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Explainer: Brookline’s MBTA Communities rezoning plan

The intersection of Beacon Street and Harvard Street. Photo by Zoe Zekos
November 13, 2023

Brookline Town Meeting will vote on a major rezoning of Harvard Street and other parts of town on Tuesday. Here’s what you need to know about the proposal Town Meeting members are voting on and where it came from, based on six months of Brookline.News prior reporting and research.

Why is the town doing this?

In 2021, the state legislature passed a law called the MBTA Communities law. It requires cities and towns in Massachusetts which contain MBTA bus or train service to change their zoning laws to, theoretically, make it easier for developers to build more multifamily housing (apartments and condos). Brookline, designated as a “rapid transit community” under the law, has to comply by Dec. 31, which is why Town Meeting is taking this up now.

What does Brookline have to do under the law?

Based on the formula in the bill, the town is required to change its zoning to create the “capacity” for 6,990 new units of housing in areas near the T. Note that the law does not actually require cities or towns to build any new housing. In this way, the main proposal in front of Town Meeting goes above and beyond the requirements of the law, because it likely would lead to more housing being built.

How has Brookline responded?

Since the law passed, town leaders have been trying to develop a plan to come into compliance by the end of this year.

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Early on, some residents floated the idea that the town could comply with the law legally, but in a way which does not actually lead to any new housing being built. The town’s Select Board and other leaders have rejected that concept, and pushed for a plan which would actually pave the way for more housing, seeking to use the opportunity and momentum of the state law to increase housing supply in Brookline.

What they came up with, after years of Work, is a two-pronged proposal, called the “consensus plan.”

The technical compliance with the state law would be done through the first prong, what’s being called the “M-District+” portion. It changes the zoning rules in districts in town that are already zoned for multi-family housing, and rezones a few other specific sites. There’s general agreement that this will not actually lead to much, if any, new development specifically springing from the rezoning.

So the heart of the plan, and of the town’s efforts to produce new housing, is a second prong, rezoning most of Harvard Street, one of Brookline’s main commercial corridors. The plan would allow developers to build apartment buildings up to four stories on much of the corridor, and they could do so without the need for special permits from the town.

If the consensus proposal fails to get the two-thirds support it needs to pass, Town Meeting will vote on just the M-District+ plan as a backup option which, again, would put Brookline into compliance with the law but lead to the opportunity for less new housing to be built.

Map via the town of Brookline.

How much housing would actually be created under this proposal?

The town’s Planning Department has estimated that the second prong – the Harvard Street portion of the plan – could produce up to 800 new housing units over time.

That level of new development would have a significant impact on Brookline: it’s almost 3% of the total number of housing units existing now in Brookline, which is 28,274.

It’s worth noting that zoning is never a guarantee of building to follow; there are many other factors contributing to whether or when that housing gets built, like high interest rates and soaring construction costs

Another 200 or more units of housing could be built in the parts of town that are covered in the M-District+ plan, but town officials say those are likely to be developed regardless of what happens at Town Meeting.

Brookline has a higher share of existing rental housing (52% of households) than other nearby municipalities which are also currently weighing compliance with the law, like Newton (28% of households) and Milton (18%).

How much of the housing built would be affordable?

The plan would require that any new development on Harvard Street with four or more units have 15% of the new apartments and condos be affordable. The income limits for those new affordable units on Harvard Street would range from 50 to 70% of the area median income (AMI) for rental households, and 80% to 100% for condos for sale. Rents and mortgage costs would be calculated so that those tenants were not paying more than 30% of their gross income per month in housing costs.

Opponents of the plan have questioned why it doesn’t require more affordable housing to be built. Supporters say that pushing above 15% would make projects economically infeasible for developers (and that adding new housing supply of any kind contributes to reducing prices more broadly, although that’s hotly debated).

Who supports this plan, and who opposes it?

The consensus plan has picked up wide support, especially in the last few weeks. Most notably, the two most influential housing advocacy groups in Brookline, frequently at odds with each other, came to an agreement recently after weeks of negotiating over specific lots and parcels. Those two groups carry significant weight at Town Meeting.

Every relevant town board and committee has endorsed the plan, as have the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.

Some individual Town Meeting members oppose the plan, but there is no organized opposition.

What about the impacts on businesses?

Some opponents of the plan have expressed worries that the development that could spring from it would push out small businesses, many of which have ground-floor retail spaces along Harvard Street. To try to prevent that from happening, the town’s plan includes a financial incentive for developers who incorporate ground-floor commercial space into their housing projects. Town planners have also argued there are natural incentives for developers to include retail in their projects. But again, it’s hard to predict the precise outcomes of even a carefully-crafted zoning plan.

Town Meeting is taking up the proposal on Tuesday, Nov. 14 starting at 7 p.m. at Brookline High School.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the percentage of rental housing in Brookline as the percentage of multifamily housing.