Growth & Development Extra 2006

Local planning and building regulations that control new residential construction in Massachusetts have long had their critics. Zoning and related laws are seen as impeding the development of housing, particularly densely built multifamily housing, which low- and middle-income people can afford. By raising the cost of available homes, critics contend, residential building regulations contribute to economic and racial segregation in and between communities. In addition, they charge that restrictive local building regulations have been used to retard or reject projects that would allow the population to grow in areas closest to transportation nodes and employment centers. The result has been increased metropolitan sprawl, as homebuyers have been forced to seek new homes in ever more remote places.

But how did these restrictive zoning and building regulations come about? When did growth, which was once associated with prosperity and progress, become something to fear and suppress?

One way to answer these questions is to examine the history of housing regulation in one town, and there is perhaps no better candidate for such examination than Arlington. First, the way Arlington suddenly reversed its land-use planning and regulatory policies, in the 1970s, vividly illustrates a process that took place throughout the metropolitan area. Second, Arlington is significant because it is the kind of place that is pivotal to regional development. As an inner suburb of Boston, close to major centers of employment, Arlington is the type of locality that must accept high population density if the metropolitan area is to achieve efficient land use and settlement patterns. Its increasing unwillingness to do so illustrates the political obstacles that must be overcome if housing opportunities are to be expanded, sprawl is to be contained, and open space is to be preserved.


The 5.5 square miles northwest of Boston that is now Arlington was originally a section of Cambridge known as Menotomy. The town became independent in 1867 and changed its name to honor the Civil War soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Originally a farming community, the town was home to the first gristmill in New England. In the 19th century, it added industries, such as manufacturing saws and harvesting the ice on Spy Pond. During the 20th century, Arlington evolved into a commuter suburb.

Like many changing communities, Arlington was quick to adopt a rudimentary and relatively unrestrictive zoning code. Instituting zoning on June 3, 1924, two days before the city of Boston adopted its first zoning ordinance, Arlington placed close to 90 percent of the town’s land in two residential zones of approximately equal size. While both districts had a three-story (45-foot) height limit, the Single Residence District allowed only detached single-family houses (and institutional structures such as churches and schools), while the General Residence districts allowed two-family houses, row houses, and boarding houses. The rest of the town, mainly areas along its two transportation corridors—Massachusetts Avenue and the Boston & Maine Railroad line (now the Minuteman Bikeway)—was zoned for business uses, which included apartment buildings. Unlike later restrictions, however, Arlington’s first zoning map essentially just described what already existed.

The 1960s brought an epidemic of bland
“pillbox” apartments to Arlington.

After World War II, demand for housing boomed, spurred in part by the GI Bill, which encouraged the development of new homes for veterans returning from World War II and the Korean War. Over the next two decades, Arlington responded by encouraging developers who met the zoning code’s relatively simple requirements. The permitting and business arrangements were simple, even casual, and relied heavily on personal relationships. As Leon Lombard, a retired contractor who built 15 to 20 houses a year in the late 1950s and ’60s, recalls, when he wanted to build a house, he would simply obtain a stock house design from an architect and go to Town Hall to ask the town engineer to draw him a plot plan. The town engineer would produce the plan on his own time, after work hours. Lombard would then take the plan and permit application to the building inspector, pay the required fee, and begin construction.

In addition to encouraging single-family houses, the town created several new districts zoned especially for apartment buildings. Given Arlington’s proximity to Boston and Cambridge and later to the growing computer industry on Route 128, these buildings were particularly attractive to young couples and professionals. Town leaders, moreover, viewed apartments as a particularly attractive way to generate property tax revenues. “If Arlington is to increase its assessed valuation,” declared town manager Edward Monahan, shortly after his appointment in 1953, “apartment houses will have to paper Arlington.” By 1968 Arlington contained 112 apartment buildings of various sizes, and six of the largest property taxpayers in town were apartment house owners.

Despite town leaders’ support for growth, and for apartments in particular, by the early 1960s, some residents began to turn against development. In 1961, owners of a large unoccupied tract between the Boston & Maine railroad tracks and Spy Pond persuaded town meeting members to rezone the land so they could build three five-story apartment buildings on the site. Saying they had been caught by surprise, the project’s neighbors, led by two physicians, fought to overturn the decision. They were unsuccessful, but in February 1962 a coalition of neighborhood associations and local residents formed the town-wide Save Arlington Association, which pledged to fight a host of rezoning requests that were scheduled to come before town meeting later that year.


The case made by the apartment rezoning opponents pres-aged the kinds of arguments that have been made to stop residential development in the Boston area and elsewhere in the United States ever since. On legal grounds, apartment opponents objected to “spot zoning,” a violation of the postwar zoning principle that different land uses should be kept separate. (Both 19th-century development patterns and contemporary advocates of “smart growth” reject this notion.) Opponents worried about overpopulation, and attendant ills such as traffic congestion. They countered the rationale that apartment buildings reduced property tax rates by arguing that the added cost of services—such as road maintenance, sewers, water supply, police, and trash removal—offset any reduction in taxes. And, like the enemies of growth often do today, Arlington’s rezoning opponents of the early 1960s charged that the construction of flats would add to the school-age population and therefore raise the costs of schools. Finally, they objected that the buildings next to Spy Pond would ruin the view and recreational space, an early version of the environmental and open space arguments often used today.

The opposition drew from two main groups of residents. Some were upper-middle-class professionals who feared that continued construction of apartments would destroy the town’s suburban character, which was more pronounced in the western parts of town farther from Cambridge and Somerville and closer to Winchester and Lexington. Other apartment fighters were middle- and working-class residents, most of them from East Arlington, a relatively dense area of two- and three-family homes where many of the apartments were being built.

After the anti-apartment group emerged in early 1962, builders withdrew nine petitions for rezoning. Over the next decade, builders, town officials and other town leaders sought ways to encourage apartment buildings without arousing significant neighborhood opposition. The town’s 1962 comprehensive plan expanded the areas where apartments were permitted but, in deference to local residents, also called for the preservation of historic homes and neighborhoods. Following national trends, reformers acted to preserve local features they considered desirable by persuading the town to establish the Arlington Conservation Commission in 1966 and the Arlington Historical Commission in 1970. The latter body had the power to veto construction and demolition permits that involved exterior changes to structures deemed historically or architecturally significant. In addition, a desire to spur and shape development also led the town to create its first professional planning department in 1969 and to create the Arlington Redevelopment Board in 1972.

Initially, the new policies and bodies did little to slow down apartment construction in Arlington. Between 1962 and 1972, Arlington issued an average of 226 permits a year for units in multifamily structures. By 1970 more than a third of the town’s housing units were in buildings of five or more. Moreover, the town’s population had grown to 50,000, up from about 36,000 in 1930.

Many of the new apartments were in square- or rectangular-shaped, brick-clad, three-to-five-story buildings that contained 12 to 18 units. Because of the town’s landscaping and setback regulations, which aimed to maintain open space and avoid congestion, the buildings were typically set back on their lots with a small lawn at the front and sides and sometimes a parking lot in the back. Built during the heyday of postwar modernism, the facades of these apartment blocks were devoid of ornament.

Much like the three-deckers constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these structures were inexpensive to build and maintain. And, just as the three-decker was disparaged as “Boston’s weed” as it sprouted all over the region, these undistinguished buildings were looked down upon, their appearance likened to a “pillbox.” In fact, opponents of denser development in neighboring Cambridge and other locales often invoked the specter of the “Arlington pillbox” in their anti-growth campaigns.


In 1973, apartment opponents finally gained the upper hand in town government. In March, pro-planning reformers Margaret Spengler and George Rugg waged successful sticker campaigns and replaced two old-line incumbent selectmen, who had maneuvered to keep Spengler and Rugg off the ballot. Spengler’s political base was in the League of Women Voters, an upper-middle-class reform organization, while Rugg had the support of anti-apartment leaders in middle- and working-class East Arlington.

(The two wings of the Arlington planning reform coalition did not see eye to eye on all issues, however. Three years later, the two groups split in a bitter debate over a proposed extension of the MBTA’s Red Line from Harvard Square to Arlington Heights. Progressive-minded leaders —including members of the Arlington Redevelopment Board and the board of selectmen, led by Spengler—envisioned the subway as a means to revitalize Arlington’s moribund commercial strips. But many of the town’s blue-collar and white-collar middle-class residents, galvanized by the pastor of a Catholic church who feared safety problems near his church and an adjacent parochial school, successfully fought the subway they thought would bring urban congestion and crime to Arlington.)

During the campaign, both Spengler and Rugg supported the new Arlington Redevelopment Board, which had moved to regulate new apartment construction more strictly and was asking for a two-year moratorium on apartment buildings while it developed a new comprehensive zoning plan. A month after the election, town meeting approved the moratorium.

The new zoning bylaw, which passed in 1975, had 17 districts (as compared to 10 in 1967). It divided the long business and apartment house zone that ran along Massachusetts Avenue into smaller one-to-four-block districts categorized as business, low-, medium-, or high-density apartment house areas. Within these districts, the planners imposed more demanding requirements for new multifamily development, such as larger minimum lot sizes, lower height limits, and a minimum number of parking spaces.

Even if a developer were willing to meet the new requirements, he still had to run a gauntlet of new procedures. Under a new provision in state law, the regulations now made construction of three-family houses, townhouses, and apartment buildings contingent on a special permit issued by the Zoning Board of Appeals. Also in keeping with new state guidelines, the bylaw created two new “overlay” districts: a floodplain district, comprised of lowlands subject to seasonal or periodic flooding; and wetlands, defined as all land within 25 feet of any of the town’s water bodies (including streams) or designated as having poor drainage. Before the Zoning Board of Appeals could grant a special permit in these areas, the town’s conservation commission, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (now the Department of Environmental Protection), and the state Department of Public Works (now the Massachusetts Highway Department) had to approve the application. In addition, the town’s inspector of buildings, the board of health, the conservation commission, the town engineer, and the redevelopment board were required to submit their recommendations regarding the application.

Moreover, the new law obliged the developers of proj-ects with eight or more dwellings in one or more buildings, along with developers of any project on the town’s main street, to undergo another new procedure, “environmental design review.” This process called on developers to address an elaborate set of goals, such as preserving the landscape, linking the new building to both built and natural environments, maximizing open space, draining surface water, placing utility services underground, promoting and respecting heritage, and curtailing any effect on the local “microclimate.” As originally written, the zoning board of appeals supervised environmental design reviews, but within a few years the redevelopment board assumed control of environmental design review. In 1980 and again in 1998 the town added more thoroughfares to the list of places requiring environmental design review; in 1983, a public hearing was added to the process as well.

Not surprisingly, many developers stopped building homes, particularly multifamily homes, in Arlington. In the decade after the new zoning went into effect, in 1975, the town issued an average of 21 permits a year for units in multifamily structures, less than one-10th of the 225 permits a year it averaged in the decade 1963 to 1973, when the moratorium took effect. In total, Arlington, which had issued permits for almost 3,000 dwelling units in the 1960s, issued only about 800 permits in the 1970s, roughly 600 in the 1980s, and only 66 permits in the 1990s.


The case of Time Oldsmobile illustrates how the byzantine regulatory framework that has evolved in Arlington since the 1970s stymies development—and why Richard Keshian, a local attorney who was involved in the latest rounds, now says, “many only develop in Arlington once.”

Located next to St. Athanasius Greek Orthodox Church, across the street from the historic Jason-Russell House and about a block from Arlington Town Hall, the site at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Mill Street housed automobile-related facilities throughout most of the 20th century. In the 1980s, David Friedland, who owned the Time Oldsmobile dealership, set out to modernize the facility. With St. Athanasius suing because a proposed new roof would block a view of the church and round after round of public hearings drawing out opposition to a parking garage (at first three levels, then two), it took Friedland four years to get the Arlington Redevelopment Board to approve a plan for the site.

In 1997, the car dealership went out of business. The Osco Drug chain purchased the site and, in 1998, sought permission to raze the building and build a drugstore in its place. In 1999, after five public hearings, the redevelopment board rejected this proposal because, among other problems, it would increase traffic congestion. Osco appealed the decision to the Massachusetts Land Court, but two years later the appeal was denied.

Meanwhile, so many letters had fallen off the building’s sign that it now read old bile and the building itself was slowly deteriorating. In August 2001 the building was demolished and tall weeds and a “For Sale” sign was planted at this conspicuous location.

In 2002, Brooks Pharmacies, which had purchased Osco Drug, concluded that the redevelopment board would never approve a drugstore on the site and hired Michael Collins, a local developer, to devise a politically, financially, and legally viable development plan for the site. Collins proceeded carefully. In June 2003, after extensive meetings with town officials and concerned neighbors and much work with financial consultants and architects, he put forward plans for a multi-building complex with 46 condominiums and underground parking. In keeping with a 2001 town bylaw requiring that 15 percent of new units in multifamily developments be affordable to moderate-income households, seven of the units were to be affordable.

The redevelopment board asked Collins to modify the plan to allow fire trucks onto the site, and in late August Collins showed the members a scaled-down proposal that reduced the number of total units to 32, with affordable dwellings down to five. Although zoning required an 18-foot setback, the architects fit the dwellings and the fire lane onto the site by setting the units nine feet from the sidewalk. To give first-floor residents privacy, they placed a low wall enclosing a small area of greenery around the houses. The plan also featured a courtyard with a gazebo, a landscape showpiece clearly visible from the Mass. Ave./Mill St. intersection. After meeting with the board, Collins further revised the plan, and in October 2003 he filed for a special permit to build 35 condominiums in three buildings.

In November 2003, there was yet another public hearing. Members of the redevelopment board, which had earlier blocked a drugstore at the site, now asked if Collins could include retail space on the street. Several neighbors, including attorney John Worden, the longtime moderator of town meeting, objected that the project was not compatible with the Jason-Russell House, site of the bloodiest battle of the first day of the American Revolution. Worden also warned that unless he was satisfied, he would oppose the project, which Collins interpreted as a threat to challenge the permit in court.

Worden and other opponents never explained why the design of the housing project was inappropriate, considering that the commercial block on the other side of the intersection included a pizza parlor, copy shop, and real estate office. Worden’s objection, for example, that “we don’t do walls in Arlington” disregarded the three-foot-high wall that has long surrounded the Jason-Russell House.

Worried about the cost a long legal fight would incur, Collins, who by that time had bought the parcel from the Brooks Co., decided in March 2004 to shelve the multifamily housing plan and instead build nine two-family houses and one single-family house on the site. Since this was a “by right” use of the site, he did not have to go through the environmental design review process. In addition, since each building would be a one- or two-family house, he did not have to include any affordable housing units in the 19-unit development. The town’s planners and members of the redevelopment board were bitterly disappointed, but they could not convince Collins to revert to his previous plan and risk a court challenge.

rlington’s shift from a casual pro-growth regime in the mid 20th century to a procedural and effectively anti-growth system in recent decades was hardly unique. During the late 20th century, municipalities throughout greater Boston turned strongly against development, adopting similar mechanisms—such as building moratoriums, special permits, environmental design reviews, and highly restrictive zoning laws—to control it.

These policies have had a profound impact upon the region’s land-use and settlement patterns. If the development policies of the past had persisted, developers could have responded quickly to changes in demand for homes, and in particular for apartments. As was the case in the trolley era, developers could have produced multifamily housing close to employment centers and/or transportation to them, where the demand was highest. Freer rein on production would likely have increased supply and lowered prices of dwellings beyond the levels that prevail today. Greater Boston might have generated more efficient land uses, circulation patterns, and distribution of population than it did. Such gains would have had their own costs, in the form of demolition of Victorian-era homes, change in the character and functions of neighborhoods, and perhaps the increased construction of certain types of buildings, such as pillbox or high-rise apartments, that many find unappealing.

Today, almost everyone believes we should respect the character of communities, protect the local environment, and save buildings considered historically significant. Yet the history of land-use regulation in Arlington shows that in pursuing these admirable goals, Massachusetts communities created a torturous process for approving new housing. Furthermore, local regulatory procedures have become vehicles for rampant parochialism, the opposite of the planning ideal of organizing metropolitan areas for the good of all. Given how far the regulatory pendulum has swung, it seems high time to craft and execute a public policy that restores the balance not only between communal controls and individual property rights but also between local and metropolitan interests.

Alexander von Hoffman is a senior research fellow at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. This article is based on a longer study of land-use regulation in Arlington that was funded and will be published by Harvard’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, Taubman Center for State and Local Government, and Real Estate Academic Initiative.