Brookline by Design: Summer Update on Planning, Zoning, Land Use and Development
Despite the fact that we are deep into the dog days of summer, a great deal is happening in Brookline regarding planning, land use, zoning, and development.
Several zoning proposals are being developed for Fall Town Meeting in response to the MBTA Communities Act that we wanted to update you about.
The MBTA Communi.es Act
Brookline is one of the 175 municipalities impacted by the State’s MBTA Communities Act. Under the MBTA-CA we are required to make zoning changes that would allow for by-right zoning capacity for 6,990 multi-family housing units, in a district of at least 41 acres, at a minimum density of 15 units per acre, all within 0.5 miles of our MBTA transit lines. The deadline for our compliance with the act is December 31, 2023, meaning that Fall Town Meeting will be voting on whatever MBTA-CA zoning compliance proposal or proposals are placed before it.
Several parallel planning eﬀorts are ongoing this summer that will result in multiple options for compliance with the MBTA-CA. Ultimately, the Select Board will decide which of these strategies move forward to Town Meeting.
The Harvard St. Option
The Town’s Planning Department has engaged a form-based zoning consultant and is working with them to craft an MBTA-CA compliance strategy based on up-zoning Harvard St to increase the density of potential redevelopment. When this concept was ﬁrst articulated, Brookline by Design and others in the community identiﬁed a number of risks and potential negative consequences, including impacts on existing Town facilities, infrastructure, services, local businesses and our commercial tax base. We also expressed concern that the proposed plan would limit our inclusionary zoning bylaw and prohibit our mandate for ﬁrst-ﬂoor commercial uses.
While many believe that a zoning change that would up-zone all of Harvard Street would help mitigate the high cost of housing in Brookline and beyond, we do not believe that this is realistic in the Brookline housing market. Demand to live in Brookline, with its proximity to Boston and desirable quality of life, is insatiable. The result of that demand, as we see around us, is increasing gentriﬁcation and a widening of the gulf between rich and poor together with the hollowing out the Town’s middle class.
The M-District Option
The Select Board appointed a committee, the MBTA-CA Multi-Family Permitting Committee (MMPC) in May, 2023 to look at alternatives to relying on Harvard Street rezoning for MBTA-CA compliance. Their charge is to develop one or more alternative zoning change options for compliance with the act, at least one of which should incentivize the creation of 699 new housing units. The committee is proposing a package of zoning changes that would likely allow
for the creation of hundreds of new housing units, including a 100% aﬀordable redevelopment of a Brookline Housing Authority site. The BHA proposal could quickly result in the actual start of construction on a large number of aﬀordable units at the lower end of the income spectrum. The MMPC held a public hearing on July 18th outlining their M-District (Multi-family zoning district) compliance strategy. This proposal takes advantage of Brookline’s existing abundant multi-family housing which more than meets the capacity requirements of the MBTA-CA. The primary change would be to allow by-right development (no special permits, no design review). To accomplish this, a set of well-deﬁned design guidelines has been created to assure that new development is compatible with surrounding properties.
If this M-District strategy were adopted, it would bring the Town into compliance with the MBTA-CA making it possible to avoid applying the detrimental MBTA-CA guideline restrictions to Harvard St.
The Comprehensive Plan Process
Meanwhile, the Comprehensive Plan, requested and endorsed by Town Meeting, has moved forward with the formation of the Select Board’s Planning Process Study Committee, which is on the verge of voting on a ﬁnal Request for Proposal, to be issued by the Town in early Fall. This RFP seeks a consultant partner to begin the long-delayed comprehensive planning process. With all this focus and advocacy around Brookline’s future land use, we remain strongly committed to an authentic, robust, informed, and comprehensive planning process to chart our collective future.
We are closely monitoring the development of potential MBTA-CA compliance zoning proposals and we will continue our eﬀorts to keep you informed and engaged.
—Brookline by Design Steering Committee