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Self-education leads to support for MBTA Communities' plan

Catherine Brewster lives in East Arlington and teaches English at Commonwealth School.

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I’m a latecomer to the MBTA Communities' zoning bylaw debate, which Town Meeting will vote on starting Oct. 17. If you are too, I hope this offers some useful perspective.

When we clawed our way into the housing market in 2015, I had been saving for a down payment for more than 20 years. Only because my father-in-law died suddenly, young enough that he still had life insurance, did we have enough for a condo just within reach of the Red Line.

Since then, we’ve realized that newcomers to our neighborhood tend to work in tech or finance, while most of our daughter’s teachers at Hardy live in Medford or Woburn, and friends with what I used to think of as decent incomes give up on buying, or living, in greater Boston.

'So many white people?'

Needless to say, everyone has opinions about real estate, and everyone has stories. One of mine: Our daughter, whose day-care years were spent in the South End, asking when she was about 5, “Why are there so many white people around here?” Her English-major mom mumbled in the usual uncomfortable-white-person terms about redlining and income inequality. 

It turns out that the path to a more rigorous and less fatalistic answer began when a postcard from the town in September (“What is the MBTA Communities Act?”) set me digging.

Here’s some of what I learned: Arlington’s current zoning regime dates mostly to changes made in 1975, to encourage less density and more parking. (And — setting aside intentions and looking at impact — more white people.) And the MBTAC Working Group’s proposal for zones with multifamily housing by right has ancestors that include Arlington’s Fair Housing Action Plan, along with the master plan, net-zero emissions plan, sustainable transportation plan and this year’s community equity audit. 

Something I did know: Globally, we have until 2030 to cut carbon emissions in half if we want to preserve a climate similar to the one we’ve built our cities around. Something local that I also learned: Three years ago, 92 percent of Town Meeting voted in favor of prohibiting natural gas in new construction. The state denied the home-rule petition that would have allowed this to happen, but Arlington can participate in the fossil-fuel-free demonstration project if it’s in compliance with MBTAC by the end of this year.

Of the more than 1,000 people who filled out the MBTAC Working Group’s initial visioning survey, 94 percent cared about, or at least didn’t object to, sustainability as a principle in town planning. 

Passionate opponents

Finally, and to my bewilderment, I learned of a group of passionate opponents to the MBTAC proposal, some of them sure it will make Arlington less affordable. In the words of one worried resident at an ARB meeting this summer, “our homes will be taken away,” replaced by 7,000 new units, none affordable and all too tall. They also won’t have enough parking, but this flood of new residents will nevertheless all own cars and clog the roads with them. Arlington’s current affordable-housing provisions will be swept away.

“A massive increase in density,” said another opponent at the same ARB meeting, is being rammed through by sinister forces bent on “overcompliance” with state law and will render the town unrecognizable.

The more I read and the more people I talk to, the weirder this narrative seems.

The proposal applies to about 110 of Arlington’s 3,500 acres. Taller height maximums and less space devoted to parking reduce the cost and carbon footprint per unit. This means increasing, not decreasing, the number of affordable units developers would be required to build.

Emphasis on “would”: The theoretical capacity (7,000 units and shrinking, since the ARB voted to restore parking minimums and reduce building heights at its Oct. 2 meeting) would be reached only in a world in which all the existing buildings were sold to developers who built to the maximum allowed. 

The working group patiently explains this in its final report. In writing and in person, its members have impressed me by refusing to grandstand or make claims for the proposal beyond what the facts support.

They’ve wrestled with a lot of detail involving what’s practical, what’s knowable, and what isn’t. The results have persuaded me that only “overcompliance” will actually move the needle — over decades as current owners sell, not via the kind of urban-renewal bulldozing opponents seem to imagine — toward what the town largely seems to want, and certainly what I hope to see. 

Oct. 3, 2023: Redevelopment Board refines MBTA Working Group's rezoning proposal


This viewpoint was published Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023.

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