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In development-leery Brookline, an early test of the state’s multifamily housing law

A pitched debate over how much to build along Harvard Street is heading toward a crucial Town Meeting vote.

Coolidge Corner in Brookline. The town is embroiled in a fierce debate over how to comply with a new state law that mandates more dense multifamily zoning in communities served by the MBTA.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

To say that housing can be a hard sell in Brookline would be an understatement.

Most development that is pitched there runs into a brick wall of opposition — residents who believe the town of 60,000 right alongside Boston is already overbuilt.

And so sure enough, the new law requiring dense zoning in communities served by the MBTA has ignited a fierce debate, pitting those who welcome more housing against those who want to preserve the status quo.

Versions of this debate are playing out right now in nearly all of the 175 communities covered by the law, and especially the 12 — including Brookline — that are served by the T’s main rapid-service lines and thus must have their new zoning on the books by year’s end.


But the conversation in Brookline may carry broader implications for the law’s rollout across Eastern Massachusetts, advocates and community leaders say. That’s because not only is Brookline one of the largest and most visible communities covered by the law, it is also one of just two in this first wave that are governed through Town Meeting. So the new zoning won’t just be debated by a few elected representatives, but by a broad swath of residents of a town that stretches from apartment-packed blocks along Commonwealth Avenue to secluded manses around The Country Club.

If Brookline approves new zoning, it could encourage other Town Meeting communities to do so, a sign that significant change on housing is possible even in places where the barriers may seem the greatest. If not, it could have the opposite effect, eroding confidence in the law.

“Other communities are looking to us to be leaders,” said Deborah Brown, president of the Brookline Community Development Corporation. “They’re . . . thinking, ‘If they didn’t do it, why should we?’ That’s not an example I’m interested in setting.”


To date, nearly every municipality affected by MBTA Communities, Massachusetts’ most ambitious state-level action on housing in decades, has gone along with the early planning requirements. But resistance remains among residents and officials in some cities and towns, a crowd the state must persuade to comply to realize the law’s full potential.

Brookline’s Planning Department is moving forward with a plan that would ultimately rezone a large stretch of Harvard Street — one of the town’s main commercial strips, which runs through Brookline Village and Coolidge Corner and crosses the Green Line’s C branch — to allow for the construction of multifamily housing.

A view of housing on Harvard Street in Brookline. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The proposal would change the zoning on Harvard Street to a so-called form-based code, which would allow multifamily housing by right — or without special permit — as long as developments meet certain parameters for design and mass.

That model, said planning director Kara Brewton, would both allow new housing there to skip the current permitting process, which can stretch on for years, and also ensure community control over growth.

“We hear the concerns from residents about how properties will be redeveloped,” said Brewton. “If the state is telling us to allow the building of multifamily housing without special permits, let’s do it, and let’s do it in a way that benefits Brookline. I’m not sure that ignoring the law has any advantage.”

But the plan has some influential opponents — including the group Brookline by Design, which has been advocating in recent years for a reformed planning process that gives residents a greater say in development decisions.


The group is concerned that the town’s proposal would create too much variation in building heights and would not mandate mixed uses — but it is more opposed to the MBTA Communities law in general. The deadline for completing the zoning is far too short, members say, and the law mandates that dense communities like Brookline permit for more units than they can handle.

“Some of the guidelines are just wholly inappropriate for urban communities,” said Linda Olson Pehlke, cofounder and chair of Brookline by Design. “It’s a hugely complex undertaking on a very short timeline. We’re not necessarily opposed to doing the MBTA Communities zoning, but it needs to be studied and done very carefully, so we can ensure that we are not drastically altering or endangering important commercial areas like Harvard Street.”

Her group sent a letter last month to the town’s Select Board, which ultimately decides what policies make it to a Town Meeting vote, outlining concerns. Brewton and the town administrator responded with a letter of their own outlining the proposal and debunking what they said were misconceptions surrounding the law.

Still, Brookline by Design, a group that has helped elect several Town Meeting members and will campaign for more in this spring’s elections, said it would rather see Brookline seek a waiver or delay long enough to write more narrowly tailored zoning rules in the town’s densest areas.


Then there are those — mostly in townwide e-mail chains or on social media — who suggest that compliance is futile, and that Brookline would be best served to simply absorb the loss of state grants and housing authority funds that the state has threatened for noncompliance, big money for a town of Brookline’s size.

A view of shops along Harvard Street in Brookline.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“We can’t change what we think is the right thing to do because we are worried about fines,” one Town Meeting member wrote in an e-mail reviewed by the Globe.

A similar dynamic is playing out in Milton, the only other community with an end-of-year deadline and a Town Meeting vote. Some there have floated the possibility of flouting the law, but the town is driving ahead and hoping to have a rough draft in the coming weeks, said Tim Czerwienski, Milton’s director of planning and community development.

But in the end, he has no idea if the plan his department develops will pass. Town meetings can be unpredictable.

“What I can tell you is that we will do the work to have a viable proposal up for consideration ahead of the deadline,” said Czerwienski. “That’s the best we can do.”

Despite the opposition cropping up, there is also a strong movement in Brookline supporting the law and the town’s rezoning efforts, said Amanda Zimmerman, cofounder and board member of the pro-housing group Brookline for Everyone.

“There are a lot of misconceptions flying around about what the town’s proposal would mean,” said Zimmerman. “But what it comes down to is, are we going to allow for more housing and set ourselves up for healthy growth? To us, the choice is pretty simple.”


The path forward is anything but.

Once a proposed zoning change is moved forward by the Select Board, that ordinance will go before Town Meeting sometime near the end of the year. The measure would need to garner votes from two-thirds of the 265 voting members, many of whom are split between visions of the town’s future. The sheer complexity of zoning changes — and convincing more than 175 voting members that they’re a good idea — may make securing that vote even more challenging.

“The inherent difficulty in all of this is that we need to convince a lot of Town Meeting to support this in a short period of time,” said Zimmerman. “Most of the other inner-ring communities don’t have Town Meeting. So it’s a uniquely Brookline issue.”

The Green Line pulled into Coolidge Corner in Brookline.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Andrew Brinker can be reached at andrew.brinker@globe.com. Follow him @andrewnbrinker.