Don Seltzer drawing of proposal for 882-892 Mass. Ave., showing affordable units.2023 drawing of 882-892 Mass. Ave., showing rear location of affordable units available in today's lottery. / Don Seltzer graphic

UPDATED Jan. 24: The Arlington Redevelopment Board recently discussed the changes required of the developer of a controversial building in Arlington Center to meet conditions of the original special permit ARB had granted before construction. 

The board on Jan. 8 also heard a pitch for a potential warrant article to create an affordable-housing overlay in town.

 In a letter sent by the ARB to John Murphy of Summit Real Estate Strategies after its Dec. 18 meeting, he was asked to be present Jan. 8 to respond to board questions as to why his company deviated from the approved permit for the multi-use development structure – retail below, housing above -- at 882-892 Mass. Ave. Concerns ranged from the quasi-aesthetic to those having to do with the size and location of three affordable units for prospective tenants, awarded in an online lottery last year following a complex application process.

All about 882-892 Mass. Ave.

Two issues, Board Chair Rachel Zsembery said, were the color of the building and the exhaust vents that protrude on the Mass. Ave. side, unlike in the original renderings. Zsembery said she found the color of the building objectionable and believes that it distracts from the overall look. Along with the current design for the vents, she said, the front facade looks like one that more properly should be facing a back alley, also noting, “Painting the vents isn’t going to be enough.”

Board member Kin Lau agreed, suggesting to Murphy, “Ask your architect to look at exhaust louvers that go on existing multi-family buildings -- I’m sure there’s a handful of something he can find.” An exhaust louver is a type of vent that sits flush to the side of the building; the vents open to let the air out but close so that nothing else gets in. Board member Steve Revilak agreed about the louvers and bringing in something that blends in better.

Other items that the board specfied was that all white trim boards were to be repainted to match the color of the building per the approved original renderings; the need for painting the storefront entry to the original approved bronze; and implementing proper signage in regard to the storefront. Murphy said that the painting couldn’t be done until the weather warmed up and that he’s working with the retail tenant on the signage.

The other issue: affordable housing units not necessarily a minimum of 700 square feet and possibly not equitably dispersed throughout the building; they were assigned following the mid-September 2023 lottery for affordable housing. The newest board member, Shania Korman-Houston, wanted to know what had happened after the original approvals. Murphy responded by saying that the sizes weren’t in the original plan, which. prompted member Gene Benson to answer, “It doesn’t matter, because our decision said it has to meet the requirements of the bylaw for affordable housing and be dispersed around the building [rather than stacked].”

Murphy said, “No one, including anyone in the planning department at the time, or the [housing] agency on the town’s list we hired even knew about the 700-square-foot rule. No one seemed to know about it, including ourselves.”

Korman-Houston asked whether the affordable units were stacked; Murphy said they were across floors and in different locations. Korman-Houston said she was comfortable with that but said, “[I’d be] surprised if no one flagged the 700 square feet,” adding, “I would expect to see a range of unit sizes that reflected the range of unit sizes in the building as opposed to one particular size. [I] don’t know if there’s anything you could do to mitigate this situation at this point. Is there anyone in these units?”

Murphy said, “In one or two of them, yes. But there’s not one that is deemed the smallest unit and not one is deemed the biggest.” Murphy said that relevant state officials have been involved in trying to resolve difficulties along with Arlington Town Manager Jim Feeney, that his company is taking guidance from them, and added, “[It] was kind of the point in hiring a state [approved] agency [MCO Housing Services] because they are experts in this.”

In the end, Murphy was asked to circulate a copy of a new rendering from the current architect for Lau to mark up, along with exhaust louver suggestions -- and to update the board in person either Monday, Jan 22 or at the next ARB meeting after that, currently set for Feb. 5.

Potential warrant article: proposed overlay for affordable housing

In another housing matter, Karen Kelleher, of the Arlington Affordable Housing Overlay Working Group, presented a potential warrant article for Town Meeting, proposing to bringing an affordable-housing overlay to Arlington. Kelleher said Arlington is 741 units shy of the 10-percent state affordable-housing requirement. The concept is that the overlay would apply throughout the town, at least 70 percent of the units would be deed-restricted to be available at or below 60 percent of area median income and that the buildings could include a floor for commercial or community space in commercial and industrial districts. As for parking, 0.5 space minimum for residential districts is proposed, but with no parking-space minimum sought for commercia/industrial districts.

Lau asked what footprint would be needed for a 24- to 32-unit building. Revilak, who is also a member of the affordable-housing working group, answered, “Twenty thousand feet; [15,000] could work, but it would be tight.”

Lau wanted to know where in town parcels were located that could meet that requirement, adding, “[It is] important to understand, and [these would be] questions asked from the town – [the] sooner you can get the map, the better.”

Korman-Houston asked what would be more attractive to a developer besides Chapter 40B, meaning a designation that allows an affordable-housing development to have certain requirements waived. Kelleher suggested talking to community members and fleshing out the process with creative approaches. Benson asked about parking requirements, saying, “A 0.5 for residential, zero for biz, why the difference?” Kelleher said it was easier to rely on public transport.

Benson said that he would not agree to zero parking spaces until and unless overnight street parking is approved – something far from a given in Arlington.

“Not sure to put [these] in the industrial district . . . need to see where the available parcels are . . . open space parcel would raise another issue,” Benson said. He also commented on feasibility of bringing such an article to Town Meeting three months hence, saying, “Two public meetings [beforehand] isn’t enough [tp focus on the issue]. [The] timeline doesn’t give us enough time.”

Revilak added, “[Commercial use could] be subsidized if organizations/the community use it like Arlington EATS; then the organization would be eligible for HUD funding.”

Zsembery said she would not agree to bring parking down to zero until and unless the town approves permanent overnight street parking, saying, “[We’ll] go to the Select Board to tell how [the implementation of permission for overnight street parking] helps what we’re trying to do.”

Watch ACMi video of Jan. 8, 2024, meeting:

Dec. 31, 2023: Board members hear potential warrant articles for Town Meeting in April

This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Tony Moschetto was published Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024; updated Monday, Jan. 22, for time references; and updated Tuesday, Jan. 23, to add an ACMi video window.