Planning Board Struggles to Find Consensus on Multi-Family Districts

December 28, 2023
The Bedford Planning Board continued to work on versions of maps identifying geographic areas that would allow the town to comply with a state law mandating multi-family housing by right. Map: bedfordma.gov

As the clock ticks toward annual town meeting warrant deadlines, the Planning Board is struggling to reach consensus on identifying geographic areas that would allow the town to comply with a state law mandating multi-family housing by right.

Near the end of a lengthy meeting last week, board chair Chris Gittins conducted straw polls to identify areas of agreement. The four members at the virtual meeting agreed on a total of about 20 acres, less than half of the area required under the law for towns in Bedford’s category. 

The law, applicable to cities and towns on or adjacent to Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority bus and rail routes, mandates acreage where multi-family housing can be built by right with no age restrictions. In Bedford, the goal is at least 50 acres, with at least half required to be contiguous. The zones must accommodate 15 units per acre or more. 

Deadline for compliance is Dec. 31, 2024, so the Planning Board aims to present zoning proposals to Annual Town Meeting in March. Planning Director Tony Fields told the board that a statutory public hearing on a draft will have to take place near the end of January. 

At their most recent meeting, members agreed on two parcels in the Shawsheen subdistrict. One is northeast of The Great Road, encompassing Shawsheen Avenue, but excluding residential lots on Shawsheen Road. The second area is along the south side of The Great Road, west of the shopping center.

The Great Road Shopping Center wasn’t included because there is uncertainty about whether a zone boundary can legally bisect the property. Indeed, Gittins presented an alternative that eliminated the entire subdistrict from consideration. But members Amy Lloyd and Steve Hagan weren’t on board with that.

Gittins said members may have to vote on areas by a point system if the impasse continues at the next meeting, scheduled for Jan. 4. “That’s not my preferred approach but in terms of coming to a resolution it would force us to do so,” he commented.

Gittins offered a new proposal- complete with slides-focusing on residential neighborhoods north of The Great Road in the center of town. It’s a region his colleague Amy Lloyd has opposed from the start. Member Todd Crowley, who could not attend last week’s meeting, also has been skeptical.

Gittins’s map showed an area bordered by Hillside Avenue-Springs Road to Pine Hill Road, then left all the way past Hancock Street, then left again along a line encompassing Paul Revere Road, then along Fitchdale Avenue and Anthony Road. The proposal excludes The Great Road because that entire span is in the Historic District. 

The new zone would allow up to four units per lot, reverting to the original lot size of 7,500 square feet, Gittins said. The density would exceed 15 units per acre, and the land area also would satisfy the requirement, he said.

Gittins also proposed omitting the mixed-use Shawsheen subdistrict from the compliance model. He pointed out that the town’s mixed-use districts already allow multi-family housing. Indeed, the three structures approved under that zoning-one complete, one under construction, and a third still on paper-all exceed the minimum density required by the new state law.

But mixed-use zones don’t count in the compliance calculation, according to the statute. And “rezoning to allow housing only by right opens up the possibility of losing commercial space,” Gittins said. 

Gittins pointed out that at community forums some people indicated a preference for gradual change, as well as concern about losing retail space, while acknowledging the need to help ease the housing shortage. He said his focus on “infill development” would enable new housing through “change [that] will be incremental.”

Lloyd said she is “very opposed” to the proposed zone “because I think there would be a lot of destruction of historic houses.” She conceded that conversions would be gradual, but “every time a multi-family is put on a small lot it will have a greater impact in a dense neighborhood” than in an area like a shopping center. 

“I also like the notion that this is about getting more housing,” she added. “While I don’t want a huge number to come to Bedford right away, I want there to be some housing.” Hagan also noted his opposition to Gittins’s scenario.

Gittins acknowledged Lloyd’s point that there are several houses more than 100 years old in that area. Member Jacinda Barbehenn pointed out that if those houses are valuable, “they’re not going to be leveled for multi-family homes. We need to have some faith in the way market mechanisms work.”

“Compliance,” Lloyd commented, “doesn’t solely have to do with the letter of the law. It also has to do with selling it to the town. I think it is very important not to shoot for the moon. Find a middle ground and get our foot in the door.”

Lloyd’s proposed map of the Shawsheen subdistrict included most of the Great Road Shopping Center. She proposed retaining mixed-use along the shopping center frontage of The Great Road to preserve the familiar streetscape. “My area is a total mix of properties,” she said.

Hagan favored including the entire shopping center acreage. “I don’t think we should worry about the impact on business,” he commented.” He also dismissed concerns about a large housing complex there, because of “our height restrictions.” Multiple stories are “what makes them financially viable,” he said.

Gittins showed a version that excluded the shopping center, to preserve the mixed-use option. “Creating a housing-only zone would solve an immediate problem, but I wonder if it would create new problems in 10-20 years.” In the areas designated, Gittins said, “I was imagining as more in line with near-term housing creation.” 

Barbehenn said additional residential units in that district would mean more customers for businesses. “Amping up housing around our mixed-use districts will produce the mixed-use we wanted all along, that we are not getting now,” she observed. “Our base is the residential property tax, and I am a little wary of changing anything use-wise from commercial and industrial to more housing, because it could increase the residential property share,” Barbehenn commented. “We should be really thoughtful about anything we change.”

She also linked any support of splitting the shopping center to other members’ acceptance of the north-of-center area. 

Another area that has been under consideration is Loomis Street and across South Road to Railroad Avenue. Lloyd’s latest version covered the south side of Loomis, The Great Road between Webber Avenue and Loomis, and Railroad Avenue from South Road to Highland Avenue, including all of Commercial Avenue. 

“I would like to see that area shift away from commercial,” said Lloyd, noting that many children walk and cycle to and from school along Railroad Avenue. Barbehenn raised the idea that the Commercial Avenue area may be more valuable for municipal purposes. She also suggested including the building across The Great Road at number 200.

Gittins offered a variation similar to current mixed-use zoning boundaries, but excluding Loomis Street east of DeAngelo Drive and including the commercial area on both sides of South Road. Barbehenn said she is ready to drop the entire option, and Lloyd replied. “I feel the complete opposite. That is middle ground that could help with every end of the spectrum.”

Gittins noted that the board still needs to discuss zoning parameters for the districts it selects. Lloyd stressed that the board’s advocacy will need to include the zoning limits. “Just because we zone for more capacity doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. We can control dimensions. We cannot control the market. We should not be conditioning it so we can be sure change won’t happen.”

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Patty Dahlgren
December 29, 2023 12:41 pm

Well, now I’m totally confused.

Andrei
December 28, 2023 8:20 pm

I’m curious about the Planning Board’s strong preference for the bus 62 route in multi-family housing planning. In my opinion, bus routes should be adaptable to the changing needs of town commuters. If Bedford constructs a sufficient number of units in a specific area, could this serve as a valid reason to request the MBTA to introduce a new bus route to better serve that locality?

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