Tempers flare briefly toward end of ARB-MBTA Communities Working Group meeting as public-comment period wraps up around 10 p.m.; local police keep the peace

Local police monitor ARB meeting Sept. 11, 2023Town Planning Director Claire Ricker, at rear at right, consults with local police as emotions run high Sept. 11, at the Arlington Redevelopment Board meeting on zoning. / Tony Moschetto photo

UPDATED Sept. 14: YourArlington correspondent Tony Moschetto was at the packed, long-anticipated meeting at Arlington Town Hall and, just before midnight, Monday, Sept. 11, filed this micro-report and this photo:

“[Arlington Redevelopment Board Chair Rachel] Zsembery up front told the audience that there would be [90 minutes] of public comment, which would mean [that] not everyone would get a chance to speak. Nobody in the audience said anything [at that time]. 

“They actually started public comment at 8:16 p.m. and went to 10 p.m. When Zsembery called for the end of public comment, there was an uproar.

“Some guy in the balcony went ballistic, calling her a 'sellout, in the pocket of so and so' -- and a few other men were vocal as well, demanding to be heard.

“That's when the cops were called, and, after a brief stoppage, less than 10 minutes later, the meeting resumed.”

This short video from local public-television station ACMi captures some of the dramatic scene.

More will be reported about the issue that many residents have strong feelings about, concerning the dispute about the acceptable number of acres that should be re-zoned, and where, for the potential of additional apartment buildings as required by state law. 

Rezoning of 110 acres sought

The MBTA Communities Working Group's report/plan, at its essence, is calling for rezoning, or designating, some 110 acres within the Town of Arlington as able to have multifamily housing by right. This is more than triple the 32-acre minimum require by a relatively new state law but significantly less than an earlier working-group proposal for 176 acres.

The working group issued a final report Sept. 6 and Monday, Sept. 11, at 7:30 p.m. formally presented it to the town governmental body known as the Arlington Redevelopment Board, more commonly called the redevelopment board or simply the ARB.

However, the decision of whether to actually implement the working-group’s plan will be up to a vote at Special Town Meeting, expected to begin the evening of Oct. 17 and to last for several nights.

Multi-family housing generally is understood to be apartment buildings. The goal is to provide more housing, which is hoped to be – but not legally required to be – affordable rental housing. The plan therefore is perceived as being a concept that would benefit principally those people not in a position to purchase even an average house in Arlington, whose median price now is in the realm of $1 million.

See ACMi video of entire meeting:

Since January 2023, the working group has met on a regular basis to establish the location of a zoning district or districts to meet the requirements of the state law called the MBTA Communities Zoning Law, aka Section 3A, passed in 2021. That law requires any given MBTA community – there are at least 175, all in eastern Massachusetts, all served by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, hence the name --to develop zoning that can accommodate new housing.

An effort of 8 months

In the eight months since, the report itself says, “The working group, through rigorous community outreach, stakeholder engagement, and iterative mapping, public engagement, research, and deliberation with support from the [Town of Arlington] Department of Planning and Community Development (DPCD) and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Division,” has produced a comprehensive report.

The 50-page document encompasses the history of the group and gives details of the proposal, complete with the latest iteration of the zoning map. Perhaps more importantly, it shows how the map has evolved overall.

The working group recently had to make some adjusts after the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities (EOHLC) issued a new set of guidance for Section 3A compliance. The Working Group finalized most of its policy decisions during its meeting on Aug. 15; then just two days later, on Aug. 17, is when the new set of guidance was announced.

New state guidance no deterrent: planning director

But it was no crisis, according to Claire Ricker, director of the DPCD, who spoke about it at the Aug. 28 ARB meeting, saying that the new guidelines have not affected the work already done in Arlington. “We think that the work that we have done with zoning so far is solid. We think the bonuses and incentives that we have put in place for commercial development go further than the updated MBTA Communities guidelines.”

At that meeting, Ricker also announced a full-town mailing of a postcard with a QR code directing residents to the MBTA Communities website that has all the information and latest iterative work. Its intent is to encourage people to attend and provide comment at Monday’s hearing.

Besides the postcard, a legal notice also recently went out to the roughly 4,500 property owners whose properties are under the working group’s potential re-zoning overlay plus those whose properties are 300 feet or less from the edge of the proposed overlay, which has been divided into three districts: Mass. Ave., Broadway and elsewhere.

Different groups, different views

Equitable Arlington, or EA, a relatively recently formed local organization, supports the Working Group's report, map and plan. The group's general stance is that making it more feasible for people of all income levels, widely differing backgrounds and varying ages -- especially young adults and senior citizens – to be able to live in the town is simply the right thing to do.

On the other hand, another grassroots group also founded in 2019-- Arlington Residents For Responsible Redevelopment, or ARFRR -- contends that the ramifications of adding potentially thousands more residents, fiscally, traffic-wise and in terms of public services, have been insufficiently studied, and that adding more rental units will not necessarily result in meaningfully more affordable housing.

Last week, YourArlington asked both working-group-plan opponents, represented by ARFRR, and supporters, aligned with EA, for their thoughts. The links in both pieces had to be removed for technical reasons; however, readers who are interested can easily search for the attendant references online. With other light editing, these perspectives both appear below.

Carl Wagner for ARFRR

ARFRR founder Carl Wagner says his petition has 500 signatures and counting, far more than EA's petition does.

The ARFFR petition's intention, and the organization's overall goal, is to encourage the working group to alter its current plan so that it meets the requirements of the MBTA Communities Act but does not exceed it.

He said that he had sent a letter to the ARB to that effect: to ask that a revised plan contain better data and research on the effects of the density overlay.

“What the petition [at https://flyer.arfrr.org] and feedback we're hearing from our flyer show is that most people in our town were unaware [and in fact] shocked by the overcompliance proposed,” he said.

Wagner continued, “The working group's final report and its proposals are madness for our town -- many times overcompliance and excess. The public expects a careful, moderate set of proposals for the ARB and Town Meeting that meet the MBTA density overlay Act.

“We've also been handing out flyers, focusing on those who live in or near the proposed density overlay areas. The town's residents and businesses are not supportive of the current excessive proposals that the working group and town [Community Development and] Planning Department will bring to the redevelopment board beginning [tonight].

“The fact is that the largest zoning changes to Arlington in our lifetimes are [apparently] being decided by a small political group, while [members of] the public are little aware and do not broadly support the current working-group proposals. The working group seems to have an agenda to over-produce higher-priced housing for people who don't [even] live in our town, rather than working apolitically to responsibly meet the Act's requirements.

“The public is not on board with the proposed average density per acre of 40 or more units when the Act requires [only] 15 units per acre. The public is not on board with higher-priced housing and the radical agenda that currently calls for 78-foot, 6-floor buildings up and down Mass Ave. and nearly 50-foot, 4-floor buildings stretching down side streets.

“All of this [potential construction] would tower over existing 2.5-floor, 30-foot-high homes and [their possible] solar access. The proposals [actually] miss the [primary] goal of the law by not locating the new density close to Alewife [terminus of the Red Line of the train system], ironically.”

 Nicole Gustas for EA

In recent weeks, Nicole Gustas has emerged as one of the leaders of her organization, EA. She submitted the following verbiage to advocate for the working group’s current/final plan. In it, she presents arguments concerning the effect of zoning on rents; the history of mid-1970s zoning on ethnic minorities; the ability of public schools to accommodate more youngsters; and what she believes would be the salutary effect that renters could have on the local tax base.

“Regarding rising home prices, rents and general affordability: Lived experience and copious data says that the cost of buying or renting a home is very high in Arlington and greater Boston generally. The median rent for a one-bedroom is $2,500 in Arlington. Single-family homes have a median price of more than $1.25 million in Arlington; this year, condos are selling for $810,000 (The Warren Group). Prices [recently] have moderated due to high interest rates, but availability is very tight. Rent is high, and homeownership is simply out of reach for many young people. 

“We know that zoning reform works to stabilize rents. In Auckland, New Zealand, zoning reform lowered the cost of three-bedroom rentals by 22 to 35 percent versus unreformed zoning. Inclusionary zoning in Minneapolis didn’t just stop spiraling rents -- it also put the brakes on inflation.

“We’re still living with the racial effects of the exclusionary 1975 zoning laws in Arlington. Black people make up 3.3 percent of our [town] population, compared to a statewide figure of 9.5 percent – and 10.6 percent in Cambridge, 5 percent in Somerville and 8.4 percent in Medford (US Census Quickfacts). This generation [of Arlingtonians] can address the mistakes of the past by reforming our zoning.

“It’s not just a good idea -- it’s required by our [town] Community Equity Audit and Fair Housing Plans. In a letter to the ARB for today’s meeting, [the Town of Arlington’s] Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Director and Community Engagement Coordinator have endorsed furthering multi-family housing, saying: ‘The DEI Division believes that while MBTA Communities is not a complete solution, this legislation is a catalyst to correct some of the wrongs brought about by exclusionary zoning practices of the 1960s and 1970s.’

“Regarding schools: The 2016 McKibben Report predicted a crest in school enrollment, then a taper, and that’s what happened. In 2018-19, there were 3,608 elementary-school children enrolled in [public schools in] Arlington; last year there were only 2,968 [such] students enrolled. Our elementary schools have plenty of room for a gradual flow of additional students. If we build more housing, we can both increase our tax base and accommodate young families.

“The Urban Land Institute found that people who live in multi-family housing are less likely to have children than people who live in single-family homes. That means they’ll contribute tax money towards schools but be less likely to have kids who use them. Their effects on other resources are similar. Multiple studies have shown that multifamily dwellings actually generate more tax revenue for a town than single-family homes, because [these building's owners] tend to contract out services like trash collection that are handled by the town for single-family homes." 

Aug. 29, 2023: DUELING PETITIONS: Supporters, opponents put their names where their beliefs are


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 Monday, Sept. 11, 2023. It was updated Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, to provide a link to a short video clip of the brief disruption of the Arlington Redevelopment Board meeting.