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Zoning for sustainability, resilience in Arlington
The following column about town planning's proposals to change zoning is written by Amos Meeks, cochair of Sustainable Arlington, and a Ph.D. student in applied physics at Harvard. See a larger version of the town's current zoning map here >>
For the first time since the 1975 update of Arlington’s zoning bylaws, town officials are undertaking a major review and overhaul of the bylaws. The primary purpose of this overhaul appears to be the partial reversal of accumulated antigrowth provisions, with the goal of creating more housing in Arlington to support regional efforts to ameliorate the current housing crisis. Specifically, this comes as a part of Arlington’s participation in the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition goal of building 185,000 new units of housing by 2030, announced last October.
At the same time, however, the Metro Mayors Coalition has “pledged to work together to prepare the region for climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” and thus has committed to making the region net-zero (meaning no net emissions of greenhouse gases) by 2050. Through its participation in the coalition, Arlington has thus also made net zero a goal by 2050, a goal which is being pursued by the newly formed Clean Energy Future Committee.
The town's zoning bylaws have the potential to significantly help or hinder our efforts to become net zero by 2050. Buildings are a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Somerville’s 2016 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report found that building energy makes up about two-thirds of total emissions in the city, with transportation making up almost all of the other emissions. Since zoning bylaws directly affect what gets built and thus what building stock we have in 2050, the choices we make now matter.
At the same time, we are already feeling many of the effects of climate change, and this will only get worse in the coming decades. Thus, the choices we make over what gets built now will also affect factors that have been identified by our ongoing municipal vulnerability assessment to be risks to Arlington. These include the locations and strength of the urban heat-island effect as we get more frequent and hotter heat waves, and the ability of the town to manage storm-water runoff from larger and more intense storms. The buildings made now will be, in 2050, the buildings in which we weather these storms, so building them with resilience in mind will be crucial.
This leaves us with a question: How can we build for the future in terms of sustainability and resilience while also not continuing the burdensome antidevelopment policies of the past few decades and thus encouraging the creation of regional housing, and especially affordable housing?
Perhaps we could accomplish this through the use of smart incentives whereby developers can build greater density or ease the permitting process if they include important aspects of sustainability and resilience in their design.
My inspiration for suggesting this comes from the SmartCode adopted in Lawrence, Kan. This building code, which developers can opt in to, provides incentives for transit-oriented or sustainable design.
For example, a developer can earn 100 points for making 10 percent of the units affordable, 100 points for being located adjacent to a transit stop, 100 points for being LEED certified, or 75 points for including a green roof. These points can then be used to increase building height, increase density, or to lower parking space requirements. Thus rather than provisions for the public good and smart planning for the future being a barrier to development their adoption can actually incentivize and streamline development.
Obviously we need to figure out a system that works best for Arlington, which is very different from Lawrence, a university city. I am not a planning or zoning professional, so I do not have a fully fleshed recommendation, but here are some possibilities:
● I would suggest making a system only for sustainability and resilience, and not including affordable housing in the same incentive system. Having both in the same system can lead to unwanted competition between the two as well as the creation of sustainable and resilient buildings only for the rich.
● Such a system should plan for resilience in the face of extreme weather, for example by incentivizing the planting of trees and reduction of paved areas to reduce heat island effect, by incentivizing developers to efficiently manage storm-water runoff and to create more pervious surfaces, and incentivize developers to be able to effectively deal with large amounts of snowfall.
● This system should set net zero as a goal and incentivize development that is prepared for this goal, e.g. using recycled or more sustainable building materials, creating solar-ready buildings, creating highly efficient buildings, installing electric vehicle infrastructure, etc.
● For example, a developer could receive setback or height buffer exemptions if they install solar panels on the roof of the building.
This overhaul of the zoning bylaws is a rare and valuable opportunity. The buildings we make now will last many decades, so the choices we make in current zoning bylaws will affect what kind of world we have in 2050 and beyond. I urge everyone involved to keep in mind the future, a future that we know will be significantly affected by climate change.
Jan. 7, 2019: Proposed warrant articles for spring Town Meeting
Oct. 2, 2018: Metro Boston leaders seek 185,000 new housing units
This viewpoint was published Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019.
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The ARB (Arlington Redevelopment Board) is reviewing draft zoning changes to:
- Increase the limit on multifamily units from 2 or 3 to 6 per building.
- Allow developers to remove the 'setback' (the green space/grass/trees) from large, and from towering tall new developments. A building on Mass Ave between AHS and Stop & Shop was approved by this very ARB in a signal of what is to come...
- Allow 4 and 5 floor buildings along Mass Ave and Broadway (and potentially other places where multifamily zoning is allowed)
- Establish the roofs and balconies of multifamily buildings as acceptable 'green space' for the town and the public
- Remove openspace requirements for multifamily units, except for landscaping and the 'balconies/roof' open spaces.
- Require only 1 parking space per unit, even in multi-bedroom units, on the theory we're in a post-car world.
- Remove significant floodplain and wetland restrictions governing development that protect existing homes, spaces and nature
- Remove building dimension and density per lot rules as well as reducing lot sizes to as little as 1,000 sq ft/unit.
-In single family parts of town, allow apartments to be built in/with 1 family structures, increasing the tear-down appeal of removing existing buildings to create structures supporting these 'almost 2 families'. Town Meeting twice rejected these apartments in recent years.
Some of us in Arlington think these changes are radical and shocking - and are not made with residents and taxpayers in mind. You can learn more at:
I would like to see our bylaws extend beyond high density housing to all new construction. Net zero should be the standard on all buildings. I am seeing enormous mansions being put up and looks like no solar panels which means they are consuming huge amounts of fossil fuel energy. We just cannot keep doing this. Materials used in new home construction need to be recycled materials. We have to stop our throw away culture and get serious about changing our own personal habits in order to be sure we have a liveable planet for our grandchildren.
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