Too much, too fast? Towns hit ‘pause’ on big projects
As the demand for more housing surges across Eastern Massachusetts, some communities are grappling with how to meet that need without damaging the quality of life.
Dedham recently approved a temporary moratorium on new mixed-use development projects; Saugus instituted a moratorium on multifamily dwellings; and Arlington recently delayed action on zoning proposals that would ease restrictions to promote housing growth.
“Like many cities and towns, there is a concern about growth and the ability to absorb that growth, whether it’s traffic, schools, or the infrastructure,’’ said Dedham Town Planner Jeremy Rosenberger.
Multifamily housing accounted for nearly all new housing permits issued in Suffolk County between 2000 and 2017, and the majority in Middlesex and Norfolk counties, according to a recent report by the Boston Foundation. Single-family housing continued to predominate in Essex and Plymouth counties.
Meanwhile, “mixed-use” development — combining apartments, restaurants, stores, and other uses in one project — has become an increasingly common way to bring more housing and economic vitality to communities.
Among 147 cities and towns in the region, the number that allow mixed-use zoning has nearly doubled from 69 in 2005 to 121 in 2017-2018, according to the foundation’s report.
In 2015, Saugus approved a new zoning district along the Route 1/Route 99 corridor to attract mixed-use developments. Since then, two large developments have been built, a third is in the application phase, and a fourth is on hold because the added residential components have so heavily outweighed the commercial.
Saugus Town Meeting voted in April to approve a two-year moratorium on the construction of additional multifamily dwellings of three or more units. Town Manager Scott Crabtree submitted the proposal in response to an unanticipated increase in the construction of multifamily dwellings.
The goal is to give the town time to study the impact of construction on police, fire, public safety, schools, water, sewer, and roads, said Debra Panetta, chair of the town’s Board of Selectmen.
“I’m certainly not against development as long as it’s smart,’’ she said. “Saugus is trying to do things outside the box with some of the rezoning and I don’t think they expected this much this quickly. This is just too fast. And once it starts going, how do you make it stop?”
Panetta said when new zoning was approved a few years ago, officials had hoped it would attract more of a mix of commercial and residential. Instead, she said there has been more housing than businesses.
Recent projects include 245 apartments at Essex Landing, a mixed-use development at the former site of the Route 1 Miniature Golf & Batting Cages. Farther north on Route 1, the former Hilltop Steak House is now home to a 280-unit AvalonBay development, 110 Grill, drive-thru Starbucks, Salem Five Bank, and other businesses.
Other projects have been proposed, but it’s unclear if they will move forward, Panetta said.
In May, Dedham’s Town Meeting imposed a seven-month moratorium on new mixed-use development in town and voted to hire a consultant to look at the impact that existing projects have had on the community.
“Over the past 10 years, Dedham has had significant growth of mixed-use development,’’ said John Bethoney, chairman of the Planning Board. “With that comes certain impacts and it’s gotten to the point where we need to study if the benefits outweigh the negative impact and how they can be mitigated.’’
Officials stressed that the moratorium doesn’t mean the town opposes mixed-use projects. In fact, they said, Dedham Square has often been the beneficiary. But with the market showing no signs of cooling, they want to be prepared for more proposals.
The square’s latest projects, at 338 and 360 Washington St., have added Blue Ribbon BBQ, El Centro, and a pilates studio along with new apartments.
“It’s had a rebirth with new residents, new restaurants, and shops,’’ Rosenberger said of Dedham Square. “I’ve heard other folks looking to it as a great example of a downtown that is very active and not struggling — but there is traffic, congestion, and parking issues.’’
Bethoney said the board will be seeking public input to get a sense of how the community feels, and that will help dictate what changes, if necessary, the board will support. The moratorium will last until November or when new zoning is approved, whichever comes first.
“Everywhere you drive there is another building going up and it’s housing going up over non-residential uses,’’ Bethoney said. “The interest is going to continue, and that’s fine if that’s what the community wants. Once that data has been compiled and testimony taken, we will get an idea of what the community’s vision is.”
Arlington, however, has seen little development in recent years and is hoping to spur some activity, said Jennifer Raitt, the town’s director of planning and community development. One of the last big projects was Arlington 360, the redevelopment of the former Symmes Hospital in 2013. The property includes 164 rental apartments and town homes, 12 condominium town homes, and a 90-room assisted living facility.
Town officials had recommended zoning changes this spring that would have allowed developers to build bigger units in smaller spaces in return for additional affordable housing.
The idea was that developers would be allowed to build taller buildings with less open space and parking if they agree to include more affordable housing.
But after much debate during the first night of Town Meeting in April, the Arlington Redevelopment Board decided to recommend no action on the proposal. Many residents raised concerns that more time was needed to study the potential impact.
Raitt said officials will be spending the summer meeting with various town boards, getting feedback, and revisiting the issue.
“We are very committed to moving the conversation forward to figure out how to make development work in Arlington,’’ she said. “The exact proposal needs to be talked about more.’’
Raitt believes that there are barriers within the town’s existing bylaws that are stalling development.
In fact, the Boston Foundation’s recent Greater Boston Housing Report Card backed up that theory. The report says that most cities and towns in Greater Boston aren’t building enough housing to keep up with population growth.
The Boston Foundation report also echoes a recent study detailing the “paper wall” of zoning rules that make it hard to build multifamily housing in much of Greater Boston.
Raitt said town officials are interested in efforts to revitalize Arlington Heights and recently completed a neighborhood action plan that includes a number of recommendations to help make that happen.
The recommendations range from community building activities that support the neighborhood to zoning amendments that would encourage new mixed-use development. The town also is interested in supporting mixed-use development in all business districts, which primarily span parcels along Massachusetts Avenue, Broadway, and Summer Street.
“We want to help make it work,’’ Raitt said. “I believe that it’s important for the financial vitality, quality of life, and affordability.’’