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.