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As MBTA cuts service, transit-oriented housing becomes a tougher sell

The Harborwalk development is being built next to the Plymouth commuter rail station, which could close because of budget cuts.
The Harborwalk development is being built next to the Plymouth commuter rail station, which could close because of budget cuts.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

When developer Jim Goldenberg opened the first phase of his planned 675-unit Harborwalk apartment complex alongside the Plymouth commuter rail station last year, he hoped to persuade state transportation officials to schedule more trains at the stop.

Now Goldenberg’s wondering whether the Plymouth station will have any trains at all, after the Baker administration included it on a list of planned closures and service cuts designed to help narrow a half-billion-dollar budget gap at the MBTA. That, in turn, has him rethinking how much more to build at the complex, which was on track to become one of the largest new apartment developments on the South Shore.

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Transit advocates worry that the proposed MBTA cutbacks will weaken a system that was already struggling before the pandemic. Housing advocates, too, are concerned. They say closing commuter rail stations and reducing subway frequency flies in the face of a decade of state housing policy largely designed around the notion that the best place to build new homes in a traffic-choked place like Greater Boston is next to a train stop.

“It’s just an incredibly shortsighted decision,” said Jarred Johnson, director of TransitMatters and a board member at Abundant Housing MA. “Yes, it has been and will be a devastating 12 or 14 months for the transit system. But they’re letting that change the trajectory of 10 years of housing policy.”

MBTA officials stress that the cuts — which the agency’s board will vote on in December — would be temporary, with service restored as demand returns, perhaps sometime in 2021. Ridership has plummeted during the pandemic, and the transit agency faces a budget deficit that could top $575 million.

To close the gap, the board unveiled a plan last month to run subways and buses less often, halt commuter rail service on weekends, stop the Green Line’s E Branch at Brigham Circle instead of its current terminus five stops west at Heath Street, and end service at a handful of commuter rail stations, including Plymouth. Those moves, they project, could save $142 million over a year.

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Even some who shape housing policy for the Baker administration describe the cuts as a necessary evil, essential to preserve the state’s transit system for the immediate future, but unlikely to change the longer trajectory of housing development. Despite the pandemic, the state is continuing to fund transit-oriented developments, said Chrystal Kornegay, executive director of housing finance agency MassHousing, and adding housing near rail stations remains a priority.

“This is a temporary solution to what we see as a temporary challenge,” said Kornegay, who also sits on the MBTA’s Fiscal Management Control Board, which will vote on the cuts. ”

Advocates say they understand the T’s budget woes. But the message the cuts would send — both to riders and those who might build housing along the T — is that the trains could stop running at any time. That uncertainty could have long-term implications. Since 2011, about 60 percent of new homes — roughly 70,000 — have been built within a half-mile of an MBTA station, according to estimates by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership. If trains become less reliable, that could easily shift, said Clark Ziegler, the group’s executive director.

“Any signal, real or perceived, that there’s less commitment to a robust transit system is going to make it harder to convince riders to live in transit-oriented housing, developers to build it, and cities and towns” to permit it, Ziegler said.

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It also runs counter to both state and local housing policy in much of the region. Cities such as Boston have in recent years increasingly approved larger buildings with less parking that are near the T. And the state has deployed a variety of tools to encourage more housing near commuter rail stops. One of them is 40R, a state zoning law that allows denser housing development near MBTA stations as long as 20 percent of units are affordable. That’s how Goldenberg’s Cathartes Development won approvals for Harborwalk in Plymouth, which also received a $2 million state infrastructure grant. Governor Charlie Baker attended the 2018 groundbreaking to tout transit-oriented development.

“We kind of moved forward based on the assumption the station would be there,” Goldenberg said.

The first building opened last fall, and leased up quickly, Goldenberg said, with all but a few of its 155 apartments occupied. He’s planning to launch work on a second phase in the spring. Today, Goldenberg said, not many residents ride the train, partly because they are working from home, but also because Plymouth, which is on its own spur off the main Plymouth/Kingston Line, gets just four trains a day, none leaving before 9:45 a.m.

At full buildout, Goldenberg predicts, the complex will generate more riders heading up to Boston, and better train service would draw more people from Plymouth in general. But with a relatively small number of riders currently, and the budget crisis looming, Plymouth instead is on the closure list. Without train service, Goldenberg wonders, will such a big project make sense?

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“We planned the first phase knowing there was a minimal schedule, and figuring we’d grow from there. But now there’s going to be zero schedule,” he said. “Without a train it’s just going to be awfully tough to do the [third and fourth] phases of this.”

For developers who have already finished projects, having fewer trains complicates life in other ways.

Noah Maslan is a principal at Eden Properties, which built and manages The Brynx, on South Huntington Avenue in Jamaica Plain. It’s one of several apartment buildings to open in recent years near the Heath Street Station at the end of the E Branch of the Green Line, five stops past where the MBTA now plans to end service at Brigham Circle.

Good T access factored into every aspect of the project, Maslan said, from initial city zoning that allowed just 76 parking spaces for its 149 units to marketing aimed at tenants who wanted an urban, car-free lifestyle. The building’s even equipped with “transit screens” in the lobby to tell residents when the next train leaves so they can hustle to the station. Two other projects along that stretch of South Huntington, with nearly 400 more units between them, took a similar approach.

“This has been a corridor where the city has been trying to encourage more housing. For 10 years they’ve been encouraging multifamily here, and now you take away the transit?” Maslan said. “It’s just a really difficult proposition to remove the fundamental premise for why you build there.”

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If there’s a silver lining, some advocates say, it’s that this episode could prompt a rethinking of how the region uses the MBTA, particularly the commuter rail, with its focus on shuttling office workers to and from Boston. It might be wiser, said Andre Leroux, longtime head of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance and now a consultant, to plan suburban neighborhoods that have more jobs, and a downtown that has more residents. That would mean a transit system that’s less hub-and-spoke and more like a web, but it might better serve a broader population.

“The commuter rail system as we’ve been operating it has been problematic for a long time,” Leroux said. “Its whole fare structure and frequency of service is designed for middle-to-upper-income commuters going downtown and, as we’ve seen, that model can change very quickly. Maybe this isn’t the system we need.”

But that’s a long-term project, he notes. In the short run, eliminating things like weekend service will only intensify the commuter rail’s focus on servicing people going to weekday jobs. Johnson agrees, and he worries about the message the cuts will send to anyone trying to build a life, or a place to live, around the MBTA. Coming from a governor who has said he wants to add 135,000 homes in the state by 2025, it’s a confusing message indeed.

“People are making multimilllion-dollar decisions, long-term decisions, about these projects,” Johnson said. “And the administration is sending a message that they really don’t care.”




Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.