Town Split on Zoning Options

April 1, 2024
• While some residents urged caution in increasing housing density, local business owners shared their overwhelming support for robust changes at the Housing Needham community meeting Thursday night.

Discussion over possible rezoning under the MBTA Communities Law brought dozens of community members to Powers Hall in the HONE’s third town-wide workshop. Needham is currently considering two different scenarios: the Base Compliance Plan and the Neighborhood Housing Plan.

In short, the base plan would zone for the minimum amount of housing, as required by the new law, whereas the neighborhood plan expands upon the base plan, zoning for more units. That zoning must be within half a mile of MBTA service.

Several residents, including John Crimmings, suggested taking small steps, starting with the Base Compliance Plan.

“I don’t see the need to commit to the neighborhood plan now, not knowing what the impact on the infrastructure will be,” Crimmings said.

Parking and traffic emerged as recurring concerns, as HONE would recommend a minimum of one parking space per housing unit, with the assumption potential future residents would use nearby public transportation. Those remarks were met with skepticism — resident Jane Volden said she feels there’s nearly no local transit available in town.

HONE Chair and Select Board member Heidi Frail responded that the parking minimum is just that: a minimum. Developers could offer more spaces, Frail said, but Volden countered, saying “they don’t have to.” Parking studies have also found there to be “excess parking” in town, Frail said.

New Needham resident Paul Bennett feared new housing will bring more vehicular traffic, arguing that many residents who move to Needham will drive into Boston or elsewhere. He suggested adding a bus line near the Charles River Landing apartment complex that would better mitigate those traffic issues.

Needham High School juniors, who belong to the school’s Social & Political Activism Club, urged residents to prioritize the neighborhood plan. Their teachers commute quite the distance each morning, they said, and their adult neighbors seem to be missing the bigger picture. As is, the housing market will limit their ability to move back to Needham after graduating, stating “we are not the future faces of Needham.”

Needham businesses at the workshop largely favored the Neighborhood Compliance Plan.

For Jay Spencer, owner of French Press Bakery and Cafe, increased housing would bring more regular customers, which translates to more revenue. The zoning plan also promises to create more affordable housing opportunities — Spencer said some staffers commute up to 90 minutes one-way to clock in because “the cost of living even close to Needham has been prohibitive.”

“When we look at where we are today, our talent pool is shrinking incredibly fast, and I soon fear that it’s gonna affect customer service, which is something that we do every day to prevent because eventually it may be out of our control,” Spencer said. “Having a zoning change that allows downsizers, students and even Needham High School graduates to stay here will really help our business.”

Labor is one of the biggest challenges facing Volante Farms, co-owner Steve Volante said. Rezoning would ensure “a larger labor pool and a larger customer base” for small businesses, he said, and he believes the neighborhood plan seems to be the best course of action.

As a resident, Dan Goodman said additional housing would only further enhance the town’s “vibrancy” and support businesses near the town center. As a business owner, Goodman, who runs local technology company Building36, said recruiting early career engineers proves difficult.

“When we can’t find housing in town, they have to get farther and farther away,” Goodman said, who favors the extra housing plan. “It makes my business less attractive than my competition.”

At Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital – Needham, just 7% of its more than 1,000-person staff live in Needham, with 18% of staffers living in nearby communities, President John Fogarty said. In their view, accessible housing contributes to a stable workforce, which they haven’t had since the pandemic.

After many senior staff retired, the wide majority of their nurses are under 30 years old, Fogarty said. He voiced support for the neighborhood plan, which could strengthen their staff.

“We have to create a housing plan that supports the workforce of tomorrow,” Fogarty said, with a nod to the NHS juniors who previously spoke.

HONE will meet April 4 to, in part, review responses from the community meeting. A final version of the two plans will head to the state May 1, and Town Meeting is anticipated to select one of those plans this fall.

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