The Planning Board is grappling with recently-enacted requirements for multi-unit housing in towns served by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
The most dramatic scenario would be rezoning 73 acres to accommodate 1,089 housing units, developed by right.
Planning Board members and staff are trying to determine if existing local zoning provisions will translate into compliance with some or all of the regulations.
The requirements were enacted a year ago as part of zoning reforms, addressing a regional housing shortage, built into an economic development bill. Bedford, as an MBTA community, must zone at least 50 acres of land where multifamily housing could be built by right, explained Planning Director Tony Fields.
The guidelines set specific unit counts, based on the category of transit service. Bedford is defined as a “bus service community,” which means the town would need to allow for a multi-unit capacity of at least 20 percent of the total housing stock.
Data from the 2020 census say Bedford has 5,444 housing units. Therefore the new zoning districts would have to accommodate a potential 1,089 new units in multifamily dwellings. Other criteria are a minimum of three residential units per building; a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre; no age restrictions, including children; and no limits on the number or size of bedrooms.
The penalty for non-compliance is loss of eligibility for various state grants, including the MassWorks infrastructure program, which recently awarded Bedford $500,000 for sewer infrastructure.
Since there is no transit station in Bedford, the zoning districts can be anywhere within the town boundary, but are preferably placed near town centers as well as businesses, said Fields. So theoretically, “If Bedford holds the 15 units per acre as a maximum density, then at least 73 acres of land will need to be zoned to achieve this requirement.”
By May 2, Fields reported, “We need to have a presentation to the Select Board on the draft guidelines and then submit a ‘Community Information Form’ and updated parcel maps to the state Department of Housing and Community Development.” Then the town can try to comply by year’s end, or submit an “Action Plan” by Dec. 31 that could buy another year.
Bedford already has several areas zoned for mixed-use that allow for multifamily housing. Fields enumerated them at a recent Planning Board meeting. The Shawsheen subdistrict (the Great Road Shopping Center and the Mead Block) is 55 acres. The Marketplace subdistrict totals 33 acres. The Depot overlay zone is 18 acres and the North Road subdistrict is another 13 acres. The Town Center subdistrict should not be considered, he stressed.
The question the board is confronting is: Will the existing subdistricts suffice to meet the state mandate? The town does not have to realize any new housing; it only has to provide the zoning for potential development.
Fields told the board he is “looking for insight on how Bedford can get through this,” monitoring workshops and meetings. “Over time, if we do mixed-use projects, we might be able to prevail, saying zoning in those districts meets the goals.”
There are already examples of more than 15 units per acre, he pointed out: the mixed-use complex on Loomis Street and the proposed building on the site of Papa Gino’s on The Great Road. “We left it to the market to decide what was being proposed.” Fields said.
Planning Board members expressed concern about the quality of new development if the guidelines have to be accommodated. “Our goal was the creation of a neighborhood,” said Chris Gittins, referring to the Shawsheen subdistrict. “I hope the MBTA doesn’t want to create just bedroom cities.” Amy Lloyd added, “We want to create communities, not just 50 acres of giant housing blocks.”
Some of the acreage in the mixed-use zones is not buildable, noted member Jacinda Barbehenn. “The guidelines say you have to compensate for lots not buildable, so it puts pressure to increase density on buildable ones, or enlarge the district,” said Assistant Planning Director Catherine Perry.
Fields reminded the board that the objective in establishing the subdistricts is mixed-use. “There are a lot of developers who don’t know how to deal with that model,” he said. “To get an integrated mixed-use project really limits the number of developers who know how to do it.”
Board members asked about consideration of the Veterans Affairs Hospital on Springs Road, which “already has high-density housing for specialized populations.”
Perry suggested that the board employ “a sincere approach. There is a regional crisis and we are in favor of the principle.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763
What is the premise of this legislation? Roughly, I infer the following:
Bedford derives a tremendous benefit from being on an MBTA bus line. In turn, we owe the Commonwealth a way to optimize the investment of public funds represented by that line. Specifically, this is by allowing housing for people who will actually use that bus line.
It’s difficult to see either the benefit or the demand for this bus route. The last time I rode it to Alewife, it took 70 minutes. The bus was nearly empty.
What benefit do we actually derive? Who would take this bus? Someone who had several hours a day to spend in commuting? Who is that?
It appears to me that the primary benefit of the bus line is to connect Veterans and workers to the VA Hospital from Alewife. So, our Veterans–or the workers who serve them–spend 140 minutes round trip from Alewife? They deserve better. Perhaps we can do away with the MBTA bus line altogether, and, instead, run a Veterans’ shuttle service from Alewife. We see this at work with the REV bus service on the Hartwell Avenue corporate corridor in Lexington. We ought to look at this for the VA Hospital.
This requirement sounds crazy! Did they consider about the size of each MBTA town and their current ratio of population/house/land? We are a small town and we keep having townhouses multi-family built in the past few years! Our fire department is overloaded, our school is overloaded. $500,000 is definitely not enough to compensate the burden that the increased population will bring! All Bedford tax payers will be impacted by this!
Great Road is already too busy. Rather than push for pie-in-the-sky affordable housing initiatives, the town and the state should focus on improving public transportation options such as more bus routes. When transportation is affordable and accessible, the town will grow economically rather than just become another car suburb. We need businesses and jobs, not subsidized housing which is the end game of these zoning gimmicks.
A financial analysis could be used to determine if there is any down side to losing the ability to apply for the grants. If the amounts received from grants are less than the increased expenses to build out the infastructrure then don’t comply. The lowered quality of life and increased traffic as a result of 1000+ additional housing unts also needs to be factored into the decision. Regardless this is a decision that should be made by the residents via town meeting and not a town board.
It is worth noting that the five year plan for the school expansion project, voted through in 2018, came in at $12,900,000.
I would like to know what the estimated financial impact 1,089 new housing units would be on our schools, Water & Sewer infrastructure, DPW services like trash removal, Police & Fire and etc. vs. the loss of the grant money.