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Brookline weighs its housing future as zoning law deadline approaches

The Coolidge Corner MBTA station. Photo by Zoe Zekos
June 27, 2023  Updated November 12, 2023 at 12:12 p.m.

Brookline is scrambling to meet the requirements of a state zoning law that could shape the town’s housing landscape and character for decades to come.

The MBTA Communities law requires zoning changes meant to incentivize more multifamily housing near public transportation in hundreds of towns and cities across Massachusetts.

In Brookline, two distinct paths with different zoning visions are emerging as the process unfolds and the town tries to meet a December deadline.

Here’s what you need to know about the MBTA Communities law, how Brookline is responding, and what comes next in the process.

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What are the requirements of the law?

The law requires 177 communities in Massachusetts which host MBTA service to have at least one zoning district where multifamily housing is permitted “as of right,” meaning that it can be built without any special permitting.

For Brookline, the mandate requires zoning a minimum of 41 acres within a half mile of MBTA stations. According to state guidelines, the town will have to show that the rezoned district has the capacity for 6,990 housing units.

Importantly, the law does not actually require municipalities to build any new housing – they just have to change their zoning laws.

The town’s Select Board says it wants to respond in a way that meaningfully incentivizes development, and laid out its goals in a January resolution. The board says compliance should protect and expand commerce, increase the amount of non-luxury housing, and facilitate racial, ethnic, and income diversity.

Town Meeting, the town’s legislative branch, will have to vote on a zoning plan in November, and there are two competing proposals in the works.

The town’s Harvard Street proposal

Even before the MBTA Communities Act became law, the town’s Planning Department had been studying Harvard Street, the heart of Brookline and its main business and retail center.

The town says that rezoning the Harvard Street corridor, which some argue is residentially under-developed, would help grow housing density while maintaining and enhancing its “Main Street” character.

A draft map of the Harvard Street rezoning proposal, with the relevant district outlined in neon green.

According to a recent presentation from town planners, it would use “form-based zoning,” which emphasizes the physical shape of buildings, to “facilitate real housing and commercial growth at a modest pace,” while maintaining a maximum of four stories per building.

The proposed rezoning would cover the length of Harvard Street, from Verndale Street in the north to Station Street in the south.

The proposal was opposed by some Brookline residents from the start. They worry that allowing more housing along Harvard Street would push out first-floor retail shops, which give the street its vibrant, bustling nature.

“The spirit of the MBTA Communities Act is to create the potential to build new housing,” said Select Board member Paul Warren. “It’s not intended to harm the commercial vitality of communities like Brookline.”

One way to address that problem would be to require first-floor retail in the town’s zoning proposal. But the state agency charged with carrying out the law says that such requirements are not allowed.

State Representative Tommy Vitolo says he thinks that’s a “bad guideline” and is working on legislation to change it.

“We want to have an active, interesting and engaging ground floor on Harvard Street,” said Vitolo. “Every time someone builds something that does not engage with the general public, they’re creating something deleterious. They’re making that streetscape worse for everyone else.”

But Brookline’s planners aren’t counting on the guidelines being changed: they’re drafting a financial incentive they say would ensure that housing developers include ground-floor retail in their projects along the corridor.

The incentive would allow developers to charge higher rents for the affordable units which are required in projects four units or larger. Town planners say the change would increase projects’ overall income.

“That financial incentive does a number of things,” said Maria Morelli, the town’s senior planner. “It shows that there is a commitment to ground floor retail, and it provides a buffer should there be an economic downturn.”

The alternative proposal

An alternative approach has grown from the opposition to the Harvard Street plan, and the Select Board created a volunteer committee to come up with a viable alternative to changing the zoning on Harvard Street.

That committee’s proposal, which is still in the works, would use a patchwork of existing districts which are already zoned for multi-family housing. Committee members are debating whether changing zoning conditions in those multi-family districts, many of which are already heavily built out, would actually create significant new housing units.

A draft map of the multifamily districts which could be rezoned under the committee’s proposal.

Committee chair Richard Benka said his goal is to find a solution that can win broad support and be compliant with the law.

“I didn’t want the town to be in a position where it would have only one alternative that Town Meeting might well not accept,” said Benka. “And I also didn’t want to see the town identified as a scofflaw that would thumb its nose at state law.”

The committee is still crafting its alternative, and is hoping to present it to the Select Board by July 14.

Benka says the committee is taking its charge to find realistic new housing options seriously. “We’re looking for options that provide not just units, but affordable units rather than luxury units,” he said.

To do that, it’s looking at additional zoning changes to incentivize new housing, beyond the new law’s requirements. One specific area the committee is eyeing is a zoning district near the Brookline Village T stop, where it says redevelopment of a Brookline Housing Authority building and rezoning other nearby streets could help create nearly 600 new units of housing.

What’s next?

It’s likely there will be at least these two proposals before Town Meeting in November, if not more. Any Town Meeting member can put forward a zoning proposal as long as they gather ten signatures.

Once the zoning proposals are submitted to the Select Board this summer, they’ll go through a weeks-long vetting process before Town Meeting.

The proposals may require a ⅔ vote, which Select Board member Warren called a “high bar.”

“I think coming with options to Town Meeting is a good way to reach that bar,” Warren said.

There is contentious debate about the best way to move forward and that will lead to heavy political lobbying ahead of November’s Town Meeting. Two housing advocacy groups in Brookline, Brookline for Everyone and Brookline by Design, have lined up on opposite sides of the issue.

Brookline for Everyone supports the town’s Harvard Street proposal and says it will make what is already a “very good” corridor into one that’s “truly great.”

Brookline by Design opposes the plan, saying that it would create financial incentives for demolishing existing buildings and replacing them with high-priced condos.

Because the issue is so important to the future of the town, officials say they want a wide swath of Brookline residents to participate in the process.

“I want to take the fear out of zoning, because a lot of people have been reacting and not having much leverage,” said senior planner Morelli. “And we just want to shift that paradigm and say that you can have more predictability by shaping your vision. And we’re here to help you codify that vision in the zoning map.”

The town’s next zoning workshops are on June 28 and 29.