MBTA Communities Working Group in mid-August presents more moderate alternative;
final report issued Sept. 6; recommendations due Monday to Redevelopment Board 

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UPDATED Sept. 8: The reaction from Arlington residents to the zoning map that the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority Communities Working Group introduced at the July 25 public forum ran the gamut from measured to fierce.

Notable that evening was the working group considering rezoning 176 acres, which could theoretically accommodate 12,000 to 15,000 units -- far exceeding the state-required minimum, which requires rezoning of only10 percent of its current total housing units, which in Arlington equates to 2,046 units on 32 acres.

Since July 25, the working group has created various alternatives, including a recent one that in essence splits the difference – a plan for just over 109 acres, which translates to somewhat more than 7,000 possible units. One may see the maps and the charts related to this Aug. 15 version here >>

The clock is ticking. On Sept. 11, the working group plans to present what will likely be the final iteration of its zoning map to the Arlington Redevelopment Board at a public meeting. The next step after that is for the matter to be heard at Special Town Meeting, scheduled to begin Oct. 17 and likely to extend over several evenings.

The group issued its report Sept. 6 >> an initial, 250-word description of its contents is contained below:

'Eight months of public engagement'

Ahead of presenting in person at the Arlington Redevelopment Board meeting Monday Sept. 11, the MBTA Communities Working Group has released it final document. It details the rationale of the group’s proposal for an overlay zoning district to allow by-right multi-family housing in Arlington in accordance with Section 3a of M.G.L. Chapter 40A.

The 50-page report represents what it describes as “eight months of public engagement, research and deliberation with support from the Department of Planning and Community Development (DPCD) and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Division.”

It calls for rezoning 110 acres of Arlington's 3,517 acres. That rezoned area would calculate to the rough equivalent of a potential capacity of 7,268 units, although in the area designated approximately 2,100 homes stand today.

Adopting an “MBTA Communities Overlay” allows Arlington to participate in the state’s Fossil Fuel Free Demonstration Program, becoming one of 10 municipalities expected to do so, the report says.

The report notes the proposed three subdistricts, all represented in multiple iterations of the zoning map dating back to May 16. The subdistricts include Mass. Ave., Broadway and “Neighborhood,” defined as properties without frontage on either Mass. Ave. or Broadway.

It also explains the incentive programs that relate to preserving commercial use and encouraging new mixed-use buildings, addressing the need for affordable housing and facilitating open space.

Detailed in the report are concepts such as capacity, by-right and inclusionary zoning. It also covers recommendations such as applying the existing tree planting bylaw to all residential districts, considering future mixed-use districts and encouraging additional affordabl- housing opportunities.

Views among residents differ widely

The reality of being an MBTA community -- Arlington is one of 177 municipalities served in some way by the MBTA and therefore under state mandate to create a zoning plan to facilitate creation of additional multifamily housing-- is inescapable any time anyone visits the Town of Arlington's website. It's the first thing any web surfer sees, blazing across the splash page in royal blue on any given day the entire summer.

Many Arlingtonians support going way beyond the minimum necessary under the law; many others do not.

Over the past several weeks, two competing petitions have emerged, circulating in town and online. Both characterize the intensity and passion of the residents responsible for them. While over at the working group, meetings have taken place for months, that process is winding down. However, the petitions and their advocates conclusively demonstrate that public debate is only heating up.

Equitable Arlington

Equitable Arlington (EA) and Arlington Residents For Responsible Redevelopment (ARFRR) are grassroots organizations both founded in 2019; initially, from being on opposite sides of a Town Meeting warrant article that was eventually pulled from consideration.

No strangers to each other, backers of each petition seeks support for where each group stands regarding the MBTA Communities Law. EA favors exceeding the state minimum as recommended by the working group, while ARFRR desires the opposite.

Three perspectives: Fleming, Gustas, Susse

EA is a collection of residents in different circumstances. Some own homes, and some rent. Some have lived in town for decades, others for only a few months. However, all either share in the struggles with living costs related to housing in Arlington or else have friends or relatives who do.

EA’s petition reflects as much; one may scroll down to the bottom to see the latest tally.

Its message: “We ask that Arlington develop a plan that encourages more housing, and more types of homes, to be built in Arlington. We want this because the cost of living in Arlington is affecting ourselves, family, friends and neighbors.”

The group’s stance essentially is that the only way Arlington can meet this goal and become an even more welcoming community is by not going small.

“Personally, I am not attached to any particular plan or acreage number. I am glad that the town will likely do more than the bare minimum, as our neighbor Lexington did, because I don’t believe that a bare-minimum plan would produce much (or any) housing,” said EA member Jennifer Susse.

Fellow EA member Nicole Gustas said, “I moved to Arlington because this town has, historically, done far more than the bare minimum. Our town center is full of monuments to people who did more than the minimum. Lexington has zoned for about three times its bare minimum. We should consider keeping up with our neighbors.”

'I moved to Arlington because this town has, historically, done far more than the bare minimum. Our town center is full of monuments to people who did more than the minimum.'  -- Nicole Gustas

Susse said the best outcome is a proposal that has the chance of producing the housing that Arlington and the greater Boston area desperately need, adding, “We need to add more housing in Arlington for the larger goals of environmental sustainability, regional economic stability and to undo some of the damaging effects of the racially motivated downzoning in the 1970s.

“We also need more housing in Arlington to support our local businesses, to provide housing for seniors looking to downsize or those just starting out, and because we want Arlington to be a place where people at all income levels can find a home.”

James Fleming, also an EA member, says that it is all really about setting Arlington up for a long-term reduction in the stigma around multifamily housing, noting “that multi-family housing is [often falsely perceived as] somehow a significantly greater drain on the community’s resources and a blight on the neighborhood, compared to the [single-family] homes we already have.”

Anecdotes take it to a human level

The most impactful arguments may derive from the personal anecdotes shared by members of the group about people’s struggles.

Gustas said she had talked to a young father walking his infant son in a stroller, who was telling her that his family was going to have to be moving out of Arlington soon because they can’t afford the rent anymore.

“It’s not the first time I’ve heard that story, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. We need more housing of more types, so young families like his can stay in Arlington and add to the greatness of our town,” Gustas said.

Gustas relayed another story, this one about a friend who was trying to move up to Arlington with his family from Florida because they have LGBTQIA+ children who are under threat there. “He’s a disabled vet and got a good job in Boston to support his family. His special family would bring so much to our community, and his children would have so much more safety here. But they can’t afford a home here.”

Gustas also talked to two separate seniors who both own homes in East Arlington. Both said that they want to downsize and move to someplace with fewer stairs, but if they sell their homes, they won’t be able to get enough money to buy the kind of unit they need in Arlington.

Fleming told of his own life in the days before he moved to town. “I used to commute an hour in a car, and I was a far more insular and less interesting person than I am now; I can directly attribute that my quality of life has improved by moving to Arlington, both from a reduction in commute time and non-driving ways of getting around. If you can’t afford to make that choice because there’s no housing in such a place within your price point, your life is going to be far worse off.”

ARFRR: A diametrically different view


However, ARFRR’s petition views the MBTA Communities Working Group’s plan far differently.

It notes that the proposed plan is much larger than it legally has to be and could create capacity for up to 7,300 units of multifamily housing, or 3.5 times what the state requires, in an area that currently holds 3,000 homes.

The petition reads: “We believe this is unnecessary overreach that could have numerous problematic consequences for Arlington.” Its message – “With these facts in mind, we ask that the MBTA Communities Working Group alter its current plan so that it meets the requirements of the MBTA Communities Act but does not exceed it.”

As of noon Aug. 30, ARFFR's petition had notably more signatures than the EA petition did.

First person to sign ARFRR petition

Jordan Weinstein, an opponent of the working-group plan and an ARFRR member, was the first to sign the ARFRR petition and thinks working-group membership is too heavily weighted with people connected to the real-estate industry.

He told YourArlington: “The fundamental problem with our town’s response to the MBTA Communities Act is that, for an initiative with such far-reaching implications, the committee empowered to develop it does not represent enough of a cross-section of Arlington stakeholders.

'For an initiative with such far-reaching implications, the committee empowered to develop it does not represent enough of a cross-section of Arlington stakeholders.' -- Jordan Weinstein

“The working group is made up predominantly of folks connected to the building and development industry. Of the nine working group members, two-thirds are in the real estate ‘biz’ in one form or another. Kin Lau is a builder and a member of the ARB, Ramie Schneider is a project manager for a developer, Mette Aamodt is an architect, Shaina Koran-Houston is a real estate developer, Laura Wiener worked in Arlington’s DPCD for 17 years -- and Vincent Baudoin is an architect.

“Missing are stakeholders from the School Committee, the Historic Commission, the Transportation Advisory Committee, the Parking Advisory Committee, the Open Space Committee, the Housing Plan Implementation Committee, the Housing Authority, the Affordable Housing Trust Fund Board, the Council on Aging and our public safety agencies, among others.”

Density disturbs ARFRR founder

ARFRR founder Carl Wagner says that the group and its supporters want to ensure that Arlington residents are aware of zoning changes and issues. “We attend important meetings like those of the redevelopment and zoning appeals boards,” he said.

He said Arlington is already the second-densest town in Massachusetts and that putting the multifamily zoning closer to Alewife would have made the most sense.

“The best outcome is meeting the law, not exceeding it, while placing a good portion of the new density where residents can walk to Alewife [station, the terminus of the Red Line train system] -- since there are so many negatives and unintended consequences with over-complying, and the proposals are not well researched."

Scenarios, maps, affordability, analysis

Wagner contends that better scenarios, maps and responses are needed. “Even for a responsible reply to the Act, the residents and businesses deserve serious data about how our commercial properties, schools and services, town finances and taxes, and our trees, solar panels and open spaces will be affected.”

Wagner says that the working group has analyzed relatively little, believing that its members apparently see the many concerns raised by the public as ancillary to their own agenda. “Who gave the [working group] the authority for such an agenda? They justify their multiple over-compliant maps by a survey that 213 respondents answered and an earlier 1,000- response survey. To the many concerns [expressed at] the July 25 meeting, they appeared to brush them off at their Aug. 1 and Aug. 8 meetings.”

“Wagner also shared his thoughts about the EA petition. “That petition relies on confusing the public with the idea that what’s being proposed will help affordability and lower the cost of living. The MBTA Communities Act, though, is not an affordability law -- and will actually override our existing affordability/inclusionary zoning laws unless our [Arlington town] Planning Department applies to keep them and the state accepts this.”

'The MBTA Communities Act is not an affordability law and will actually override our existing affordability/inclusionary zoning laws unless our planning department applies to keep them and the state accepts this.' -- Carl Wagner

Charlie Foskett is a longtime leader on the town’s Finance Committee but emphasized to YourArlington that he was speaking only for himself. He is concerned that long-term implications in terms of availability of public services and financial realities have been insufficiently considered.

“Urban economists report a positive correlation between population and police/fire/EMT expenditures,” Foskett wrote in an email to YourArlington. “Simple rush-hour observation at Lake Street or Pleasant Street, or Mass. Ave. on a Saturday, demonstrates that Arlington [currently could] not handle even a 10-percent increase in local traffic. ”

He also mentioned a related concern – revenue to cover the increased need for public services with a higher expected population, especially with the working group leaning toward far exceeding what the state law requires.

“The working group has put significant energy and effort into their plan,” he said. “They have admittedly not considered the financial impact.

'The working group has put significant energy and effort into their plan; they have admittedly not considered the financial impact.' -- Charlie Foskett

“Without demonstration that new housing tax revenue will cover all increases in municipal expenses (which Arlington’s 5-percent annual tax-increase experience tells us will not happen), the recommendation should not exceed the minimum required by the MBTA Communities Act law.”

Susse questions interpretations

Susse, of EA, said of the ARFRR petition, “Intense opposition to change in Arlington is not new. There was similar opposition to the Mass. Ave. Corridor Project, which created important, much-needed and much-used pedestrian and bike-safety improvements on Mass Ave. east of Pond Lane. There was also intense opposition to the [still ongoing Arlington] High School Building Project by many of the same people as those organizing the ARFRR petition. In each case, it turned out that the opposition, while extremely vocal, did not reflect the larger community’s thoughts and values.”

In a lengthy email to YourArlington received on Aug. 24, Susse said that a key concept in the overall issue is that of capacity -- and what it does and does not mean as to the realistic likelihood of increased density. She said, in part:

“Capacity is neither a production goal nor a prediction about what will be built. It is a purely theoretical number. The current proposal has a capacity number of a little over 7,000. Currently, there are at least 2,000 units on those lots, so, even theoretically, the most that could be built is around 5,000 additional units. However, it is extremely unlikely that we will get anything more than a fraction of that number.”

'Capacity is neither a production goal nor a prediction about what will be built. It is a purely theoretical number.' -- Jennifer Susse

Her argument continues: “Suppose that tomorrow your house [were to be] rezoned to allow a three-family home by right. Would you immediately sell and move? Would it make economic sense for a builder to tear down your house and build a three-family home? In many cases, the answer is no. . . . Under the current mixed-use zoning rules that have been in effect for several years, businesses located along the main corridors can be redeveloped as mixed-use buildings with four additional stories of housing above. And yet that hasn’t happened for most of these properties. Despite there being a capacity to redevelop those lots, in most cases there are practical reasons that it doesn’t make sense to do so. . . .Capacity is not the same as what will likely be produced.”

Susse acknowledged, “There are several members of Equitable Arlington on the working group, though, to prevent Open Meeting Law issues, they haven’t attended recent EA meetings. In addition, other EA members have attended some of the working group’s meetings and library listening sessions. We believe the working group is doing its best under difficult conditions — a condensed calendar and a small but extremely vocal group of people who do not want to see additional housing in Arlington.”

Fleming, of EA, said of the working group. “They’re doing difficult work without any instruction manuals, so I can’t really fault them for being imperfect. They have done a ton of public outreach to inform [residents about] every step they take, which is the right general approach. It has the backbone to stick to the process established thus far and stand up to vocal opinions that would influence the plan one way or another.”

Chair of working group speaks

Sanjay Newton, chair of the working group, is a longtime EA member whose photograph, mini-biography and blog post are on the EA website. He recently said that over the past month, the working group had heard from community members in a variety of ways, including at in-person meetings, through surveys and via email.

“We have taken what we [have] heard under serious consideration. Since the beginning, this has been an iterative process. Each new version of the plan has responded to what we have heard, and the community will continue to weigh in on the proposal as it goes to the Arlington Redevelopment Board and then to Town Meeting.”

'We have taken what we [have] heard under serious consideration. Since the beginning, this has been an iterative process.' -- Sanjay Newton

Newton said, “I am confident that the working group will send the Arlington Redevelopment Board a proposal that will encourage more housing at a variety of sizes and price points, near public transit and businesses, and distributed across town.

“As a town, we can choose an MBTA Communities proposal that helps us make progress on the goals we have heard from the community: to be welcoming and inclusive, to be climate leaders, to give access to our wonderful open spaces, and to support vibrant businesses.

“In contrast, a proposal designed to do the very bare minimum will not encourage much, if any, new housing. It might allow us to meet the letter of the law, but it will not help us make progress on the goals that we share as a community.”

Summary of Aug. 29 working-group meeting by Steve Revilak, an Arlington Redevelopment Board member
July 31, 2023: Views on zoning plan are all over the map


July 26, 2023: Well over 100 turn out Tuesday to view latest MBTA Communities Working Group map
Summary of July 25 meeting by ARB member Steve Revilak
MBTA Communities resource list by town resident Shane Curcuru


This account by YourArlington freelance writer Tony Moschetto was published Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023. It was updated Sept. 2, 2023, to add a link at the bottom of the article to ARB member Steve Revilak's summary notes of the Aug. 29 working group meeting. It was updated early on Sept. 7, 2023, to add a link to the full report. It was updated later on Sept. 7, 2023, to includeMoschetto's 250-word description of the report under the subheadline "Eight months of public engagement," and Sept. 8, 2023, for wordsmithing..