Board Adds and Subtracts Areas for Potential Multi-Family Zoning

November 17, 2023
The Bedford Planning Board is narrowing in on proposed rezoning to meet MBTA communities multi-family housing law. Slide from

The Bedford Planning Board this week continued to modify prototypes of geographic areas that could result in compliance with the so-called MBTA communities multi-family housing law.

Under the law, municipalities in the MBTA service area must identify at least 50 acres (25 or more contiguous) where multi-family housing could be built by right, with a density of at least 15 units per acre without age restrictions.

“This is a rezoning project, not a building project,” said member Amy Lloyd Tuesday. “Property owners have all the rights they always did have.” 

Her colleague Steve Hagan added, “We cannot opt out. The state has made this a mandate.”

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Last week, in the lobby outside Special Town Meeting, the Planning Board presented maps displaying possible locations for compliance. During their virtual meeting Tuesday, board members:

  • Added the commercial area on both sides of North Road between Willson Park and Carlisle Road, suggested by Lloyd;
  • Deleted the land on Middlesex Turnpike, now owned by the Woburn Sportsmen’s Association. “It would never be developed for housing, and the real goal would never be achieved,” said Lloyd.
  • Agreed to fine-tune the area that overlaps the Shawsheen mixed-use subdistrict to preclude converting the entire Great Road Shopping Center from commercial to residential. The area currently is zoned for mixed-use;
  • Reduced consideration of a compliance area north and south of The Great Road;
  • Retained Loomis Street and Railroad Avenue.

The board’s subcommittee working on compliance, Chris Gittins, chair, and Jacinda Barbehenn, was scheduled to host a focus group on the proposals on Thursday. Community meetings have been scheduled for Nov. 29 and Dec. 5.

The goal is to present rezoning proposals at Annual Town Meeting in March. Deadline for compliance is December 2024.

Lloyd noted that at the Town Meeting lobby display, the Shawsheen subdistrict was “the area that I got the most comments favorably.” She said the area, which includes the Mead building at The Great Road and Shawsheen Avenue, comprises older buildings “at the end of their useful lives. This area is ripe for potential development. If we allow by right, we probably will get some residential.”

Member Todd Crowley noted that could “result in massive projects.” Gittins added that he is concerned that if the entire area allows housing by right, “you could lose the grocery store and restaurants and it could be a disaster. I like the way that it’s zoned now. I balk at allowing this whole parcel to be by-right housing.” 

Lloyd agreed, suggesting a roadside commercial area with residential in the rear. She also called for “scattered suites,” spreading the potential housing around.

At Town Meeting, the Planning Board displayed maps of a proposed district in the center of town, in two segments separated by the Historic District along The Great Road. 

At last week’s Planning Board meeting, Lloyd opposed that option. Not only are there several historic houses, she noted, but also there are many smaller residences, and building to accommodate increased density “would be a real significant difference to the neighborhood. A three-story something would stand out like a sore thumb.”

The overall area is “already as affordable as things typically get in this town. We would be taking away what is already affordable rather than creating new affordability in other places,” she said. 

Gittins pushed back: “If you replace a single-family home with a four- or six-unit building, that’s a net add.”

Planning Director Tony Fields pointed out that the zoning parameters to be imposed depend on the geography. “In these residential neighborhoods in the center where two-and-a-half stories are the biggest thing being built today, trying to allow a full third story might change the architecture.”

Fields said his office will be scrutinizing the variables with consultants from RKG Associates, such as height limits, setbacks, and parking requirements. Crowley said those kinds of considerations should help determine what areas are recommended for the zoning. 

Gittins commented that “allowing dense housing in the center promotes activity there and I find that an appealing element.” The geographical center is not the retail center, Lloyd and Crowley replied. Gittins acknowledged that “I’m not hearing a lot of love from other board members and other areas have pretty strong cases. In order to address the shortage, we need to look for areas where housing can be built.”

The proposed Loomis Street-Railroad Avenue section excludes The Bikeway Source at the corner of Railroad and South Road. Lloyd explained that the building there is “iconic” and the lot is “not developable.” The proposed district extends along the commercial area of South Road south of Railroad Avenue.

Gittins said the area “seems to me to have a fair amount of potential” for multi-family development, which is already slated for the lot on the northwest corner of Railroad and South. The district is close to the Minuteman Bikeway and the MBTA bus route, he added.

Several board members agreed that ideally, the process will result in 70-to-75 acres earmarked for multi-family housing, in case some segments are rejected after state review.

Fields, in answer to a question by the board, said there are no infrastructure issues precluding multi-family development. 

“Particular locations that might need upgrades could be worked out individually just as we do with any application,” he said.

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