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Use mixed-use to provide more housing

Stephen Revilak, a Town Meeting member who lives at 111 Sunnyside Ave. wrote this letter to the editor:

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There is no silver bullet that will solve Arlington's housing issues. We need more housing and a greater variety of housing options to accommodate people at various stages of their lives.

To achieve this, Arlington will have to adopt a range of new housing-related policies. Mixed-use buildings are a tool that can help address the town's housing needs.

A typical mixed-use building consists of commercial space on the ground floor, with residential units on the floors above. They're a common fixture of village and city centers, where residential and commercial spaces grew up together.

There are plenty of single-story commercial buildings on Arlington's thoroughfares where an additional floor or two of housing could be practical. Some of these commercial spaces are currently vacant (and draw a lot of attention), but they don't paint a complete picture of Arlington's commercial real estate.

Arlington has a bylaw called the Vacant Storefront Maintenance Registry (Title V, Article 17 in the town bylaws). The bylaw is administered by the Department of Planning and Community Development (DPCD) with assistance from the building inspector.

Commercial building owners must register within seven days of a unit becoming vacant and pay an annual fee of $400. The fee can be waived when an owner demonstrates financial hardship, but according to DPCD, this seldom happens. As of Oct. 9, 2019, DPCD records listed 33 vacant commercial units out of a total of 585, a vacancy rate of less than 6 percent. The median length of vacancy is six months.

DPCD monitors each vacancy; they provide potential tenants with lists of vacancies and make referrals to property owners. The mixture of zoning districts along Mass. Ave. sometimes complicates an owner's ability to rent or improve their property. The town's approval processes can delay a new tenant from moving in, and parking requirements are sometimes a hurdle.

These facts suggest that mixed-use buildings in Arlington are economically practical. We need to take this option seriously, identify obstacles limiting mixed-use development, and increase the opportunities for its use.


This letter was published Monday, Dec. 30, 2019.

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