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MIKE ROSS

Boston may finally get beyond twilight zoning

John Tlumacki/Globe staff/File 2014

Development is in high gear in the Seaport District.

By Mike Ross

LOOK BEFORE you leap, think before you speak, and measure before you cut. All good idiomatic rules to live by. So what’s a good rule to live by if you’re a city, like Boston, and you’re looking to develop tens of thousands of housing units? How about “plan before you build”? For the first time since 1964, it looks like that’s about to happen.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority is in the process of developing its first citywide master plan in more than 50 years. The goal: to upgrade antiquated zoning throughout Boston’s neighborhoods. If done right, this will be good for several reasons, but mostly because it will create desperately needed housing and allow residents already living in the city to stay put.

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How does good zoning translate into more housing? Consider the Fenway, where for decades Boylston Street languished because of open parking lots, multiple gas stations, and run-down buildings. Antiquated zoning prevented mixed-use development such as housing and restaurants. When new zoning was introduced in 2004, guess what started happening? New buildings — lots of them. The same happened in the South End where the Boston Herald used to sit in an area known as New York Streets. Once new zoning allowed for the doubling of heights, development was underway.

Good zoning is like planting grass seed into well fertilized dirt — out come buildings. When an area allows for proper density, a developer is more likely to build there. It doesn’t require trips to city hall, meetings with elected officials, or discussions with community groups. It doesn’t take real estate lawyers to help “navigate the process” (disclosure: I am a real estate lawyer and grimacing with each word I write here). It simply allows for a developer to show up and build.

Arguments against right-sizing zoning — especially the one that claims limits to affordable housing creation — are specious. Affordability covenants can be included within the regulations, as they were for the Fenway and the South End. Neighbors concerned about over-development can attend meetings and weigh in.

But the bigger concern is that Boston will fall short of building what it needs in order to thrive. To borrow a colloquialism from late mayor Tom Menino, nothing “fries my nose” more than bad zoning. One of the best examples of terrible zoning is in Hyde Park. Above the Fairmount commuter rail station — a transit line designed to bring thousands of people into and out of the city daily — the existing rules seem better suited for Mayberry than a major city. New construction there can’t be more than 35 feet tall and requires a 5,000-square-foot lot for just two units of housing.

When one neighborhood uses zoning to prevent housing, residents of other sections of the city bear the burden. A lack of housing in Hyde Park, for example, creates inflated home prices elsewhere.

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Zoning isn’t just limited to density. It also governs things such as parking. So when a neighborhood like South Boston requires 1½ parking spaces for each unit of housing, other streets become more congested, and those South Boston housing units become more expensive.

This is why a citywide approach to planning and rezoning is so necessary. It will allow for an honest conversation about where and how development should take place.

One obvious location is in Brighton, along the Charles River, bordered by Western Avenue. Yes, most of the land is owned by Harvard University, but the school should co-develop the area just as it is already doing with developer Steve Samuels in North Allston on a mixed-use complex. On Soldiers Field Road alongside the Charles, the existing two-story buildings are woefully underwhelming. Vibrant housing with grand views of the river would be a major improvement.

If Boston does better planning before it builds, we just might get the city we want. If not, well, we’ll reap what we sow.

Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.

Related:

Dante Ramos: Copley dispute shows how not to get more housing built

Renée Loth: When public buildings were revered

Bruce A. Percelay: A practical approach to middle-market housing

George W. McCarthy and Harold Simon: Time to consider the middle ground of housing