Tempers manifest briefly; meeting resumes within 10 minutes; no one detained

Nearly 200 attend Sept. 11, 2023, meetingNearly 200 people attended the Sept. 11, Redevelopment Board meeting about the MBTA Communities report. / Tony Moschetto photos

UPDATED Sept. 22: Arlington Redevelopment Board Chair Rachel Zsembery welcomed nearly 200 to the ARB meeting at Town Hall on Monday, Sept. 11, explaining the meeting’s purpose: to review and discuss the MBTA Communities Working Group’s final proposal and to take public comments.

Of the 47 audience members who spoke during the public-comment portion of the meeting, more than half were opponents (27 vs. 20).

However, the greatest excitement of the night wasn’t the detailed presentation by the working group or those who spoke passionately for an hour and a half. Rather, it came at the end of the public-comments portion -- when things temporarily went off the rails, prompting the police to be called.

The evening started out peacefully. Zsembery explained the process: first, at the meeting itself, to review and discuss the working-group report that had been released Sept. 6; then the next step, the next ARB meeting, Oct. 2, when it is to be decided whether to possibly amend the proposal; and then bringing that version of the proposal to opening day, Oct. 17, of Special Town Meeting.

Zsembery was clear from the beginning as to the timetable of the night’s agenda. The working group would give a 20-minute presentation, followed by board members’ questions, comments or clarifications. That would take the proceedings to approximately 8:30 p.m., at which point 90 minutes of public comment would be heard.

Zsembery was explicit that there was a chance that not all who wanted to speak would be able to be heard that night. At that early point, she invited them to submit their written comments to the board later on if that were to be the case, with the assurance, “All comments are being reviewed for those not able to speak tonight.” The final half-hour was to be dedicated to discussion amongst the board before adjourning.

Planning director, working-group chair speak

Claire Ricker, Arlington’s director of planning and community development, and Working Group Chair Sanjay Newton presented the plan.

“I’d like to thank the ARB for their support and guidance over the past 10 months while the working group has developed two alternatives for consideration and discussion in preparation for a vote at Town Meeting on a warrant article to establish an MBTA Communities Zone,” Ricker said.

“Since the board voted to create this working group on Nov. 7, 2022, the group has engaged in a tremendous amount of community outreach and iterative mapping that brought you these two alternatives. Thank you to the members of the working group for your hard work and dedication. I am truly inspired by your commitment to this process,”continued Ricker.

She then gave a refresher on the MBTA Communities Zoning Law before turning it over to Newton, who talked of the guiding principles that the working grouphad kept in mind while developing the two scenarios.

“Since last January, the working group has met regularly to strategize outreach to community members and develop an Arlington MBTA Communities district in response to public comments collected by survey, stakeholder meetings and community-wide public meetings.”

Newton said, “The group has also analyzed a number of existing town planning documents. Establishment of new housing districts and development of new housing is supported in several of Arlington’s planning documents, including the master plan, the fair-housing plan, the net-zero action plan, the community equity audit and housing production plans. Our outreach and analysis has led us to the following guiding principles -- encourage more housing in a variety of sizes and price points, [zone for] housing near public transit, [situate] housing to provide a customer base in support of local businesses and [have] multifamily housing spread across Arlington in compliance with the MBTA Communities Zoning Law.”

Three subdistricts designated

Newton talked of the proposal itself, highlighting the three subdistricts: Mass. Ave., Broadway and Neighborhood, noting that each have distinct setback requirements and height limits. Four stories were chosen because buildings four stories or taller must have elevators and otherwise meet accessibility requirements. Parking would include a maximum of one space per unit, with no minimum requirement.

Newton mentioned incentive programs available along Mass. Ave. and Broadway for mixed use, affordable and environmental. The neighborhood subdistrict wouldn’t be eligible, as only four stories maximum are allowed.

Ricker presented the first proposed zoning map. Alternative one featured a Neighborhood subdistrict that expands to the Lexington line along Paul Revere Road, south of Mass. Ave., bringing the overall rezoned area to a total of 109 acres, a potential of 7,200 units and a maximum of 67 units per acre.

The alternative two zoning map shifts the neighborhood subdistrict going to the Lexington line to north of Mass. Ave. instead, resulting in rezoning of a total of 115 acres, 7,400 potential units and up to 65 units per acre.

Claire Ricker, at right rear, speaks with officers of the Arlington Police Department just after 10 p.m. on Sept. 11, in Town Hall.

 Board gives its reaction

The presentation concluded, Zsemsbery commended the working group for its extensive public engagement, saying that this had heavily informed the group’s recommendations.

“I appreciate the many members of our community who have answered surveys attended workshops, provided written feedback and attended open office hours to share their perspectives to learn about how and why our town is taking so much time and thought into crafting a proposal that is right for Arlington and not just check[ing] the box by delivering the bare minimum [of 32 acres],” she said.

She began discussion within the four-member board, starting with two questions of her own. One involved parking; she saw conflict in what was written in two different sections of the proposal. The other question involved the recommendation for the mixed-use business percentage; she wanted to understand more about the 60 percent that was stated.

Newton answered, “The 60 percent came out of consulting with[the consultant] UTILE. The thinking, as you said, [was intended to] maximize as much of the ground-floor space for commercial as possible. That’s why [it says] 60 percent of the ground floor; you have to have leftover space for lobbies, elevators, mailroom, loading dock-- those sorts of things.”

Zsembery also talked about the map in general, saying that at an earlier meeting there was consideration of possibly eliminating the parcels that touch Mass. Ave. in East Arlington east of Orvis Road, and future rezoning of that business district. Zsembery also wanted to earmark for discussion, after public comment, the height in neighborhood subdistrict’s maximum of four stories -- and asked whether it should be three stories instead.

Board member Gene Benson’s question was about alternative one’s map model data and how the minimum open-space percentages were derived. Board members Kin Lau and Steve Revilak had no questions at that time and said that they would save their remarks for after the public comments.

 Public comment – soft-spoken and otherwise

Zsembery opened the meeting for public comments; in total, 47 people were able to speak in the time period allotted. Of those, 20 supported the plan as presented. However, 20 others were opposed mainly because both alternatives far exceed the state’s mandate of a minimum of 32 acres. Seven more disliked the current recommendations due to other concerns: the presumed financial impact; the effect on the environment; and worries about how increased population could negatively affect government services such as police, fire, public works and public schools.

Passion and charged language were on display from the start, with opponents often boisterous, including applauding comments that were against the plan. This prompted Zsembery more than once to tell them to stop, at one point threatening to end the public-comment period if it were to happen again.

Civility prevailed until 10 p.m., when Zsembery, as she had intended, concluded the public-comment portion. This prompted one man in the balcony to yell at her and the other board members, while another man on the ground floor did the same. Then the local police were called in. Contacted a few days later, they confirmed that no arrests were made.

Before long, the most vocal residents left peacefully under their own power, and the meeting resumed approximately 10 minutes later.

Here is a sampling of public comment:

Some support the plan(s)

Adam Lane had this to say: “I would commend everyone present for their passion, regardless of where they are on this issue. We are all here because we love Arlington. It is a wonderful community. We are all lucky to live here. We have been given this [opportunity] by the people who were here before us, and it is our responsibility to see that we pass on to future Arlingtonians a town that is just as good.

“We are giving the ARB, I believe, the flexibility to make wise choices about growth; if the area has more capacity, [this] gives us more options. I would hope that this version of the ARB and future versions would manage growth sensibly and not create ridiculous constructions to offend the eye and contribute to an unlivable Arlington. So, let us all take the temperature down a little. Let us listen to each other -- and I believe we should move forward with this plan.”

Miles Rush: “I just wanted to say that I think a lot of people in the area have certainly felt the disastrous effects of so many decades of restrictive zoning, and it’s certainly overdue for a change. In addition to [listening to] the wonderful presentation by the working group, I took the time to read through the full [50-page] proposal, and I found it to be quite thoughtful and respectful of the current neighborhoods.”

Judith Garber: “I live in a multifamily house, and I would not be able to live in Arlington if I did not live in a multifamily house. And among many of my friends that live in Arlington, it is the same case. They definitely could not live here if there were not multifamily houses for them to live in, so I am in support of this plan.”

Garber also suggested going with the larger of the two proposed Neighborhood districts, said she favors four-story buildings and suggested incentives for affordable units with a lower AMI [average median income] level.

Others are opposed

Rebecca Peterson didn’t mince words, “Despite hours spent on this proposal, it’s a loser. It will allow many projects like the Mass. Ave. buildings next to and across from the high school -- buildings that are scorned and despised for their ugliness [and] their lack of green space.”

Peterson continued, “The working group appears to operate within an echo chamber, since most members are pro-density [because of being] design, building and construction professionals. Where are those who care about the schools, the traffic, the parking, the air quality, tree canopy, fire-response times and other quality-of-life concerns?” She urged the board to do exactly what the state requires and nothing more.

Al Tosti, 50-year town Finance Committee member from precinct 17, said, “If you put before Town Meeting [a single] proposal with the [implied threat that] if you don’t pass it, then the state is going to come in and do a lot of bad things to the town, you’re not giving Town Meeting a choice -- you’re giving Town Meeting a proposal with a gun to their head. I urge you to allow for a couple of alternatives to come before town meeting.”

James Moore was concerned about the likely impact on services such as public works, fire and police. Moore agreed that the town needs more housing but said he was bothered about how it’s going to be managed, financially and otherwise.

Linda Atlas asked fellow audience members who among them lack a car. When only one person responded in the affirmative, she said, “Sanjay, on your [presentation] slide, you listed three reasons to have the density that we [would] have, which include seniors, young families and people who need housing with accessibility features. Those are the exact same three groups of people that really need a car! I think you know me, and even younger people, who have taken a kid with a busted lip to the emergency room. Well, [if you were to live in such a building, maybe] you can call an Uber, [because] with this plan, you can’t call your neighbor -- because they’re not gonna have a car [either] if there’s no parking spaces.”

ARB to focus on three issues

The board, as it had intended, had another discussion after the public comments. Benson addressed the members of the audience – only about a quarter of whom remained at that point – and said he appreciated all the comments, email and letters. “I read them until 5 p.m. this afternoon,” he said. He urged anyone who still wishes to communicate to send emails to ARB, as he reads all of them.

Lau said that, bedcause many of the questions/comments were on similar topics – schools and green space, just to name a couple – the board plans to separate them into categories, and the board’s answers will be made public to everybody.

Zsembery led the discussion and eventually said that said three items were chosen for the board to discuss at its planned Oct. 2 meeting:

    • Possibly removing parcels on Mass. Ave. east of Orvis Street [from the rezoning] to make way for more commercial opportunities;
    • The issue of the maximum of one parking spot per unit; and
    • Whether to change the Neighborhood subdistrict building heights from four stories to three stories.
NEW: The Friends of the Robbins Library cancels plans for educational programming about housing, citing 'recent incidents around the warrant articles discussion'
NEW: Town Meeting member Kristin Anderson’s commentary/timeline related to the Sept. 11, 2023, meeting


NEW: Architect Gina Sonder’s 'explainer' about MBTA Communities as of Sept. 15, 2023


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


See ACMi video of testimony Sept. 11:

This account by YourArlington freelance writer Tony Moschetto was published Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023. It was updated Sept. 19, 2023, to change some language, including to note that plan opponent Al Tosti is a half-century-long member of the Arlington Town Finance Committee and to provide a link to a YourArlington interview of him from mid-2020. It was updated Sept. 22, 2023, to note that the Sept. 27 educational program about housing in Arlington planned by the private nonprofit group Friends of the Robbins Library has been cancelled "due to recent incidents around the warrant article discussions" on the subject.