Arlington Continues Master Plan Discussions

The citizens of Arlington engaged in an active and well publicized discussion about all the elements of a proposed new town Master Plan.  These discussions took place in well attended public meetings held, primarily, at the Senior Center/ Central School’s main public meeting space.  They were held in a series of meetings, each meeting considering one “element” or subject of the proposed master plan between late 2014 and early 2015.  Each of the elements was presented by staff and consultants, and thoroughly discussed by a wide range of citizen attendees.  After additional discussion in Town Meeting, Town Meeting members voted to adopt the Master Plan in the spring of 2015.

Following is a list of each of the elements of the Master Plan that were discussed and approved at that 2015 Town Meeting.   The links lead to a more detailed description of each of the Master Plan elements.

What as a Master Plan?

Article 1 in a series on the Arlington, MA master planning process. Located about 15 miles north west of Boston, the Town of Arlington is now developing a master plan that will reflect the visions and expectations of the community and will provide enabling steps for the community to move toward this vision over the… Read More

Arlington Choices for Future Land Use

Article 2 in a series on the Arlington, MA Master Planning process.  Arlington, relative to other communities in the region, is a densely developed residential suburb with some commercial centers and a variety of interesting, walkable neighborhoods spread over a topography of hills, streams, ponds and flat lands. The Town’s property… Read More

Traffic and Transportation Issues Shape Arlington’s Future

Article 3 in a series on the Arlington, MA Master Planning process.   A conversation about transportation issues extends well beyond rush hour car traffic congestion.  As the Town contemplates its future 20 years from now, should it build wider streets, wider bike paths, wider sidewalks or none of the above? If… Read More

Arlington Master Plan Considers Economic Development

Article 4 in a series on the Arlington, MA Master Planning process.  Most of Arlington’s budget depends on the Town’s tax base. As the cost of services increases, the Town budget must increase. Massachusetts communities are limited in their ability to increase taxes on existing property. Many municipalities have developable land… Read More

Housing Choices Shape Affordability and Vitality of Town Future

Article 5 in a series on the Arlington, MA Master Planning process.  The Master Plan will have a distinct section focusing on housing and in Arlington there will be much to decide. Housing prices in Arlington are among the fastest rising in the region. According to a recent article in the… Read More

Master Plan to Preserve Open Space and Natural Resources for Future

Article 6 in a series on the Arlington, MA Master Planning process.   Arlington residents value the town’s walkability, woodlands and water vistas and tree lined streets. It will require careful Town policy and citizen advocacy to preserve these valuable assets for the future. The Master Plan, now in draft form… Read More

Arlington History Preserved in New Master Plan

Article 7 in a series on the Arlington, MA Master Planning process.  Reminders of Arlington’s Revolutionary War history are scattered throughout the town. The town, first inhabited by the Algonquian group of Native Americans, then settled by European colonists in 1635 and incorporated in 1807, took its current name in… Read More

Public Buildings and Services:  How Much Dues Municipality Need?

Article 8 in a series on the Arlington, MA Master Planning process. Prepared by Barbara Thornton Town buildings, both school and municipal, comprise 1.3 million square feet of building space. That is a lot of property to maintain. And it doesn’t include the Town’s open space, parks and fields. Some properties key to the town’s… Read More

Public Buildings & Services: How Much Does Municipality Need?

Article 8 in a series on the Arlington, MA Master Planning process. Prepared by Barbara Thornton

Town buildings, both school and municipal, comprise 1.3 million square feet of building space.  That is a lot of property to maintain.  And it doesn’t include the Town’s open space, parks and fields.   Some properties key to the town’s identity have been bequeathed to the town by earlier citizens.  Robbins library is an example.  Other properties end up almost by accident in Town ownership, the Disabled American Veterans building is an example.  Most buildings are explicitly acquired, newly constructed or repurposed to serve the evolving needs of the community.  New elementary schools and renovated fire stations are scheduled years in advance based on a carefully planned process to balance what the Town can afford with what the Town needs.

Perform a Space Needs Analysis for All Town Owned Buildings

Through the longer term lens of the master plan process, some flaws in the traditional process of acquiring, renovating and maintaining our public facilities emerges.  Some buildings are underutilized.  Some departments need more space.  The area comprising the Civic Block is a good example of how a “space needs analysis” might better reapportion space to meet the growing needs of the Arlington Senior Center and Town Hall.  Another example is the Department of Public Works which has many core functions inefficiently spread across several buildings.  The Master Plan recommends a space needs analysis to rebalance the requirements for building space with the availability of space.

Sell or Repurpose Underutilized Buildings

In reviewing the needs of the Town, including the operating costs of services, the Master Plan asks the Town to consider a policy for disposing of properties that no longer serve public purposes.  Some of the Town’s older elementary schools are now sought after housing.  Should the Town retain buildings that it no longer needs?  Should it sell or lease the buildings?  What guidelines should the community use to make these decisions?  In the next few years a new or substantially renovated high school will be needed.  Current kindergarten registration is substantially higher than expected.  With apparent pressure for more classroom space, should the Town sell property and use the cash for more space?  Or should it first repurpose all existing buildings for its future needs?

Add Maintenance Capacity for Town & School Buildings

No matter what the decision, maintaining over a million square feet of building space is a challenge.  When RKG Associates looked at Arlington’s investment in the Department of Public Works budget compared to surrounding communities, they found 1.8 FTE (full time equivalent) positions in Arlington compared to an average of 2.15 FTE in the Northeast Region.  Arlington is already straining the capacity of DPW to maintain existing facilities.  Fortunately, both the Board of Selectman and the draft Master Plan recognizes this problem.  In Fall, 2012, the Board of Selectmen called for a report on the formation of a maintenance policy and plan for the Town.  The Master Plan, too, recommends the establishment of a preventative maintenance program and the funding of a full time facilities manager position.  See  Page 154 of the Draft Master Plan.

Citizens’ Turn to Speak

These and many other choices are on the table now for the citizens of Arlington.  The DRAFT Master Plan is available for review and comment .   Comment period closes December 1, about a week away.  The development of the Master Plan represents an historic opportunity for the community to reflect on its history and develop the tools to move into the future.

There will be a public hearing on the DRAFT Master Plan on January 12, 2015.

Arlington History Preserved In New Master Plan

Article 7 in a series on the Arlington, MA Master Planning process. Prepared by Barbara Thornton

Reminders of Arlington’s Revolutionary War history are scattered throughout the town.  The town, first inhabited by the Algonquian group of Native Americans, then settled by European colonists in 1635 and incorporated in 1807, took its current name in 1867.  Both formal memorials like the Uncle Sam statue and Cyrus Dallin’s “Menotomy Indian Hunter” statue as well as historic homes and manufacturing areas (Schwamb Mill) are part of the weave of history that gives the town identity.   The history also includes objects, documents, designated landscapes and cemeteries. 

Mill Brook, a Key Heritage Landscape

The heritage landscape of Mill Brook is lost in some places as the waterway passes through the town.  But where it is visible, it is still a reminder of how manufacturing sites like Schwamb Mill used the waterway to move the town into the industrial era.  The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) completed Heritage Landscape Studies in 2006.  DCR identified 63 heritage landscapes in the community and identified Mill Brook as a priority landscape.  Other priorities included:  Battle Road Corridor; the Butterfield-Whittemore house; the Mugar property, Spy Pond and the W.C. Taylor House.   Deciding whether and how to preserve vistas of the historically significant Mill Brook will be one of the tasks of the Master Plan.

Identify and Preserve Historical Properties

Some of the challenges facing the plan involve 1) identifying the historically significant buildings, landscapes and artifacts; 2) determining whether to invest in preserving them for the future community;   3) finding the funding to acquire properties;   4) implementing effective maintenance operations to preserve them.  Ownership ranges from private individuals, through Town, State and non-governmental organizations.  For each form of ownership, there may be different procedures for preserving and maintaining the properties.    Design guidelines for preservation and renovation are available.  In areas designated as “historic districts” or in historic buildings guidelines have more power of enforcement than in places not so designated.

In addition to funding, guidelines and regulatory authorizes, Arlington has several local and regional organizations that provide information and support for historic preservation.   These include:  Arlington Historical Commission (AHC), Arlington Historic District Commission (AHDC), Arlington Preservation Fund, Inc., Arlington Public Library, Arlington Historical Society, Cyrus Dallin Art Museum, Old Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc. and Freedom’s Way Heritage Association (FWHA).

Master Plan Offers Tools to Help

The Master Plan can better integrate the identification and preservation of historic assets into the ongoing planning process of Town government.

  • Guide the development of a historic and archaeological resources inventory.
  • Seek Certified Local Government (CLG) status for the Arlington Historical Commission.
  • Expand community wide preservation advocacy and education
  • Amend the Zoning Bylaw to incorporate historic preservation into the development review process.
  • Adopt flexible zoning to encourage preservation.
  • Provide support to Historic Districts.
  • Maintain and preserve Town owned historic resources.

On November 4, 2014 the Town voted to adopt the Community Preservation Act (CPA) which could set aside Arlington funds for the use of historic preservation projects.

Much to Preserve, Obvious and Subtle

The town values Spy Pond for its beautiful vistas but also for the history of shipping ice from Spy Pond to chill food for hundreds of miles distant.  The Jason Russell house is a well-known historic building, but the farm housing, mill housing, and Lustron homes  along route 2 are more subtle reminders of the town’s long history.  The Jarvis House and Mt. Gilboa have historic significance.  But are they significant enough to warrant continued preservation, investment, maintenance and oversight by the Town government?

Making Choices with Limited Resources

If funds and manpower are limited, does the town set a priority on the most useable properties?  The oldest properties?  The easiest to preserve properties?

If resources are limited, is it enough to just identify and list all properties?  What should be publicly owned?  Privately owned but subject to historic preservation guidelines?

Many of the historic properties are now Town owned.  The “Civic Block”  in Arlington Center contains the Town Hall, the Robbins Library, the Whittemore Robbins House (including cottage and carriage house), a garden that holds the Dallin sculpture and an historic cemetery, the Central School (know housing the Arlington Senior Center) and the Maple St. house.  This town center compound contains both the center of town government today and the buildings preserved from prior eras.  The space is much used.  What, if any, additional investments should go toward maintaining, preserving and reusing the space and facilities in the Civic Block for the use of the community?

Citizens Voices Heard Now

These and many other choices are on the table now for the citizens of Arlington.  The DRAFT Master Plan is available for review and comment .   Comment period closes December 1, about a week away.  The development of the Master Plan represents an historic opportunity for the community to reflect on its history and develop the tools to move into the future.

There will be a public hearing on the DRAFT Master Plan on January 12, 2015 at the Arlington Town Hall.

Master Plan to Preserve Open Space & Natural Resources for Future

Article 6 in a series on the Arlington, MA Master Planning process. Prepared by Barbara Thornton

Arlington residents value the town’s walkability, woodlands and water vistas and tree lined streets.  It will require careful Town policy and citizen advocacy to preserve these valuable assets for the future.  The Master Plan, now in draft form, assesses the challenges and makes recommendations for how to preserve and enhance the open space and natural resources the community now enjoys.

Open Space Held by Different Owners

Some facts to frame the situation:  41% of Arlington is covered with impervious surfaces, buildings, roads, etc., making it harder for water to drain into the ground.  Additional area is covered by rocky ledge.  Surface water covers Approximately 6% of the land area – two lakes, two ponds, one reservoir, one river and several brooks, and  15% of the town’s land area is publicly owned open space including conservation land, land in schools, parks and recreational uses and other town or state owned land.  Arlington Conservation Commission (ACC) oversees and manages 25 land parcels with a combined total of 50 acres (see Table 7.2). Arlington also owns the 183 acre Great Meadows, ironically located entirely in Lexington.  The state owns and Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) manages several parcels including the 120 acre Alewife Brook Reservation and the land along the Mystic River and around the Mystic Lakes dam.  Areas designated as wetlands and floodplains also limit development and hold the community closer to the natural environment.

Concerns for Sustainability and Climate Change Adaption Guide Actions

The nine Vision 2020 goals the town adopted in the 1990’s anticipated a sustainable community.  Volunteer and Town actions like the “Arlington Sustainability Action Plan” developed by the Vision 2020 Environment Task Group led to the Town hiring an energy coordinator, a recycling manager and the purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles.  The “Safe Routes to School” initiative, the Minuteman Bikeway, the “complete streets” plan for Mass Ave in East Arlington, the “Tree City” designation, the recycling program, Hurd Field “rain gardens” and porous parking, are all examples of how citizen concerns and volunteer action have led to significant sustainability initiatives.  These actions set the stage for Arlington’s designation by the Massachusetts Green Communities Program in 2010 as a “Green Community”.

Challenges Remain- How Will the Community Respond?

Protecting and preserving open space, water quality, urban wildlife, tree cover and managing environmental hazards continue to challenge Arlington citizens and officials.  The Master Plan raises several questions for how the community might respond to these challenges.

  1. Should there be disincentives for the “teardown” of smaller and older homes that reduce open space or tree cover?
  2. Can mixed use development be encouraged in areas where infrastructure is already in place?
  3. What are the best opportunities for linking existing open space?
  4. Are there locations suitable for “urban agriculture”?
  5. How can Arlington residents support efforts to better maintain its trees, water bodies and passive recreation land?

Ideas discussed include a linear park along Mill Brook, improved access to shorelines along Spy Pond, Mystic Lake and Mill Brook, rooftop gardens, food growing in green strips between sidewalk and street, re-imagining uses to preserve open space at Poet’s Corner and the flood-prone Mugar property and, revising the zoning bylaw to allow “form based” zoning code in support of enhancing open space, improving streetscape, preserving tree, control flooding etc.

Key to the success of the past initiatives, and to the future, is Arlington’s tradition of informal and flexible support of the creative initiatives of the town’s citizens.

Arlington Advocate’s Master Plan series:

1:  Arlington shows the way with master plan.

2:  Arlington Master Plan: Choices for future land use

3:  Traffic and transportation issues shape Arlington’s future

4:  Arlington Master Plan considers economic development

5:  Housing choices shape future affordability, vitality

Housing Choices Shape Affordability and Vitality of Town Future

Article 5 in a series on the Arlington, MA Master Planning process. Prepared by Barbara Thornton

Residential Uses May Push Out Commercial Uses

The Master Plan will have a distinct section focusing on housing and in Arlington there will be much to decide.  Housing prices in Arlington are among the fastest rising in the region.  According to a recent article in the Boston GLOBE (10-14-14) Arlington median home prices have jumped 15% in the last eight months, to $625,000.  Condo costs per square foot are higher in Arlington than in neighboring Lexington and Winchester. The average condo in Arlington jumped 22% to $433,750.   This is great news for people who already own a home.  But this trend suggests that, without planning for a variety of housing at various prices, the town will lose its economic diversity.  Children born here may not be able to afford to live here as adults.  The creative community of artists and writers now giving the Town identity may be priced out.  Maintaining the economic diversity of its citizens is only one of several housing questions Town residents will consider as the HOUSING section of the Master Plan is developed.

Under current zoning, commercial uses, like stores and businesses, can be replaced by housing with a special permit.  As a residence in Arlington becomes increasingly desirable, the commercial areas that add utility, vitality and taxes to the town will shrink.  Should residential use be prohibited in commercial zones?  Should the Town encourage mixed use development which is designed to include both residential and commercial?  Or should we leave the zoning as it is?

Arlington Has Tools for Creating Affordable Housing

In 1969 the state addressed the need for more affordable housing with the law known as Ch. 40B.  Arlington has only one 40B development and has relied, instead on the Housing Authority (AHA), the Housing Corporation (HCA), group homes and inclusionary zoning to add affordable housing to the Town.  As housing values increase and the availability of vacant land shrinks, will these tools be adequate for the community’s future housing needs?  Staff working on the Arlington Master Plan interviewed many people between May and July, 2013.  “Loss of affordable housing” was one of the major changes those interviewed mentioned.  Creating more affordable housing is something that a Master Plan can address.

Is “Mansionization” an Issue in Arlington?

A drive out Lowell St. toward Burlington shows plenty of examples of “mansionization”.  As Lexington became a more desirable community with higher sales prices, developers tore down smaller, older homes to build much larger new homes.  The community refreshes its housing stock, a good thing,  but loses the economic diversity and the architectural sensibility of the community’s history.  A Master Plan can address these concerns but only if the community is clear about the problems.  Loss of affordable housing?  Incompatible architectural styles?  Volume of house on the street?  Are there other benefits from these “tear downs”?

Housing Data:  Quantity, Size, Trends, Locations

The Arlington Planning Dept., led by Carol Kowalski, has gathered a great deal of data on housing in Arlington.  According to the 2011 census, there are 20,017 housing units in Town.  Between 2003 and 2014 many two and three family houses converted to condominiums, contributing to the addition of 959 condos to the housing stock.    Typical for this area, the housing stock is old, the median year of construction is 1931.  Although Arlington is considered a “mature and largely developed suburb”,  it offers a wide variety of densities within neighborhoods, home sizes and ages.  Over two thirds of all housing are two and three bedroom units and 16% are four bedroom units in Arlington, while almost 25% of all housing units in Middlesex County have four bedrooms.  Turkey Hill and Morningside neighborhoods are the least densely developed.  Arlington Center, Menotomy Rocks and Jason Heights neighborhoods have larger homes.  Arlington issued permits for 657 housing units since 2004.  Multi-family permits are strong with the redevelopment of Symmes Hospital as Arlington 360 and the Brigham Square development in the old ice cream factory area.   Several new larger housing developments have been approved in the Alewife area of Cambridge and in Belmont.  The town’s home ownership rate is 58%, similar to neighboring towns.  Over half the people living in Arlington in 2010 had lived here for 10 or fewer years, lots of new faces in town.  The housing report online includes much more information including tables of data.

What Should Future Neighborhoods Look Like?

If you could nominate three places in Arlington for a “most livable neighborhood” award, what places would you choose?  Why?  What qualities do they have that make them particularly good places to live?  Do we want to accentuate these qualities in other neighborhoods?  Or do we want to retain a variety of neighborhoods with their own special look and feel?  Arlington residents will have more opportunities in the coming months to share their thoughts about Housing and about the Master Plan in general.  Watch for an opportunity to share your ideas.

Arlington Master Plan Considers Economic Development

Article 4 in a series on the Arlington, MA Master Planning process.  Prepared by Barbara Thornton .

Most of Arlington’s budget depends on the Town’s tax base. As the cost of services increases, the Town budget must increase. Massachusetts communities are limited in their ability to increase taxes on existing property. Many municipalities have developable land that can add new value to the existing tax base. But Arlington has little developable land left. Retaining and expanding both the employment base and the tax base will require redevelopment on existing sites. Business districts along Massachusetts Avenue and other commercial areas are most likely to see this redevelopment. It will not only expand the tax base, it may give residents an opportunity to work closer to where they live.

The Master Planning process, coordinated through the Arlington Dept. of Planning and Development and assisted by RKG Associates, architects and planners, reported the following in their examination of the Town’s Economic Development issues:

Economic Development Goals:

  • Identify areas of “economic underutilization”
  • Maximize the buildout potential of commercial and industrial properties
  • Support conditions that benefit small, independent businesses
  • Improve access to public transit and parking
  • Preserve and maintain Arlington’s historic structures and cultural properties to leverage economic development

Key Findings on Economic Development

  1. Arlington’s convenient access to employment centers in Boston and Cambridge attracts highly educated and skilled homebuyers and renters. 39% of its labor force comutes to these two cities.
  2. Based on recent MCAS and SAT scores, Arlington has a highly ranked school district. This enhances the town’s residential appeal.
  3. The Town’s tax rate is lower than most surrounding cities and towns and does not have a separate, higher rate for commercial properties.
  4. Between 2008 and 2012 the number of businesses in Town increased by 70. And employment rates recovered, surpassing the pre-recession rates.
  5. A diverse base of local businesses covers nearly all industry sectors. Jobs in construction, personal and other services, education, health care, real estate and government make up larger percentages of employment here than in the Boston metropolitan area.
  6. Two theaters, Capitol and Regent, draw about 200,000 patrons a year who spend $2.4 million per year at shops and restaurants in these districts.
  7. A vibrant local arts community includes both organizations and many self employed residents who work in fine and performing arts. This creative infrastructure helps make Arlington’s commercial districts interesting places to shop, visit and work. And this boosts the use and value of the commercial properties.
  8. Wages paid by local employers in Arlington are much lower (-39%) than in Middlesex County for all industries except retail. This contributes to the fairly small percentage of Arlington residents who work in the town.

Town Profile: Redevelopment or Residential Property Tax Pain
Arlington is part of the Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA New England City and Town Area (NECTA) Division (Boston Metro), an area that includes Boston and ninety-two communities with employment ties to Greater Boston and the Route 128/I-95 suburbs. It has clear strengths in the Arts, Culture and Tourism sectors of economic development and in redevelopment opportunities to expand commercial and industrial development.

Currently there are 415 commercial and industrial properties in town, a combined total of 193 acres and about 2.5 million sq. ft. of floor space, generating over $6 million in real estate taxes.

Of the 4,400 respondents to the 2012 Arlington Vision 2020 annual survey (included in the Town Census), 67% rated “distinctive commercial centers” as important of very important to the town. Many believe that new economic development, opportunities for start-up businesses and the future of Arlington’s business districts are important for the Town. Analysis shows that by 2020 the current zoning by-law’s height and parking limits will significantly limit reinvestment in many of Arlington’s commercial parcels. This, in turn, will limit the growth in tax base revenue and in employment opportunities.

Most of the recent growth in tax base has been due to the redevelopment of residential property. The rate has fallen but the single family tax bill still remains among the top 50 highest in the state. This could be alleviated with an expansion of the commercial and industrial tax base which has declined from 9% in the 1980’s to just 6% of the Town’s tax base today. In order to restore taxes from commercial and industrial properties to the pre-recession level, the Town would need a plan that required major land use and density changes in the Town’s commercial and industrial districts. Just to regain the same balance of taxes from residential (back to 92% ) and commercial/ industrial (return to 8%), the Town would need to almost double the current amount of commercial floor space, the equivalent of adding another story to each existing commercial structure in town.

Public Discussion on Opportunities Will Shape Future
The meeting convened last April 3, 2014 to discuss the economic development plan included a wide ranging discussion on the need for change in the old density requirements defined primarily by zone and by height limitations. The Town has at least five sites where new commercial or mixed-use redevelopment could occur. The possibilities could enrich the town both financially and in building on its native strengths in arts, tourism and entrepreneurship. More discussions can be expected as the Master Plan is drafted and the Town moves toward a closer examination of its Zoning By-Laws.

Traffic and Transportation Issues Shape Arlington Future

Article 3 in a series on the Arlington, MA Master Planning process.  Prepared by Barbara Thornton.

A conversation about transportation issues extends well beyond rush hour car traffic congestion. As the Town contemplates its future 20 years from now, should it build wider streets, wider bike paths, wider sidewalks or none of the above? If reducing traffic congestion is a goal, is it possible to develop more job opportunities in town so residents can walk to work? If we value the walking opportunities and we value the lovely trees that make the walk pleasant, what material can we use on the 542,309 linear feet of town sidewalks so the roots won’t break through the walkway and create tripping hazards. Transportation planning can get complicated.

Arlington is fortunate to have a number of active groups, including the Town established TAC (Arlington Transportation Advisory Committee) and the ABAC (Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee as well as the citizen organized Vision 2020’s Transportation Taskforce and “Walking in Arlington” that look at transportation issues. PTO’s and the School Dept. plan for the safe transit of school children. The East Arlington neighborhood took a long and deep look at the traffic on Mass. Ave., spending a couple of years discussing the proposal to narrow the street in that neighborhood. The Town describes itself as having three “village areas” or neighborhood areas associated with the Town’s three distinct commercial areas: Arlington Center, Arlington Heights and East Arlington.

Discussion about transportation tends to focus on patterns to and from or through each of these areas. In addition, the plan addresses major corridors that bring through traffic from outside the Town. Various modes of transportation including walking, bikes, cars with one passenger, shared passenger cars and opportunities for ridesharing like Zipcar, Lyft or even Hubway for bikes.

On April 10, 2014 the Arlington MA Planning Dept. and RKG Associates sponsored a public discussion on circulation and transportation issues for the Master Plan. Here are the questions that were discussed.

1. How should the Town balance street capacity improvements with expanding multi-modal transportation options?
2. What could the Town do to extend and enhance “walkability” in Arlington Center, Arlington Heights, and East Arlington?
3, Can the Town better manage and enhance parking supply and distribution in the village centers? How: What changes would the community support?
4. Should the Town adopt standards for sustainable thoroughfares and parking areas? What kinds of standards would make sense in Arlington?
5. What can Arlington do to decrease congestion? Which of these ideas would you support?
a. Encourage students to walk or bike to school.
b. Develop employment opportunities in Arlington so that more people can shorten their commute.
c. Encourage safer biking and other alternatives to using private vehicles.
6. If the Town moves toward a higher density, how can transportation planning mitigate any negative impact on residential neighborhood quality of life?
7. Should the Town put more emphasis on providing more parking spaces or minimizing dependence on cars?

The Master Plan’s guiding goals for the Transportation section are

  • Enhance mobility and increase safety by maximizing transit, bicycle and pedestrian access and other alternative modes of transportation.
  • Manage congestion safely and efficiently by improving traffic operations.
  • Manage the supply of parking in commercial areas in order to support Arlington businesses.

More details on the transportation data and issues gathered for the Master Plan can be found here: http://arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19822

Upcoming articles in this series include

  • Economic Development
  • Housing
  • Open Space
  • Historic and Cultural Resource Areas
  • Public Facilities and Services
  • Natural Resources

Arlington Choices for Future Land Use

Article 2 in a series on the Arlington, MA Master Planning process.   Prepared by Barbara Thornton

Arlington, relative to other communities in the region, is a densely developed residential suburb with some commercial centers and a variety of interesting, walkable neighborhoods spread over a topography of hills, streams, ponds and flat lands. The Town’s property tax revenue pays for about 76% of the cost of operations, a relatively high percentage made more challenging because the Town has little room to add new property tax generating uses such as commercial or industrial development, and state law limits the growth in revenue from property tax to 2.5% a year, less than many of the inflationary costs local governments must cover.

The four goals for the land use section of the Master Plan are to 1) Balance housing growth with other supportive services and amenities; 2) Encourage development that enhances the quality of Arlington’s natural resources and built environment; 3) Attract development that supports and expands the economic, cultural and civic purposes of the commercial areas; 4)Focus mixed use development in Arlington’s commercial areas to support local businesses and provide services for residents. While Arlington has little open land that could be buildable for new tax revenue, it does have commercial areas that could be more densely developed, adding to the community’s revenue base.

Arlington’s topography also suggests some untapped and underutilized amenities for the community. Citizens value the historic character of the town but also want to ensure revenue to support the town’s future. Redevelopment opportunities exist that could enhance characteristics the community cherishes while adding expansion and diversification to the tax base. These opportunities will require an update to the old fashioned, linear approach to land use regulation outlined in the town’s current regulations. Access to open space and recreation amenities like Mill Brook and the Minuteman Bike Way can be enhanced with the right kind of redevelopment program.

A modern approach to land use can also improve the revenue generating opportunities and visual amenities along the Mass Ave. commercial corridor in specific nodes, like Arlington Heights, Arlington Center and Capitol Square in East Arlington, without disrupting the quality of life in adjacent residential neighborhoods. The current zoning map includes 19 different types of districts such as “Town House”, “Industrial”, “Vehicular Oriented Business”, etc. (See page 4, table 2.1 of the revised Land Use Working Paper so see the full list or the current Zoning Map on pg 10-11 of the Existing Conditions report). The zoning plan was essentially an effort to describe what existed at that time, starting in 1975. Some districts were so small, they only had one parcel. Arlington’s current zoning use regulations are unusually restrictive and don’t now match the actual use of land. For example, 49 acres are zoned for industrial development but only 14 acres are actually used for industrial purposes and 20% of the business zoned land is used for residential purposes. Old fashioned zoning tools no longer fit the Arlington of today.

Fortunately, zoning policy has evolved considerably since 1975. New techniques such as “form based codes” give a community the vocabulary to talk about neighborhoods and how the citizens want that neighborhood to look and feel when they are in it. “Mixed Use Development” is another tool that would allow the Town to regulate the use of residential units above commercial store fronts, a contemporary concept for walkable village areas, bringing a more vibrant street life both day and night. New planning approaches also allow a more flexible conversation about density, design elements, massing, transitional areas and other characteristics of the built environment that are hard to address just by dimensional requirements like minimum lot area requirements, side yard dimensions, building height, etc.

As the Town uses the Master Planning process to reconcile the challenges of growth, change, revenue, amenities and quality of life for the future, the community will face the opportunity to rewrite its antiquated zoning and land use regulations. The shared vocabulary provided through the Master Plan will make this easier. Currently Arlington is divided into separate “pods” of singularly defined land uses called “zoning districts” such as commercial, residential, institutional, agricultural and industrial.

Modern land use regulation moves toward language to describe the relationship between buildings and the “public realm” (streets, open spaces, civic places), the form and mass of buildings in relation to each other, and the type and purpose of streets and blocks. According to the RKG consultants’ working paper, “ Form-based codes focus on the form of a place, including the space between buildings that make up the public realm, such as where the building sits on a lot, the frontage, sidewalk, planting area, drainage, and the street itself. Form based codes also consider the scale of blocks in order to create walkable places.
A close look at the Town through the lens of the Master Planning process and using an updated vocabulary to define ways of regulating land use shows many terrific new opportunities for the Town in the future.

Each week, for the next several weeks, we will review the goals, findings and opportunities associated with each of the following sections of the Master Plan.
• Land Use existing conditions
• Economic Development
• Housing
• Open Space
• Historic and Cultural Resource Areas
• Public Facilities and Services
• Natural Resources

What is a Master Plan?

Article 1 in a series on the Arlington, MA master planning process. Prepared by Barbara Thornton

Arlington, located about 15 miles north west of Boston, is now developing a master plan that will reflect the visions and expectations of the community and will provide enabling steps for the community to move toward this vision over the next decade or two. Initial studies have been done, public meetings have been held. The Town will begin in January 2015 to pull together the vision for its future as written in a new Master Plan.

In developing a new master plan, the Town of Arlington follows in the footsteps laid down thousands of years ago when Greeks, Romans and other civilizations determined the best layout for a city before they started to build. In more recent times, William Penn laid out his utopian view of Philadelphia with a gridiron street pattern and public squares in 1682. Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant developed the hub and spoke street plan for Washington DC in 1798. City planning started with new cities, relatively empty land and a “master builder” typically an architect, engineer or landscape architect commissioned by the land holders to develop a visionary design.

In the 1900’s era of Progressive government in America, citizens sought ways to reach a consensus on how their existing cities should evolve. State and federal laws passed to help guide this process, seeing land use decisions as more than just a private landowner’s right but rather a process that involved improving the health and wellbeing of the entire community. While the focus on master planning was and still is primarily physical, 21st century master planners are typically convened by the local municipality, work with the help of trained planners and architects and rely heavily on the knowledge and participation of their citizenry to reflect a future vision of the health and wellbeing of the community. This vision is crafted into a Master Plan. In Arlington the process is guided by Carol Kowalski, Director of Planning and Community Development, with professional support from RKG Associates, a company of planners and architects and with the vision of the Master Planning advisory committee, co-chaired by Carol Svenson and Charles Kalauskas, Arlington residents, and by the citizens who share their concerns and hopes with the process as it evolves. This happens through public meetings, letters, email, and surveys. The most recent survey asks residents to respond on transportation modes and commuting patterns

We all do planning. Starting a family, a business or a career, we lay out our goals and assume the steps necessary to accomplish these goals and we periodically revise them as necessary. The same thing is true for cities. Based on changes in population, economic development, etc. cities, from time to time, need to revise their plans. In Massachusetts the enabling acts for planning and zoning are here http://www.mass.gov/hed/community/planning/zoning-resources.html. The specific law for Massachusetts is MGL Ch. 41 sect. 81D. This plan, whether called a city plan, master plan, general plan, comprehensive plan or development plan, has some constant characteristics independent of the specific municipality: focus on the built environment, long range view (10-20 years), covers the entire municipality, reflects the municipality’s vision of its future, and how this future is to be achieved. Typically it is broken out into a number of chapters or “elements” reflecting the situation as it is, the data showing the potential opportunities and concerns and recommendations for how to maximize the desired opportunities and minimize the concerns for each element.

Since beginning the master planning process in October, 2012, Arlington has had a number of community meetings (see http://vod.acmi.tv/category/government/arlingtons-master-plan/ ) gathering ideas from citizens, sharing data collected by planners and architects and moving toward a sense of what the future of Arlington should look like. The major elements of Arlington’s plan include these elements:
1. Visions and Goals http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19829
2. Demographic Characteristics http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19838
3. Land Use http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19834
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19825
4. Transportation http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19830
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19822
5. Economic Development http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19837
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19828
6. Housing http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19835
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19826
7. Open Space and Recreation http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19832
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19824
8. Historic and Cultural Resources http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19836
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19827
9. Public Facilities and Services http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19831
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19823
10. Natural Resources
Working paper: http://www.arlingtonma.gov/home/showdocument?id=19824

The upcoming articles in this series will focus on each individual element in the Town of Arlington’s Master Plan.