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Town Meeting passes major rezoning plan likely to reshape Harvard Street

Town Meeting members applaud after the final vote. Photo by Sam Mintz
November 15, 2023
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On Tuesday evening, Brookline Town Meeting passed a rezoning plan which is likely to reshape Harvard Street, one of the town’s central corridors, and pave the way for the development of hundreds of new apartments and condos.

The plan easily achieved the two-thirds margin required, approved by a vote of 207 to 33 with seven abstentions.

The measure is a response to the MBTA Communities Act, a state law requiring cities and towns with MBTA train and bus service to change their zoning laws to encourage the construction of more housing. But the Brookline plan goes well beyond the basic requirements of complying with the law.

Most significantly, the plan will allow developers to build multifamily buildings up to four stories “as of right” along most of Harvard Street, meaning that they will not need to obtain any special permits.

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The town’s Planning Department has estimated that, over time, the plan could result in the development of up to 800 units along Harvard Street, nearly 3% of the existing housing already in town. (The actual scale of construction will depend on other economic and policy factors).

To comply with the letter of the law, the plan additionally rezones existing multi-family districts in town, where more housing is unlikely to be built because those districts are already largely built out. It also rezones two specific areas, a Brookline Housing Authority development on Walnut Street and a zoning district near Longwood called Emerald Island, to pave the way for the development of a few hundred additional condos and apartments.

Read a Brookline.News explainer with more details about the zoning changes

The plan delivers “more than just compliance for Brookline,” said Select Board member Paul Warren on Tuesday night. “It creates much needed affordable and middle-income housing. It expands and protects the vitality of our commercial corridor. It moves us closer to our 2050 goal of zero emissions, and it helps make us a more diverse community.”

Select Board member Paul Warren argues in favor of the zoning plan. Photo by Artemisia Luk

Whether Town Meeting would pass the measure was far from a sure thing. The plan to rezone Harvard Street, first proposed by the Planning Department, faced steep opposition early on. Among those opposed initially was the advocacy group Brookline by Design, which argued that it would threaten beloved businesses along the corridor and historic buildings, while adding new development to an already dense strip.

But over months of conversation, culminating in weeks of intense negotiations led by Select Board Member Paul Warren, Brookline by Design and its frequent sparring partner, the housing advocacy group Yes! In Brookline, came to an agreement on a set of amendments that both felt met the moment. In a series of in-person meetings, the two groups, which are both influential in Town Meeting, went along Harvard Street parcel by parcel and decided which to include, and which not.

“In an atmosphere thick with slogans and platitudes, it was refreshing to get down to reality,” said Linda Olson Pehlke, one of the negotiators on behalf of Brookline by Design.

That process of developing a consensus, which has often been difficult to find on housing issues in Brookline in recent years, stood out for some Town Meeting members who voted to approve the proposal.

John Bassett said that he had never seen anything like it in his 42 years as a Town Meeting member. “It is unusual. I don’t remember it happening before,” he said.

The thoughtful process and negotiation, he said, “has helped people realize that this is just a moment in time.

“Let’s try it out. It’s not perfect. But let’s see what happens,” Bassett said.

Warren, the Select Board member who championed the proposal, said after the vote that Town Meeting “wrote history” on Tuesday night.

“There will be folks that look back at this Town Meeting and say this was when Brookline began the process of a change that was needed to grow and support our community in a way that makes it more vital, more livable and more diverse,” Warren said.

Listen: Brookline.News interview with WBUR about the zoning change. 

Supporters of the plan rally before Town Meeting. Photo by Artemisia Luk

Opposition

A group of Town Meeting members had argued for putting aside the Harvard Street part of the plan and to just pass a smaller package that would comply with the law while zoning for a smaller amount of multifamily housing in more limited areas.

They filed a motion calling for more study of the Harvard Street rezoning, arguing that the plan was not ready for primetime. Susan Granoff, a Town Meeting member who spoke in favor of the motion, cited a complex proposal and worries about businesses on “iconic” Harvard Street.

“The Harvard Street plan is a great start, but it needs more work,” Granoff said.

Jon Margolis, another opponent of the Harvard Street plan, argued that the town does not have a good enough idea about what the impact will be on Brookline’s finances and taxes.

“We all want Brookline to be a more welcoming community, but are we ready to risk the town’s financial health to show that we are?” Margolis said.

Their motion was defeated 185 to 59 with five abstentions.

 

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