MBTA Communities Zoning Awaits State Review

May 3, 2024
• After months of discussion and community meetings, Needham officials voted to submit their draft zoning to the state, who will take about three months to review the plans.

The Select Board convened with the Housing Needham Advisory Group, the Planning Board and the Finance Committee April 30 to talk through two suggested zoning scenarios the town could adopt to comply with the MBTA Communities Act. The state law, passed in 2021, requires communities across Greater Boston to zone for multifamily housing, a portion of which must be within half a mile of a Commuter Rail station.

Communities serviced by the MBTA, Needham included, must adhere to the law by the end of the year. For Needham specifically, that means zoning for at least 1,784 units, 90% of which must be located in that station area.

The drafted zoning was sent to the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities Wednesday, and the town plans to hear back by Aug. 1. After that, the Planning Board would need to finalize a zoning article to appear at the October Town Meeting, and the state will conduct a final review in December.

This vote follows three community meetings, the last of which was March 28, in which residents weighed in on the two proposed scenarios: the base compliance plan, with a capacity for 1,868 units, and the neighborhood compliance plan, with a capacity for 3,294 units. The base plan would meet the bare minimum requirement, whereas the neighborhood plan aims to increase the dimensional standards and density of units that could be built.

Within the identified zoning districts, there are 775 existing units with a capacity for 1,019 units and, with some overlays, greater density allowance for 1,636 units. Lee Newman, director of planning and community development, said there’s “a small delta between what exists and what the base zoning currently allows.”

The neighborhood plan calls for an increased height of buildings — from three to four stories — and incentivizes mixed-use development, with the ability for some business districts to add an additional half story under certain parameters. The Chestnut Street business district would see the largest density increase under the neighborhood plan, Newman said.

In its recommendations to the Planning Board, HONE hopes to allow four stories and a 1.4 floor-area-ratio in the Avery Square business subdistrict, which is 100 West St. That comes with the condition that the applicant provides 7.5% of its units as workforce housing, meaning for tenants with 80-120% of the area median income. HONE also suggests the board exempt structured parking from the FAR calculation for both of the two zoning scenarios in that district.

But despite plans to zone for possibly thousands of housing units, only a fraction of those are likely to be built. With the base plan, an estimated 222 units of 1,868 units would likely be constructed, and under the neighborhood plan, Needham may just see 1,099 units of the 3,294 unit capacity.

Those estimates are based on a propensity for change model, presented by consultant Eric Halvorsen with RKG Associates. The model considers assessed parcel value, and if parcels could generate a 50% or greater increase in value, Halvorsen said they are more likely to change under new zoning. A greater percentage of units could be constructed under the neighborhood plan because a larger FAR and more height allow for more units and therefore higher value, Halvorsen said.

In the Avery Square business district, the model shows that, under both plans, zero units would be expected to be built out. Both plans would zone for 187 units there.

The constraints in that district concern Select Board member Marianne Cooley. As a supporter of the MBTA Communities Act, Cooley said she hopes 100 West St. “comes back to life.”

“When I think we look at our community, which is growing and increasing exclusivity, I think that’s something that many of us regret and that we wish were a little bit different,” Cooley said. “But I know that if we want to see things being more affordable, we need to have more diverse housing options. We need to have more smaller options. We need more housing, period.”

HONE also proposes that 12.5% of new units in buildings with six or more total units be affordable. That exceeds the state requirement of 10%.

Under the propensity model for the base plan, the town could also lose almost $150,000 in property taxes when commercial properties become residential ones. In all three other scenarios, the town would see an increase in property taxes. For the neighborhood plan, the propensity model estimates the town could net nearly $2 million.

In terms of school enrollment impact, Needham Public Schools assert they would be able accommodate additional students projected under the propensity model and full-build outs for both plans, Deputy Town Manager Katie King said. The number of new students could range from around 19 to 264 between the base propensity plan and the neighborhood full-build plan.

Water and sewer also should accommodate new development, King said, as “much of the areas that are being proposed for rezoning are already impervious surface.” And while the town plans to make roadway improvements along Great Plain Avenue and Highland Avenue, King said Chestnut Street improvements could become a priority, given the proposed zoning.

However, it may take years before all the zoned units are leased — should the approximately 222 units be built with the base compliance plan, it could take 2-10 years to fill up, Halvorsen said, whereas for the neighborhood plan, it’s likely to take more than 10 years.

When 526 units became available in Needham in 2018, Halvorsen said it took four years to lease them.

Separate from the MBTA requirements, the Planning Board may, in part, take up rezoning Hersey Station for multifamily housing, evaluate ways to incentivize mixed-use development in the Center business district, review parking requirements for commercial uses and examine their existing site plan review process.

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