Current Proposal to Comply With the MBTA Communities Law

Current Proposal: Two Overlay Districts 

The current proposal from the MBTA Working Group is a proposed Zoning Bylaw Amendment. The Amendement will create two Multi-Family Residential Overlay Districts (the “Overlay Districts”). In the Overlay Districts, property owners who wished to redevelop their property could choose to build multi-family housing. They could also build the single-family or duplex dwellings they can build now.

The current proposal only relates to zoning capacity. It would give property owners in the Overlay District more options if they chose to build something new. But it would not require people to build anything.  

Where Would the Overlay Districts Be Located? 

Town residents have expressed support for encouraging housing close to existing retail and public transit and for preserving existing commercial zones. In keeping with these preferences, the two Overlay Districts in the current proposal would be located on and close to Mass Ave and Broadway. The Districts would not overlap with the existing commercial zones in any part of town.  

The Overlay Districts would take up less than 3% of Arlington’s buildable land.  The proposed Mass Ave/Broadway Multi-Family Overlay District (the “MBMF”) would be made up of parcels on Mass Ave and Broadway.  The proposed Neighborhood Multi-Family Overlay District (the “NMF”) would be made up of parcels just off Mass Ave and Broadway.

The ARB will consider two maps for the precise location of the MBMF and NMF. These are the map the Working Group has recommended and an alternative map the Department of Planning and Community Development has suggested.  

What Kinds of Buildings Could People Build in the Overlay Districts? 

To encourage a variety of housing, zoning in the Overlay Districts would limit buildings by height rather than number of units. The maximum height in the MBMF would be four stories, up to 52’. The maximum height in the NMF would be four stories, up to 46’. In both districts, the zoning would require 15’ front setbacks. Allowing up to four stories encourages buildings that are accessible to people who need stair-free housing. These include downsizing seniors and disabled people. Buildings of four or more stories must have elevators and must comply with ADA requirements. 

In any building with six or more units, at least 15% of units would be required to be affordable. This is per Arlington’s Inclusionary Zoning statute. 

To encourage more commercial development in town, height bonuses would be available in the MBMF. Buildings with at least 60% of space on the ground floor devoted to commercial uses could build up to six stories on Mass Ave and five stories on Broadway. 

What Would the Maximum Capacity of the Overlay Districts Be? 

The Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities (EOHLC) is responsible for helping communities to determine whether they are in compliance with the MBTA Communities Law. EOHLC has estimated, assuming an average unit size of 1,000 square feet and zero parking, that the capacity of the Overlay Districts would be about 7,200 units. This is the maximum number of units that people could, in theory, build in the Overlay Districts. It does not predict how many units people will build. There are approximately 2,100 units in the districts currently.

Why Should Arlington Go Beyond the Minimum Capacity Required By the Law? 

The Working Group’s proposed amendment to the by-laws goes beyond the minimum capacity that Arlington must allow in order to comply with the MBTA Communities Law. That’s because doing the bare minimum would not result in a meaningful amount of additional housing for Arlington.  Even when permitted by right, new development comes slowly.

In 2021, for example, Town Meeting voted to allow Accessory Dwelling Units by right throughout Arlington. Since then, only a handful of homeowners have taken the opportunity to build ADUs. Fewer than 10 ADUs have been built to date.

Our neighbors in Lexington, which was the first community to change its zoning rules to comply with the Law, have also opted to exceed the Law’s minimum requirements. If we truly want more housing options for Arlington residents, greener and more accessible development in our town, and a fairer housing market in our state, we cannot simply make reforms on paper. We have to take bolder action that will result in meaningful change.