Board Agrees on Specific Boundaries for Multi-Unit Law Compliance in Bedford

January 10, 2024
The proposed MBTA Community Districts map as of January 4 meeting. Map Source: bedfordma.gov/

The Bedford Planning Board on Thursday culminated weeks of deliberations by agreeing on geographic boundaries designed to comply with a state law requiring multi-unit housing by-right.

There are three separate districts in two geographic areas totaling more than the 50 acres demanded by the law for designation. There is no requirement for actually building anything.

The districts defined by the Planning Board are:

  • Railroad Avenue to Highland Avenue, Commercial Avenue, and Loomis Street, as well as commercial properties on the south side of The Great Road between Loomis and Webber Avenue and 200 The Great Road across the street. The Loomis and Railroad segments become contiguous by including properties at 110, 122, 124, and 135 South Road, as well as Depot Park, which will be excluded from development consideration. 
  • Property at 30-32 Shawsheen Ave., owned by the Mead family, and contiguous commercial lots along Shawsheen Avenue to the corner of Shawsheen Road, as well as the Bedford Plaza Hotel. Two residents of Shawsheen Road whose yards border this district objected during the virtual meeting. 
  • Contiguous properties, separated by the Shawsheen River, on Alfred Circle, and 277 and 281 The Great Road.

“We’ve gotten to something that’s comfortable enough for everybody,” said member Jacinda Barbehenn.

The law applies to cities and towns served by – or adjacent to – Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority rail and bus lines. Minimum density is 15 units per acre with no age restrictions. The deadline for compliance is Dec. 31, so the Planning Board is aiming for presentation of zoning overlays at the March Annual Town Meeting.

Specialists from the firm RKG Associates, working with the Planning Department under a state grant, will test the proposed districts through a compliance model. The consultant will also recommend how to manage the impact with zoning parameters, including setback, height, and parking requirements.

The board will schedule a statutory public hearing on the proposal for later this month. Refinements could continue until the warrant heads for printing near the end of February.

A majority of the board excluded the Great Road Shopping Center for a variety of reasons. Chair Chris Gittins pointed out that the area is underutilized for housing, even though it is zoned for mixed-use, which wouldn’t count toward fulfilling the housing law requirements.

“Organic development from the bottom up is a lot better than top down,” he said. “Towards that end, it’s better to work with many small lots than a few big ones. Concentrating development would not be conducive to gradual growth of the expressed sentiment to try to maintain Bedford’s small-town feel.”

Member Amy Lloyd continued to advocate for the shopping center, pointing to popular sentiment at the board’s public forums and surveys. The Planning Board will be fine-tuning the boundaries “for years to come,” she predicted. For now, the choice should be “non-controversial,” and when considering the shopping center, many residents would say, “We could live with this.” 

“We should take our time and plan this area out,” said member Todd Crowley. Although many citizens prioritized the area, there is also concern that the result could be “a massive building.”

In a memo to the board, Planning Director Tony Fields noted that multi-unit zoning at the shopping center as well as the Bedford Marketplace “has raised the concern about potential loss of retail and service uses and the ‘comparatively sudden’ impact of sizable multifamily projects.” But concerns about such larger projects still exist under the current mixed-use zoning. 

For the second consecutive meeting Gittins presented an entirely new option. He proposed a multi-unit overlay zone for Wiggins Avenue, which the town has designated a science and technology district. 

“There really isn’t a good way to get a multi-family area to integrate with existing neighborhoods,” he said, explaining why he was trying to create a new neighborhood.

The land area would satisfy the 50-acre requirement, Gittins said, and residential development there would be unlikely to contribute to traffic on The Great Road. He acknowledged that wetlands and flood plain would reduce overall buildable area. He also analyzed the tax revenue impact, saying that new multi-unit housing resembles some of the older commercial properties on the street.

Ellis Kriesberg, longtime member of the Housing Partnership who tuned in via Zoom, objected. Kriesberg said not only has the idea been excluded from public exposure, but it also “violates the spirit of the law and the objective to build more housing.”

Member Steve Hagan agreed that on that street, replete with pharmaceutical companies and life-science businesses, “the probability of new housing may run to zero.” He wondered if the option would be rejected by the state Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, which must approve local plans.

“In theory, the state is looking at what the zoning allows to be done. This is about modifying zoning to allow the opportunity,” replied Fields. “But you as a board have said we do want to make it a realistic opportunity.”

Hagan asked about including Pine Street and connecting streets on the Lexington line. Lloyd replied, “We need to think about not only where can we have more housing. We need to think about how people perceive this.” That means for now avoiding “clearly-defined residential neighborhoods,” she said. “What changes people’s minds is we make change happen iteratively, over time.”

“Just because people perceive change as bad doesn’t mean it is bad,” said Barbehenn. “We need to dispel these myths instead of catering to them and zoning around people’s fears.” She said she was ready to include the Pine Street area, but Gittins said, “I’m pretty strongly opposed to including individual residential areas at this point.”

Lloyd pointed out that Loomis, a residential street with commercial elements, can serve as an example and “show that infill residential development is not a terrible thing,” and the others agreed with that approach.

The board will soon be embarking on the regular updating of the comprehensive plan for the town, and Gittins cited that as an opportunity to address multi-unit issues on a townwide basis. Crowley agreed, saying, “We can work on our own way of trying to get more multi-unit zoning that’s fair.”

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