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What is the best use of our land?

UPDATED, April 26: This viewpoint was submitted by James Fleming, a scientist who works in logistics and an Arlington resident of five years. He spends his free time singing and reading about land use. He is the proponent of Article 44 for the 2021 Town Meeting, a zoning amendment related to parking minimums. 


I think we could all agree that there are bad ways to use land. For example, putting a salvage yard in Arlington Center would be a poor use of that space. Arlington Center ought to be a place with character that makes us proud to be from Arlington -- full of shops and public space.

Not only would a salvage yard look bad, but it would be bad for the tax base; the shops in Arlington Center provide far more revenue for the town than a salvage yard ever could.

Farmers measure the value of their land by measuring “bushels per acre,” or how much crop they produce on their land. Farmers want to maximize yield because that strategy will make the most productive use of their land. For a farmer, higher yields mean not just survival, but a higher quality of life.

Arlington provides a high quality of life for its residents by maintaining schools, parks, public spaces and more. These amenities aren’t free -- they can exist only if Arlington can afford them. In other words, Arlington must be financially productive. We can measure financial productivity by measuring value per acre: assessed value divided by land area.

Consider this example: Regina Gifts is a single-story, commercial building, built about 1920, along Mass. Ave. near the high school, and framed by street trees. It sits on 1/12 of an acre of land, with an assessed value of $1 million. We could say that this property is worth $12 million per acre.

Regina Gifts

We can find the value per acre for any property in town if we know the plot size and the assessed value, both of which can be found in the Arlington property search tool. It’s accessible from the town website, under the Finance/Assessor’s department.

One more example: Walgreens is a well-known business, and its Arlington location in East Arlington looks like any other Walgreens. It is situated on 1.5 acres and valued at $4.3 million, or about $3 million per acre.

Hang on! Why is Walgreens’ value per acre only one-fourth that of Regina’s? It’s all the parking. The actual Walgreens occupies less than one-fourth of its land; the rest is parking, which provides less tax revenue than it could if it had a building on it.

How much tax revenue are we missing out on? Using the assessed value and tax rates for 2020, Walgreens would have paid about $48,000 in tax revenue. If instead it was valued as Regina’s is, it would have paid more than $140,000 in extra tax revenue. That's $140,000 more from a single business. Imagine if every business in Arlington was as much a financial powerhouse as Regina’s. That’s money that could be spent on something else that makes Arlington a great place.Walgreens

If we’re leaving that kind of money on the table, we should seriously ask if it’s worth it. Walgreens might need some of that parking, but do they really need all of it? Are Arlington’s parking requirements too big, or just right? Can we use parking more effectively, do more with less, and capture more of the value we’re leaving on the table?

I’ll leave this question for you to ponder: how much is parking worth to you, a resident of Arlington?

This letter was published Friday, April 23, 2021, and updated April 26, to note which Walgreens.

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