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This self-educator finds reasons to question MBTA Communities Act

Don Seltzer, who submitted this viewpoint, was an Arlington resident from 1972 until last fall, when he moved to Lincoln. He is now observing how both his past and new communities are dealing with compliance with the MBTA Communities Act.

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I have also educated myself about the MBTA Communities Act. I began nearly three years ago, while the legislation was passing through Beacon Hill.

I followed how it was handed off to the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) for administration. I paid close attention to every revision of the guidelines as they drifted further away from the actual law.

When the DHCD released a compliance-analysis tool, I obtained a copy and began my own analysis of each version of overlay maps and possible alternatives. I have further studied how other communities are approaching compliance with the Section 3A law.

Affordability, diversity?

That was my self-education, from which I learned the following: It is not about affordability, economic diversity or equity.

I have read every word of the DHCD guidelines. Nowhere does it mention affordability as a goal, much less a requirement. The only mention of affordability paints it as a possible obstacle to the Act. DHCD discourages such local requirements and may only approve a version that is heavily watered down from Arlington’s bylaw. A lengthy process has been set up to apply for a waiver, and Arlington will not know DHCD’s response until sometime next year.

Arlington is built out. The only new development will come from replacing existing buildings. I have dug down deeper into the proposed district maps to the parcel level, to understand just what sort of housing would be replaced. I have found many instances of older, modest apartment buildings that would be the likely targets for redevelopment. Replacing modest apartments with new development at today’s market rates will decrease, not increase affordable housing.

It is not about housing choice

There is nothing in the proposed plan to require or even encourage a variety of housing types. The only choice being offered is to developers, who are given by-right permission to build whatever is most profitable in the existing market.

It is not about a "missing middle." There is no "missing middle" in Arlington.

As the master plan points out, “Arlington is unique among Boston’s inner suburbs for its diverse housing stock.” Nearly 50 percent of Arlington’s housing stock is this "missing middle" of two-family through low-rise, three-story apartments.

The proposed overlay district is meant to encourage apartments of four, five and six stories.

It is not about family housing

The law and the guidelines emphasize housing suitable for families with children. The proposed plan has nothing to encourage housing with two or more bedrooms.

It is not even about the MBTA. The law requires a district within a half-mile walking distance of Alewife station. This is the only practical way to get households to give up their cars, by locating housing very near rapid transit stations. DHCD has simply ignored what the law clearly states, and told communities such as Arlington that they can draw their maps anywhere in town.

Arlington’s plan does not include the 58 acres of developable land around the bike path that is walkable to Alewife.

ARB concerns

The Redevelopment Board apparently has concerns over the constraints that DHCD has placed upon these MBTA districts regarding mixed use. At the very beginning of the process, they declared that the entire Heights business district was off-limits. And at the Oct. 2 hearing, they voted to also exclude all of Mass. Ave east. of Orvis Road. The board believes that Arlington can do a better job of rezoning for both housing and economic development if not constrained by the one-size-fits-all communities rules laid down by DHCD.

The board also listened to public feedback and cut down the neighborhood districts to three stories/35-foot-high development, consistent with the scale and character of these neighborhoods.

The overlay map that will be presented to Town Meeting will be for approximately 3,000 dwelling units. It is still much more than the 2,046 units required by DHCD, but a very sensible reduction from the early proposals of 15,000 or more.

This is not the creation of a more affordable district. It is zoning to create a district of less affordability than the rest of Arlington. That is a good reason to minimize its size. 

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


This viewpoint was published Monday, Oct. 9, 2023.

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Jordan Weinstein on Tuesday, 10 October 2023 10:52
The MBTA Gentrification Act

I agree with Don Seltzer completely. Let''s minimize this MBTA Gentrification Act so we can enact new zoning that truly fosters affordable housing, sustainable construction, local business, climate resiliency and equity.

I agree with Don Seltzer completely. Let''s minimize this MBTA Gentrification Act so we can enact new zoning that truly fosters affordable housing, sustainable construction, local business, climate resiliency and equity.
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