BROOKLINE BY DESIGN: WHAT WE BELIEVE
We at Brookline by Design believe that great communities don’t happen by accident. Nor do they remain great without thoughtful stewardship and planning. That’s why we continue to advocate for Brookline’s comprehensive, inclusive planning and zoning reform process to help our community guide growth and development in a balanced and intentional way.
We believe in a process that enhances quality of life for everyone, both current and new residents, and is respectful of the progressive values of our community.
We believe in a process that is intentional about increasing housing affordability for low- to middle-income families, seniors, and individuals or couples looking for a first home or apartment.
We believe in a process that considers sustainability, commercial potential, transportation and infrastructure needs, recreation and greenspace opportunities, and civic spaces.
None of what we believe can be realized if we rely on the vagaries of the invisible hand of the market—the implicit assumption of former Governor Baker’s MBTA Communities Act (MBTA CA) and other proposals that address the housing crisis by blindly focusing on deregulation and increasing density.
In Brookline, Brookline by Design opposed the initial proposal for complying with the MBTA CA with a form-based rezoning of all of Harvard Street because it did not arise out of the comprehensive planning process that the Town is just beginning. A decision to undertake such a major zoning change requires much more analysis, community dialogue, and consideration of alternatives before making such an irreversible commitment.
Of particular concern were the restrictions on how we might craft new zoning regulations based on details of the MBTA CA guidelines. For instance, we would not be allowed to mandate commercial uses on the first floor, which is critical to sustaining a healthy mixed-use district. By doing away with parking and floor-area ratio requirements, the proposal would result in significant increases in density for many parcels on Harvard Street, which would up-zone those parcels by dramatically increasing the allowed square footage of buildings.
One consequence of incentivizing density in this way is to create financial incentives for demolition and redevelopment with high-priced, high-profit luxury condominiums. Such a course would put existing businesses and older moderately priced housing at great risk. In addition, any affordable units produced would be offset by the upward market pressure on rents in the same and nearby buildings.
As an alternative, Brookline by Design has strongly supported the comprehensive planning process initiated by the Select Board when it appointed the Planning Process Study Committee. Skipping straight to form-based zoning without a clear idea of existing conditions and capacity and absent community visioning of what we want Harvard Street to be and how we want it to function is not the approach we should take. Form is important, but form alone will not achieve the overarching goals that we have.
The zoning proposal to change Harvard Street to multi-family development by-right must be presented to Town Meeting for a vote in November. Brookline by Design agrees with Rep. Tommy Vitolo who suggested that Brookline should focus on crafting zoning parameters that are appropriate for Brookline, rather than straining to meet the MBTA CA guidelines, including accepting the possibility of incurring a penalty from the state. Rep. Vitolo also urged the Select Board to formulate a request to the new Healey Administration and its Department of Housing and Community Development to consider changing the guidelines to be more suitable for a dense urban community.
The planning process approved by Town Meeting and initiated by the Select Board will soon be underway. Currently, the Planning Process Study Committee is working towards releasing a Request for Proposals for a consultant for project management by May 2023, with a launch of the planning process targeted for September 2023.
Among the questions that the planning process will have to answer, relative to the Harvard Street corridor zoning and any other zoning proposals to ensure that our needs and values are realized, are the following:
How will any proposed zoning that includes by-right multi-family development options impact housing affordability in Brookline—including new low- to moderate-income housing and existing moderate-income rental housing in older buildings?
How will any proposed zoning protect existing small businesses from the risk that their buildings will be prime targets for redevelopment?
What measures are being considered to help existing small businesses stay in business in the community?
How will the Town be able to prevent large chains that are able to afford high rents from squeezing out smaller businesses from development zones—i.e., how can we avoid our business districts suffering the fate of Harvard Square?
How will any by-right zoning affect preservation of historic buildings?
How will any zoning proposals impact greenspace and recreation facilities, particularly the additional greenspace needed for any increased population permitted by the zoning?
With respect to the Harvard Street corridor and the built-in financial incentives to replace single-story structures with four-story buildings, how can we avoid excessive canyoning of Harvard Street into a uniform stretch of 50-ft buildings on both sides?
With respect to the Waldo-Durgin project and fire station #5, the construction of which will be extremely disruptive to Coolidge Corner, how would the Town be able to control the scope and scheduling of any by-right housing projects to avoid compounding the long-term construction disruption in Coolidge Corner?
What are the likely impacts on Town and school services and infrastructure, and transportation infrastructure of significant housing growth in concentrated areas?
Given that the Coolidge Corner area and Harvard Street in particular are already built-up and have experienced the negative construction impacts of multiple large housing projects, why isn’t the Planning Department considering alternative sites for additional housing or alternative ways to meet the requirements of the MBTA CA?
We look forward to joining with the whole of the Brookline community in seeking clarification of and solutions to these issues through the comprehensive planning process that lies ahead of us.
Brookline by Design