OP-ED: MBTA Communities & How it Could Impact Watertown

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By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

Part 1

In January 2021, surrounded by some very happy building tradespeople, Charlie Baker signed the MBTA Communities Law into effect, and I missed it. Totally. Apparently, so did a whole lot of us!

In August 2021, I was having lunch with a friend who lives in Boston. We were catching up. As I was discussing the changes that were happening in Watertown, she noted, “You think things are complicated now, just wait until the MBTA Communities Law goes into effect.” She gave me the little bit of information she had, and I stored it away in my mind for further study.

Basically, the state was mandating 175 “MBTA Communities” (about half the state) to commit to zone a certain amount of land to build a certain number of multifamily homes (nothing smaller than a three family, with no limit on how large buildings could be. What the city zoned it for would be how big it could be). And, this zoning decision would not require a 2/3 majority vote of the Council to be approved.

The Penalties:

If the community didn’t do this, a lot of state moneys would be withheld from them. (Note: 64 out of the 175 “MBTA communities” have not made use of these state funds. I think Watertown has). On March 15, 2023, State Attorney General Andrea Campbell warned communities that not participating in the MBTA Communities Law is not an option.

And, God forbid, if you were living next to one of these newly zoned properties when it was bought and being developed as-right (meaning without requiring a special permit or variance from city or town boards. … the Holy Grail of zoning for developers)! There is a potentially heavy penalty for neighbors trying to oppose it … up to a $50,000 fine if they “caused harm” to the developers by slowing them down!

March 2, 2022 WatertownMaNews on-line article, entitled: City Wants to Change Location of Required MBTA Multifamily Zone

In this article, it explains that the state had mandated that all of the Watertown Multifamily zoning space had to be zoned in the area close to the Waverley Square train station in Belmont. The City petitioned to have the area moved to the Watertown Square area.

August 2022: The final state plan for each community was revealed. Many communities pushed back hard at the original numbers. Watertown’s reduced number is 1,701 housing units and the minimum acres is 24, still a heavy lift for a 4 square mile community.

January 10, 2023 City Council Meeting, where this was discussed. It was discussed for about 12 minutes. (See video from 0:55:00 to 1:07:00 http://vodwcatv.org/CablecastPublicSite/show/2209?channel=3)

In the process, Director of Community Development and Planning Steve Magoon was asked by Councillor John Gannon if this would mean buildings in the Square would have to be zoned higher than five stories. Magoon responded that this is one of the decision points we’ll need to make … whether we create a more concentrated area with a higher density potential, in which case the buildings would be tall, or maybe make the plan less dense, therefore spreading out to areas farther from the Square. He said, “It’s like the proverbial balloon. You squeeze one area, and it pops out somewhere else.”

Councillor Tony Palomba asked if the potential building replacing the post office would aid in our count for the MBTA Law. Steve said that the state requirement is that we identify a by-right location for development at a particular density. Whether this project went forward or not wouldn’t help us fulfill some number for this law.

Councillor Lisa Feltner asked about timing for working on this. Steve said after the Comprehensive Plan is finalized.

Is any of this sounding familiar to anyone yet??

For months, there have been news articles all over telling how communities were debating their options … should they defy this new law or go along? Residents of other cities and towns were weighing in. As recently as March 3, 2023, there was an article on the front page of the Boston Globe entitled “State May Push Back on Local Control of Housing.” (The headline online is “Healey wants more housing. But how hard will she push communities to approve it?”) The MBTA Communities Law is mentioned in this. Most recently as I mentioned before, the State Attorney General warned communities that not participating in the MBTA Communities Law isn’t an option.

Meanwhile, in Watertown, crickets.

January 31, 2023; The City sent in its preliminary plan involving Watertown Square to the state for approval.

February 15, 2023: At Emily Izzo’s Councillor meeting, I asked about the MBTA Law, and she said that I shouldn’t be too concerned, because Steve Magoon had explained that they just had to submit a zoning plan. They didn’t actually have to build anything. She sent me a memo sent to the Council from Steve Magoon. But if we’ve learned anything in Watertown in recent years, “Zone it, and they (the big developers) will come!”

March 8, 2023: In preparation for the meeting about the Comprehensive Plan (our community’s future guiding document), I was going through the plan document. I noticed that the MBTA Community Law is mentioned on at least four pages.

And zoning in this document is worded like this: Evaluate zoning to comply with requirements of the “MBTA Communities” legislation (Section 3A of MGL c. 40A) by allowing multi-family housing by-right near transit.

On March 10, 2022, and at the risk of sounding a bit too “woo woo,” I outlined this article at one of my favorite lunch spots. As I was leaving the parking lot, I noticed that the car in front of me had a bumper sticker that I’d never seen before: ”Ignore your rights, and they’ll go away”

My takeaway: I have to pay more attention!

Tomorrow, in Part 2, we’ll attempt to understand this new law more completely and how it will affect Watertown. To do this, the Town of Arlington’s Department of Planning and Community Development will help us.

15 thoughts on “OP-ED: MBTA Communities & How it Could Impact Watertown

  1. I don’t know if there’s any legal standing at this point, but hopefully at least a few communities will hold the line and not bend at the knee and comply with this mandate and file a lawsuit blocking it. Successful or not, at least it would be tied up in court for years.

    Failing in that, the alternative would be a statewide ballot initiative that would repeal it.

    The state should not have the authority or power to force communities into changing their zoning laws against their wishes.

  2. Out of one side of their mouth, they complain about ever increasing housing prices. Out of the other side of their mouth, they say we don’t want to make our own neighborhoods more dense. The stalemate helps no one. If Massachusetts fails to build A LOT more housing and QUICKLY, our economy will be strangled and home prices will escalate even more. Additional housing must be built somewhere, and I think Watertown should follow this law and zone for it.

    Also – complying with state law is not “bending the knee.” State law always supersedes local law, and now I’m beginning to see why it must… because some local residents are selfish.

    • And state law such as this one can be challenged and overturned in court by communities that are adversely effected by this wrongful legislation. Likewise voters have the right to change or repeal laws via the ballot box.

      And it’s not being “selfish” wanting to protect and preserve the community from a barrage of unwanted development and the gentrification that will eventually swallow Watertown whole if something isn’t done to stop it.

      • Opposing zoning for denser development in already dense areas is not going to save Watertown, which is already gentrifying. If you haven’t noticed (maybe because you already own a home?), there is a housing crisis in Eastern Mass and the only solution is to build more housing quickly. Increasing the supply of housing in Watertown is not going to gentrify it any faster than it already is (but maybe it will lower your property values slightly, to which I say, tough shit, we need more housing).

  3. Hi Alan and Kathi,

    It gets more complicated. Keep reading. Understanding this law is key, and if you have the time and patience for it, part 2 has an excellent video by the Arlington Department of Planning and Community Development. They look like quite a team and are approaching this in an earnest and straightforward manner.

  4. Comment submitted by Joan Gumbleton:

    Another example of the state legislature and former Gov. Baker trying to (mess with) us. Many of these people aren’t living in these already dense cities and towns and won’t be affected. They target many areas that are already congested, thinking that people are going to give up their cars to walk, ride bikes and take the problematic T, the so called ’15-minute walking cities’. We all know that’s not a reality if a couple goes opposite directions to go to work or work outside the areas that don’t have public transportation near them, have family commitments in other areas, and so many other reasons. With busy lives people need to get to and fro in a timely manner. The new MBTA Manager admits the challenges they have with filling hundreds of open positions, many of which they are not sure how that will be accomplished. If there is any way we can push back on this massive plan, we need to do that NOW. We can’t always go along to get along. Let’s see what other cities are doing to control their own destinies before this is accepted by Watertown. These state mandates don’t allow our city or any others to plan their needs and wants in a thoughtful manner. Many of these legislators seem to have ties with big developers; is this just another money grab for the wealthy to the detriment of all of us?

    • It actually allows communities to plan it however they want so long as there is zoning somewhere for more density. For decades, Eastern Mass has failed to build tens of thousands of housing units, resulting in the artificial scarcity that drives up housing prices and prices everyone out but biotech and finance people.

      This law doesn’t even require that anything actually be built. Concerns about congestion are premature. The communities around Boston have not been pulling their weight for decades, enjoying the wealth of the region while excluding people through single-family zoning, fighting T expansion, among other things.

      If you want to live in a small town that never changes, maybe Watertown isn’t the right place for you. But, in any case, fighting tooth and nail against zoning for denser development in a few areas in each city with a T stop or commuter rail is not helping anyone but existing property owners.

  5. Just got through reading an article on Uphams Corner in Dorchester, A little area so to say that in the 60’s was getting burnt out, literally. So over the years people started buying cheap housing and fixing them up, formed neighborhood groups and built deed restricted housing for some of the residents. Others started to move back in. Still work to be done, but the biggest threat to pushing people out “Gentrification” such a nice word, just like I read in one of the comments above. Not so funny thing it’s slowly happening here, sure bring in the Labs & the money, pay for this or that. say some. On the other hand housing is driven up, affordable is driven up where it’s unattainable for the average person to afford and so at some time are the vouchers [another story] will dry up when the money runs out. So unless this is going to be low income housing for the residents of Watertown that are about to be displaced by “Gentrification” from the big money and as one says “smarter people” nobody living here ever imagined this coming, we just thought it would lower our taxes! If you don’t agree I have a tunnel in New York you can buy into!

  6. My concern is with biotech encroaching into neighborhoods not with clustering housing downtown (or a $2 million house in a single family neighborhood). The big proposed post office-location building doesn’t bother me nor would similar buildings along Arsenal St. (say where that furniture store was). A tall housing building in that long-time vacant lot across from Baptist Walk would be good. Or build something right on the corner where Staples/Partners urgent care failed. Put restaurants on the ground floor and housing above.

  7. Dennis, John and Sam,

    I wrote this MBTA series out of fear that this conversation was being discouraged from happening…don’t worry, it’s just a “zoning exercise”. I’m so glad that people like you are actually talking about this potential big game-changer for this City, because, in the end, wouldn’t you rather the citizens of Watertown determine who we are and not the developers?

  8. I do know that we hit the >1.5 of land use so that we did not need to allow 40B: DHCD agreed in December 2019 that Watertown was at 2.07% and therefore met the “General Land
    Area Minimum.”. Does anyone know how many units in the past 10 years have been added to Watertown? It has to be a decent amount given: Repton place was back in 2007 so >10year but a good 179 units, Arsenal Yards, Pleasant St Riverbend on Charles on both sides of street, the one behind that on 60 Howard St, New ones down the street which look like townhouses, townhouses across street from Dog park on Pleasant St, The appts down the street to the pool(not sure when they were built)…more to come in different areas around Pleasant and Arsenal St.. I am wondering how many units have we increased Watertown in the past 10 years compared to other small cities(4×4 like size, Belmont for instance(4.7 sq), Waltham is much bigger at 13.6 vs Watertown 4.12 sqmi. Anecdotally for a city that doesn’t have more than buses for public transportation(though one could walk to Waverly commuter rail if you live in West Watertown), looks like we have been building units at a decent clip compared to our public transportation choices?

  9. Hi Kate,

    I’ve pretty much done that count in order to do this article. Maybe I can share the details later. I’ve been told that we’ve been okayed as a “Safe Harbor Community” by the state…is that what you’re talking about?

    For fun, let me just give you one number. Since you mentioned Repton…(Repton 1, 2, 3) =527 units.

    • Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but Watertowns “Safe Harbor” designation doesn’t apply here.

      That only protects the community from developers utilizing 40B (affordable housing), as a tool to use as a workaround existing zoning laws and streamline and speed up the application process.

      To the best of my knowledge the MBTA communities act makes no mention of “affordable housing”, only multi family housing.

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