all letters, proceedings, and comments posted on its website soon.

Transportation issues

Oaktree transportation consultant Robert Michaud said that several transportation initiatives in the Alewife neighborhood have been completed since December 2014 that were designed to enhance pedestrian safety and handle extra traffic. Projects include Mass. Ave. and the Route 2/Alewife Brook Parkway.

He called the proposed project is transit-oriented, well positioned to take advantage of the Minuteman Bikeway, deeded wetlands and the Alewife train station. It’s an eight-minute walk to Alewife; 27 percent of the residents are predicted to use public transportation, cutting down on driving, he said.
The property will have three egresses, to accommodate the remaining 73 percent of residents who drive to work. About 23 more cars per hour are predicted to use Lake Street during commuting times, he said. This statement was met with audience members disagreeing with these statistics. One protester said last year they were told it would be 80 cars per hour. Independent consultants will check the math, Michaud said.

Environment issues

Transportation professionals are also aware of the current situation, including the two major causes of delays: the bike path and Brook Street signal.

Protest outside Town Hall before the first zoning hearing about Thorndike Place. / Bob Sprague photosProtest outside Town Hall on Sept. 27 before the first zoning hearing about Thorndike Place.    / Bob Sprague photos

Engineer Mark Beaudry said his company, Meridian Associates, is listening to residents’ concerns about flooding, wetlands and the floodplain line. The proposed project is designed to consider protecting the wetlands, storm water management and flooding concerns. The current proposal is a preliminary design, and, he said, Meridian Associates fully intends to comply with all regulations.

Curt Connors and Susan Chapnick, of the Arlington Conservation Commission, however, want to make sure that Arlington’s wetlands bylaws are adhered to, all comments on town boards included, and a clear delineation is made between buildable and non-buildable land. This has not been done yet, nor any storm math calculations made.Nathaniel Stevens, chair of Conservation Commission, commented on a variety of issues that Oaktree still must address, including the completeness of its application and those related to wetlands and its requests for a list of waivers.

Residents’ issues

Many local residents don’t believe it’s worth damaging this neighborhood’s last, untamed area of wetlands, as well as instigating a host of ensuing negative impacts on: views, traffic, safety, parking, flooding, schools, and wildlife. One long-time resident said it will be “very unpleasant if this goes forward.”

Because 73 percent of the proposed residents will not be public-transportation commuters, many more cars will be on the roads. They said this traffic increase could make it dangerous for children playing in the street, and many parents won’t feel safe having their kids play outside. One resident, standing opposite Oaktree founder Arthur Klipfel, became emotional as she described her neighbor with a life-threatening illness, who requires emergency care. With cars parked on both sides of the street (albeit legally), ambulances may not be able to access her street, potentially resulting in a life-or-death situation.
Local residents also want to make sure the traffic impact on the whole neighborhood is taken into account, not just the abutting streets. For instance, hundreds more cars a day will turn onto Kelwyn Manor.

Flooding downstream of Alewife Brook is also a concern. During rainstorms, sump pumps are already widely used. More development would worsen the situation, and moving any snow would also increase flooding problems. The Conservation Commission said the town can have a peer review of Oaktree’s proposal. Much information is lacking, and they cannot get a sensible peer review. A new traffic study, floodplain data, storm water calculations, and a vegetation replacement plan are needed.

Others spoke of the negative impact on schools. Additional students will worsen already-overcrowded situations. Many young families want to move to Arlington, yet developers contend that because the individual units are small, most occupants will likely be child-free, such as empty nesters.

Residents also said that prefabricated townhouses and "obtuse" apartments, built using cheap construction, is not a good-faith effort for Arlington, and want to see other proposals. Others dislike so many section eight units located in one place, preferring instead they be spread out over town.


One surprising – and perhaps conciliatory -- comment came from a project opponent. Clarissa Rowe, a former selectman and a leader of the Coalition to Save the Mugar Wetlands, the group that has opposed Thorndike Place since it was proposed in the spring of 2015, suggested a compromise.

As members of the audience objected, she suggested building a more limited (smaller) development and include a park. She said the Community Preservation Act gives Arlington possible funds to buy open spaces and create local parks.

The Sept. 27 hearing had to be held within 30 days after the application seeking a comprehensive permit was filed. A 200-page binder containing the Aug. 31 application signed by Peter S. Mugar in care of Oaktree Development provides the supporting material reflected in the developer's lengthy statement about the plan for 219-unit Thorndike Place, first published Sept. 3.

Before the hearing, Jenny Raitt, director of planning and community development, told YourArlington that Redevelopment Board members on Sept. 22 discussed their comments and questions about Thorndike Place for a letter sent to the ZBA. They discussed four general areas of concerns -- wetlands restoration, traffic circulation and access, design and affordable housing.

Next steps

Town Counsel Heim outlined the next steps in the process:

-- The town sends Oaktree a letter in the next couple of weeks containing sufficient information supporting the town's position on the 1.5-percent calculation on the safe-harbor provision.

-- On receipt of that letter, the developers will have 14 days to appeal such determination to the state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).

-- In theory, DHCD will scrutinize the town's methodology and calculations in the context of the developer’s counterarguments about how it should be done and what data they think accurate. Then the agency issues its decision.

-- If either side -- the town Zoning Board of Appeals or Oaktree -- is unhappy with DHCD's decision, it can appeal to the Housing Appeals Committee (HAC) for further review.

-- When the HAC issues a decision, there is some controversy over whether or not a further interlocutory appeal can be taken to the courts.

You can read the complete application here >>

Sept. 3, 2016: Developer files application for Mugar site permit, citing affordable housing

Dec. 23, 2015: Zoning board readies one of its Mugar project defenses
Dec. 9, 2015: MassHousing approves Mugar 40B application
Nov. 24, 2015: Mugar developer submits document, and town awaits 40B decision
Aug. 19, 2015: Selectmen's comments on Mugar project sent to MassHousing
July 15, 2015: Hearing on Mugar site application tough to schedule
June 9: Step toward 40B filed for Mugar sitetown seeks more time to respond
May 26, 2015: Speakers at Hardy send a clear message about Mugar site: NO
April 5, 2015: Coalition responds point by point to Mugar developer's statements
March 31, 2015: Coalition seeks to preserve Mugar site from development 
Coalition to Save Mugar Wetlands: WordPress | Facebook
March 8, 2015: Belmont Uplands permit issued; opponents vow to continue

This news summary by freelancer Susan Gilbert was published Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016. Bob Sprague contributed to this report.

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