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After years of policy clashes, rival housing groups reach agreement on Harvard Street zoning plan

The law requires Brookline to zone for multifamily housing near MBTA stations. Photo by Zoe Zekos
October 18, 2023  Updated November 12, 2023 at 12:10 p.m.

Two housing advocacy groups in Brookline which are often bitterly opposed have reached agreement on a compliance plan for the MBTA Communities Act, appearing to dramatically increase the chance that a divided Town Meeting passes a rezoning plan this fall which would lead to significant new housing development in town.

The law, which requires communities with MBTA train and bus services to change their zoning to boost multifamily housing capacity, has dominated the town’s housing policy discussions over the past two years and will be the central issue hashed out at Town Meeting this fall.

This week’s agreement builds on a “consensus plan” put forward by Brookline town staff which would rezone Harvard Street to make it easier for developers to build multifamily housing in buildings as tall as four stories along much of the central corridor.

During weeks of intense negotiations led by Select Board member Paul Warren, the two advocacy groups Brookline By Design and Yes! In Brookline carved out exceptions for specific parcels of property along Harvard Street, removing them from the rezoning plan for various reasons: they’re already two stories or higher and have commercial uses, they’re architecturally significant, they jut into other neighborhoods, and more.

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The agreement also calls for other changes to the rezoning plan, like increasing setbacks (the distance buildings must sit from each other) and banning short-term rentals along the corridor.

The final result, its proponents say, is a plan which would alleviate many of the concerns of critics of the Harvard Street rezoning, including its effect on ground-floor retail stores and protecting the architecture of the corridor. At the same time, the proposed plan leaves room for significant new development that could see hundreds of new units of housing come to Harvard Street.

“I really believe it’s going to address a number of concerns that abutters and Town Meeting members have had about the corridor as originally defined,” said Warren in an interview.

There is still a long road to passage, and final approval rests with Town Meeting members, who would need to approve the measure by a two-thirds vote next month. But between them, the two advocacy groups hold significant sway within Town Meeting.

“I think this improves the probability of success at Town Meeting dramatically,” Warren predicted.

The agreement is likely to reduce the number of possible new housing units that can be built along Harvard Street, compared to the town’s original consensus plan, but town staffers are still analyzing by how much. The initial estimate for the consensus plan was that it could lead to the development of as many as 800 new units on Harvard Street.

The Yes! In Brookline campaign was formed by leaders of Brookline for Everyone, and advocates for “meaningful compliance and more homes in Brookline.” One of its leaders, Michael Rubenstein, wrote in a note to supporters Wednesday that the value of finding agreement was worth a minor reduction in how many new housing units can be built.

“We negotiated as hard as we could to maintain as many of the parcels as possible, but yielding on a few parcels that are unlikely to be redeveloped in the short or medium term in order to reach an agreement was a worthwhile concession,” Rubenstein wrote. “All the single story buildings that are suitable for redevelopment remain in the Harvard Street zones.”

Linda Olson Pehlke, a steering committee member of Brookline by Design, which advocates for more deliberate planning and initially opposed the Harvard Street plan, argued it was important to maintain a robust commercial presence on Harvard Street, and that increasing setbacks was an especially vital change for abutters and Town Meeting members.

The meetings over the past few weeks weren’t a “slogan-fest,” she said. “It was about specific parcels, the people, the use. And doing it face to face always helps.”

Brookline by Design and Brookline for Everyone have been frequent rivals in local elections, and regularly been on opposing sides of major housing issues in Brookline.

Passing the amended compliance plan with wide agreement would place Brookline into stark contrast with Milton, the one other MBTA “rapid transit community” with a Town Meeting form of government, which has been arguing with the state and seeking to limit its responsibility under the law.

“Brookline will be the first community to use compliance with the MBTA Communities Act as an opportunity to update our 50-year-old base zoning to remove barriers to development that have prevented multi-family development in the Greater Boston Area,” said Rubenstein.