LAST SUMMER, a traffic snarl on the Massachusetts Turnpike sent me south to Route 20. Driving west, I found myself in a desolate landscape more akin to deindustrialized Ohio than prosperous eastern Massachusetts. It threw me back to the late 1970s, when Boston contained 20,000 vacant house lots and 140,000 fewer residents than today.
I pulled over and looked up home prices. They were about half the cost of those in communities not that many miles to the east. Dismayed and angry, I felt like an unwitting accomplice to an injustice — both to people struggling with high housing costs in Greater Boston and people struggling to make ends meet in its long shadow. Could no one remedy this mismatch? Where was Gov. Charlie Baker? Not since the administration of governor Michael Dukakis, I realized, has Massachusetts had a clear and equitable plan for growth statewide.
Through that lens, I recently began to review the draft guidelines for a sweeping new law intended to reduce the state’s housing shortage through high-density zoning, hoping that it would redress the state’s East-West imbalance.
On the contrary, the draft guidelines reinforce that divide at a dystopian scale, overstuffing dense and congested cities in eastern Massachusetts while continuing to discount the growth potential of cities and towns to the west. The guidelines reminded me of the proverbial man who looks for his keys under a streetlamp because that’s where the light is.
Released for public comment by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development and Department of Housing and Community Development in mid-December, the guidelines seem at first to be standard-fare transit-oriented development.
The guidelines define the 175 municipalities in Eastern Massachusetts containing a T, commuter rail, or bus station, or adjacency to one, as “MBTA communities.” Each MBTA community (Boston is exempt) is required to create a high-density zoning district to allow, as of right, for dense multi-family housing “suitable for families” within a half mile of a train or bus station.
The high-density zoning districts must contain at least 50 acres (the size of Boston Common) within a one-mile diameter circle (500 acres) around a transit or bus station, of which 25 acres (the size of the Public Garden) must be contiguous. So far, so good.
Within these high-density zoning districts, developers and owners must be allowed, as of right, to build multi-family housing units at prescribed unit densities of not less than 15 units per acre based on an average 15 percent of each municipality’s current housing units. Higher percentages apply to communities with a higher degree of transit intensity (more stations).
Most news coverage about the guidelines has focused on the 79 communities required to zone for the minimum 15 units per acre, or 750 units. While it’s certainly fair to require all towns to participate, the guidelines’ take-it-or-leave-it strictures (lack of compliance results in ineligibility for some state funding programs) may lead some towns to decline if they are forced to choose between high density housing districts and an historic district or settled neighborhood next to a train station. Stations built through MBTA expansion, on the other hand, are often located at a town’s edge. More flexibility in locating the high-density zoning districts would probably result in greater participation and more housing.
A much more significant problem, however, is the massive scale of zoning targets for cities.
Every student of city planning and Boston history knows the story of Charles River Park. In the late 1950s, the city of Boston razed the vibrant West End neighborhood and evicted working-class families to make way for 2,300 luxury high rise units on 45 acres. In a recent piece for Commonwealth, Peter Dreier, former Boston housing chief and now professor of urban and environmental policy, called Charles River Park a debacle of “development over planning.” If the draft guidelines are adopted as is, cities in Eastern Massachusetts may repeat that debacle, albeit piecemeal.
The core of the problem is this: The guidelines calculate numerical targets for high-density zoning districts in specific cities based solely on the their number of housing units. By ignoring current densities, recent transit-oriented housing development, population characteristics, climate vulnerability, and infrastructure capacity, the guidelines become a blunt instrument, resulting in zoning targets at densities up to almost six times the number of units in Charles River Park (2,300 units) on virtually the same footprint. ( If cities got credit for current densities and existing unrestricted multi-family housing development, the targets would be much smaller.)
To reduce heights, municipalities have the option of expanding their minimum 50-acre high density zoning district to the full 500-acres in a half-mile radius surrounding a transit station. Communities with multiple stations can also create more 50-acre districts. But that extends as-of-right high-density zoning to larger areas, eviscerating a municipality’s planning authority in key locations. Even spread out, these are big numbers, especially given that some cities on the list are already the densest among their peers nationally.
The targets call for 4,501 units in Lawrence, 4,552 in Everett, 6,135 in Revere, 6,522 in Lowell, 7,356 in Lynn, 7,461 in Brockton, 9,067 in Somerville, 11,572 in Quincy, 12,642 in Worcester, and 13,477 in Cambridge.
Upzoning to those densities — whether in minimum 50-acre or expansive 500-acre zoning districts — will allow for and even encourage a lot of demolition, the displacement of residents and small businesses, and — unless a few developers buy up and control very large parcels — piecemeal redevelopment with no planning oversight other than zoning and site plan review. High-density family housing can support a lot of amenities, but if civic, recreational, cultural, commercial, and green spaces aren’t part of the plan, it’s just overcrowding — a lesson learned again and again.
Inexplicably and unconscionably, the guidelines are silent on affordability. They are also silent on energy-efficiency and climate mitigation, as if the state agencies involveded had turned their backs on other departments working on the state’s response to climate change. A gift to developers, the guidelines’ only apparent goal is housing production — with no protection for current residents and no responsibility for achieving a livable, sustainable, and affordable result.
Not surprisingly, then, application of the guidelines to real places with real differences produces perverse and inequitable results, as if the calculations had been assigned to an “AI” app with insufficient “I.”
A few examples:
Chelsea, the Commonwealth’s smallest city at 2 1/2 square miles, contains 40,787 residents. With a density of 18,456 residents per square mile, Chelsea is tied with Cambridge as the state’s second densest city. An environmental justice community with an elevation of 10 feet, Chelsea faces mounting risks from climate change such as sea-level rise and the urban heat-island effect. And Chelsea already contains numerous well planned multi-family developments within walking distance of its commuter rail station — the goal of the new housing law. Yet the draft guidelines require Chelsea to create a high-density zoning district within a half mile of its transit station and allow, as of right, 3,639 multi-family housing units.
Foxborough, by contrast, has a land area of 20 square miles, a population of 18,618, and a density of 890 residents per square mile. While its residential center is compact, the town contains a large economic development zone in which sits Gillette Stadium, with its own train from South Station and a huge parking lot that sits empty on weekdays (the MBTA shelved a pilot for daily service when COVID struck). While Foxborough regularly hosts 65,000 fans at its stadium and thousands in its large hotels and restaurants, the guidelines classify Foxborough as rural based on a percentage of its current residential units, requiring it to zone for the minimum 750 multi-family units.
Worcester is the Commonwealth’s second most populous city and its geographical center. Its population of 206,518 in a land area of 38 square miles results in a density of 5,371 residents per square mile — less than half of Boston’s and less than a-third of Cambridge’s. With a reassuring elevation of 480 feet, a revitalized city center, a regional transit authority with electric vehicle bus service in addition to commuter rail, numerous higher education and cultural institutions, and housing costs about half that of Boston, Worcester is poised to play a larger role in the life of the Commonwealth as the coast grapples with sea- level rise. Regardless, the guidelines require Worcester to zone for fewer units than Cambridge.
Devens, the decommissioned Fort Devens, is owned by MassDevelopment. Adjacent to three MBTA communities, including one on commuter rail, its 4,000 acres are equivalent to eighty 50-acre high-density zoning districts. Devens has the potential to become a well planned new community with tens of thousands of residents akin to Reston, Virginia, which was built on 6,000 acres and which Money Magazine ranked in 2018 as Virginia’s best place to live. Yet Devens does not appear in the draft guidelines.
Leominster has a population of 43,782, about the same size as Chelsea in a land area of 29 square miles, 10 times larger than Chelsea. Leominster’s density of 1,519 residents per square mile is a fraction of Chelsea’s 18,456, in part because Leominster contains the 4,300-acre Leominster State Forest with hiking trails and swimming ponds. Leominster’s median home price last month was $350,000 compared to Chelsea’s $475,000. Yet the guidelines require Leominster to zone for fewer units than Chelsea.
Westminster, at the very end of the Fitchburg line, has a land area of 36 square miles and density of 220 residents per square mile. In 2016, it completed a $52 million state-of-the-art turnaround for the Fitchburg commuter rail line that includes a 500-space parking lot with a now-underutilized shuttle to Gardner, a deindustrialized small city. Surrounded by fields and with a lake nearby, the parking lot is used by fewer than 60 cars a day. The guidelines classify Westminster as rural and require it to zone for just 750 units.
Everyone knows Einstein’s definition of insanity — “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Well, shoehorning housing units into already dense cities along Greater Boston’s climate-vulnerable hub-and-spoke transportation system and reinforcing its stranglehold on job growth — with the traffic congestion, high housing costs, and infrastructure stressors that come with it — while two-thirds of the state languishes from lack of investment and jobs may not be the best path forward.
Fortunately, in the two years since passage of the high-density multi-family housing law, much in the Massachusetts policy-making landscape has changed.
COVID lockdowns revealed new opportunities for remote and hybrid work. A racial reckoning highlighted long-simmering inequities that must be redressed. New climate research detailed the speed and scope of sea-level rise, spurring the MBTA to analyze risks to its tracks and stations. New federal funding flowed into state coffers . And in January, Gov. Charlie Baker greenlighted a plan for high-speed East-West rail — Congressman Richard Neal’s “highest priority” — opening a new chapter on Massachusetts’ future growth.
High-speed East-West rail from Boston to Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield, with links to Amtrak’s new Valley Flyer service in the Pioneer Valley and regional bus networks linking to commuter rail, will open access to empty and underutilized buildings and parcels of vacant land in the once-proud industrial cities and towns of central and western Massachusetts. Many are already home to immigrants and to households of all shapes, sizes, and stripes priced out of Greater Boston. With new federal funding, the Commonwealth could protect current residents from gentrification while investing in communities’ revitalization and potential for growth.
Sure, not everyone can or wants to consider moving out of Greater Boston, but making that an attractive, affordable proposition — and creating a whole state plan for economic development — could change Massachusetts’ housing dynamics considerably.
The bottom line is that the draft guidelines as written are myopic, inequitable, and counterproductive. They warrant much greater scrutiny than they have received. However, the public comment period ends on March 31. Cities and towns then have until May 2 to submit plans for how they intend to comply with the guidelines or lose access to a range of state funding programs. To achieve the best results for all of the people and municipalities of the Commonwealth, those deadlines should be extended.
Charlotte Kahn is the former director of Boston Urban Gardeners, the Boston Persistent Poverty Project, and the Boston Indicators Project at the Boston Foundation.
A community by community breakdown:
In total, 175 MBTA communities are subject to the new requirements of Section 3A of the Zoning Act. While served by the MBTA, Boston is exempted from the Zoning Act, including section 3A
All communities served by the MBTA need to zone to allow for multifamily housing by-right, with a greater obligation for communities with higher levels of transit service
* MBTA communities with a unit capacity lower than 750 units are noted as having a unit capacity of 750. This is the fewest number of multi-family units needed to meet the gross density requirement of 15 units per acre (i.e. 50 acres x 15 units per acre).
|Municipality||MBTA Community Type||2020 Housing Units (Census PL-94)||Minimum multifamily district unit capacity requirement|
|Arlington||subway or light rail||20,461||5,115|
|Braintree||subway or light rail||15,077||3,769|
|Brookline||subway or light rail||27,961||6,990|
|Cambridge||subway or light rail||53,907||13,477|
|Chelsea||subway or light rail||14,554||3,639|
|East Bridgewater||MBTA adjacent||5,211||750*|
|Everett||subway or light rail||18,208||4,552|
|Malden||subway or light rail||27,721||6,930|
|Medford||subway or light rail||25,770||6,443|
|Melrose||subway or light rail||12,614||3,154|
|Milton||subway or light rail||9,844||2,461|
|Newton||subway or light rail||33,320||8,330|
|North Andover||commuter rail||11,914||1,787|
|North Attleborough||MBTA adjacent||12,551||1,255|
|North Reading||MBTA adjacent||5,875||750*|
|Quincy||subway or light rail||47,009||11,752|
|Revere||subway or light rail||24,539||6,135|
|Somerville||subway or light rail||36,269||9,067|
|Wellesley||subway or light rail||9,282||2,321|
|West Boylston||MBTA adjacent||3,052||750*|
|West Bridgewater||MBTA adjacent||2,898||750*|
|West Newbury||MBTA adjacent||1,740||750*|
|Weston||subway or light rail||4,043||1,011|
|Winthrop||subway or light rail||8,821||2,205|