Brookline Town Meeting members late Tuesday voted for a rezoning plan so sweeping that several called it a “generational change,” opening up the town’s commercial districts to significantly more apartment and condo construction near its public transit stops.
The measure required a two-thirds vote for passage, but far surpassed that margin, passing 207 to 33 with seven abstentions, as supporters in the Brookline High School auditorium erupted into cheers and applause.
The overwhelming approval was a remarkable turn of events for Brookline, which has often prioritized preservation over development, and resulted from months worth of complicated zoning discussions, public hearings, and difficult negotiations between two rival advocacy groups.
“I think we wrote history today,” said Paul Warren, a Select Board member who brokered the talks that resulted in the compromise. “There will be folks that look back at this town meeting and say this was when Brookline began the process of change that was needed to grow and support our community in a way that makes it more vital, more livable, and more diverse.”
The vote was the result of a coordinated campaign by housing and social justice advocates who pressed the town to comply — in a meaningful way — with the MBTA Communities Act, a new historic state law requiring multifamily zoning near public transit to address the region’s housing crisis. The pro-housing coalition known as “Yes! in Brookline” focused on the theme that their wealthy, liberal town had to embrace zoning change to be inclusive and environmentally responsible.
“The last time Brookline changed its base zoning was 50 years ago when the town codified the car-dependent land use ideals prevalent at the time,” said Katha Seidman, a housing proponent who helped negotiate the compromise. “Today our community has an opportunity to address our urgent 21st century challenges using 21st century ideals. We have an opening to begin redesigning our community around walkable, inclusive and carbon-free neighborhoods.”
Expanding multifamily housing opportunities has long been a contentious issue in Brookline, which had seen relatively little housing development in the past five decades, according to a Boston Globe Spotlight Team report published last week.
Surrounded by Boston on three sides, Brookline is an attractive bedroom community with three branches of the Green Line and bus service. Brookline, with about 63,000 residents, has some of the most prohibitive housing costs in an expensive region: In June, Brookline median prices reached a record $2.5 million for a single-family home and $927,500 for a condo, according to The Warren Group.
The vote Tuesday night will rezone much of Harvard Street, the town’s busy thoroughfare that features Brookline Village, Coolidge Corner, and JFK Crossing, to allow for four-story buildings with apartments and condos.
Early this year, town planners’ initial proposal to rezone Harvard Street was panned by the opponents, including the group Brookline by Design — a group that had formed to advocate for a comprehensive planning process. Opponents considered the Harvard Street rezoning a reckless and unnecessary upheaval of the town’s successful commercial stretches, which provide the town its limited nonresidential tax revenue.
Brookline by Design’s forceful pushback — and its formidable representation on Town Meeting — led the Select Board to appoint a committee to develop alternatives. The committee produced an alternative proposal that would make it easier to develop multifamily housing in areas already zoned for it where special permits are now required.
The plan approved Tuesday night was a hybrid of the two proposals, the result of negotiations between the opposing groups, which once had competing campaign signs on lawns around town. In the weeks leading up to Town Meeting, the compromise plan was endorsed by the Select Board and most other town boards, and local civic organizations, including the Brookline Chamber of Commerce.
Though no development is mandated or imminent, town officials project the consensus plan would produce more new multifamily housing. Based on a complex formula, the state requires Brookline to rezone enough area to accommodate theoretically 6,990 multifamily housing units, without taking into account what land might be available for development. Officials believe the consensus plan meets this requirement and could actually produce up to 1,540 new units, hundreds more than the alternative plan was expected to generate.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Linda Olson Pehlke told the members of Town Meeting. A founder of Brookline By Design and an early vocal critic of the Harvard Street plan, she later engaged in negotiations and signed on to the consensus package. The committee’s alternative plan provided a way to comply with the state mandate, she said, “freeing up Harvard Street to be tailored to better fit our needs.”
Some still objected to the change, arguing it was rushed and could have unintended consequences. Town Meeting member Jonathan Margolis noted the town had not analyzed its potential financial impact. “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 asked.
Margolis was among a group of Town Meeting members who sought to delay the rezoning of Harvard Street; their effort failed 59 to 185 with five abstentions.
The state law that prompted the zoning debate in Brookline, the MBTA Communities Act, requires towns served by public transportation to loosen their zoning restrictions to create areas where multifamily housing can be built without restriction.
Brookline is one of a dozen Massachusetts communities with access to rapid transit that face the state’s first deadline for compliance on Dec. 31. All told, 177 communities are being asked to make changes to their zoning over the next two years.
But the state mandate has led to pushback from many communities, because zoning decisions are the purview of local governments. What’s more, the law calls for allowing the type of dense, multifamily development that typically draws the most resistance from existing neighborhoods.
In Newton, five city councilors who supported that community’s rezoning effort were ousted in last week’s municipal election by a slate of candidates who were critical of the approach.
To date, seven communities have sought state approval of their new multifamily districts — Salem, Lexington, Pembroke, Northbridge, Haverhill, Wareham, and Lowell — even before they are required by law to do so. Arlington Town Meeting recently approved a rezoning plan but has yet to submit it to the state.
In Brookline, much of the debate over the past year centered on whether proposed changes would jeopardize the commercial centers along Harvard Street. The changes allowing for more multifamily housing were backed by a pro-housing coalition, which brought together advocates from the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, the Brookline Community Development Corporation, and Brookline for Everyone, a pro-housing group that had formed and campaigned for seats on Town Meeting in recent elections.
Many residents feared that under the town’s initial proposal, high-end condos would displace the locally owned shops and restaurants that shape Coolidge Corner’s eclectic character and ethnic diversity. The MBTA Communities Act does not mandate that multifamily housing built in newly zoned areas be affordable; as a result, development skeptics fear it will only bring more luxury development to their already expensive neighborhoods.
Though that remains a concern, it was ameliorated somewhat by changes made to the plans in recent months.
For example, the town plan now calls for 15 percent of all housing built in the newly rezoned area along Harvard Street to be affordable. That’s the same share in the rest of town, under Brookline’s inclusionary zoning policy, which covers projects of four to 10 units; however, that policy allows developers to contribute the money to a housing fund for the units to be built elsewhere. This will require actual construction of affordable housing units along Harvard Street.
The state also reversed its position in August and allowed towns like Brookline to keep commercial mandates, such as first-floor retail, already in place in business districts like Coolidge Corner.