Approximately 40 community members shared comments praising and critiquing the Planning Board’s multi-family zoning proposal to meet new state requirements at a well-attended public hearing Wednesday.
Under state guidelines developed to address the severe shortage of housing across the Commonwealth and the nation, Massachusetts requires communities served by public transit to establish a certain amount of zoning for multi-family housing. Since last spring, the Planning Board has held about 20 public meetings and presentations to develop a zoning proposal that satisfies the requirements as they apply to Lexington.
Wednesday’s public hearing was the latest step in a public input process leading up to Town Meeting next month, when Town Meeting Members will ultimately debate and vote on the proposed zoning.
To comply with the guidelines, Lexington’s zoning district must create capacity for at least 1,231 multi-family units across about 82 acres with a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre. Roughly half of that acreage must be contiguous.
The Planning Board has proposed creating village overlay districts divided into three different height tiers to satisfy the new zoning requirements. Overlay districts provide additional zoning options without canceling underlying zoning out; the districts would apply to about 10 different parcels of land spread throughout the Town, including East Lexington and Lexington Center, as previously reported.
Proposed village low-rise overlay districts, like East Lexington, would have a cap of 40 feet (three stories). Village mid-rise overlays such as Lexington Center would be limited to 60 feet (five stories). In proposed village high-rise overlay districts like an area at Hartwell Avenue, where manufacturing zoning allows heights up to about 115 feet, the overlay would apply a height cap of 70 feet (six stories). (The Planning Board has discussed the possibility of increasing the high-rise overlay cap to align it more closely with the height designated by the underlying zoning.)
Lexington must pass zoning that complies with the guidelines by the end of 2024 to avoid losing state grant funding.
By threatening state grant funding of critical importance to entities like local housing authorities with tight budgets, “the state is using a rather blunt instrument to obtain compliance,” Planning Board Chair Bob Peters explained on Wednesday.
Separate from the state’s funding enforcement mechanism, Planning Director Abby McCabe added that Lexington would likely face legal challenges from developers if it failed to implement compliant zoning by the state’s deadline. Such challenges could lead to development unchecked by any local zoning control. “It’s very important that Lexington, and all the other communities, adopt the zoning to guide what this future multi-family housing development will look like,” McCabe said. “If you don’t adopt zoning at some point in time…a property owner will challenge Lexington; they will submit an application; and you’ll have no zoning in place to stop it.”
The Planning Board’s proposal exceeds the 82 acres Lexington is required to zone for multi-family housing. The proposal “goes above and beyond…the minimum state [requirements],” McCabe said, because “we’ve also incorporated goals of the full community.” Creating more housing types, including multi-family housing and affordable housing, aligns with the Town’s goals and priorities as articulated by the Select Board and the Comprehensive Plan. Additionally, the Planning Board’s proposal includes some mixed-use incentives and options to encourage business vibrancy in Lexington Center and other parts of the Town – another town-wide priority, especially as businesses in Lexington Center have faced challenges leading some to shutter or consider closing.
The proposal “meets both the letter and the spirit of the law,” McCabe said.
More than 200 people joined Wednesday’s virtual public hearing – an unusually high number of attendees for a Planning Board meeting, according to Peters. Several public comments at Wednesday’s public hearing singled out the two proposed village mid-rise overlay districts in Lexington Center and at 475 Bedford St. More than a dozen of the 40 community members who spoke on Wednesday debated whether 60 feet was too tall for these two areas, though most expressed support for establishing multi-family zoning in Lexington.
“I, too, favor multi-family housing zoning in Lexington; however, I believe that 60-foot height is too great, particularly in Lexington Center and at the 475 Bedford St. area,” resident Mark Alimansky said. “Times change, but we need not destroy Lexington’s charm.” Similar to multiple other speakers, Alimansky expressed concern that 60-foot heights in these two areas could threaten Lexington’s historical character and overshadow surrounding residential buildings.
In addition to practical concerns about the proposed zoning related to parking, infrastructure and community resources, Town character recurred as a priority for many residents who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, though its defining qualities and suggestions for its optimal preservation varied by speaker.
Town Meeting Member Andy Friedlich (P5) had no issue with increasing building heights on the north side of Massachusetts Avenue in Lexington Center (where CVS is), but asked that the south side be limited to three stories. He worried that taller buildings on the south side would block “later afternoon sun” and prevent residents from enjoying the Town’s newly installed seating and broad sidewalks, which were recently completed as part of the Center Streetscape Project.
“What gives Lexington Center its character is the wide sidewalks and benches, which [give] people a place to congregate,” Friedlich said.
Within the past week, approximately 600 residents have signed a petition opposing the 60-foot height in the Town Center and at 475 Bedford St., according to resident Emir Roach. “I don’t agree that 60 feet is the only way to achieve our goals,” he said on Wednesday, adding that he believed developers “will maximize square footage to maximize profits.”
At the public hearing, McCabe said that the proposed mid-rise overlay zoning in Lexington Center likely won’t officially count toward the 82 acres required to fulfill the state’s new multi-family zoning requirements. The Planning Board’s proposed Lexington Center district requires commercial zoning on the ground floor in order to protect Town Center businesses, but the state guidelines for compliance with the new law explicitly disqualify multi-family zoning that requires a combination “with commercial or other uses on the same lot or as part of a single project.”
“Essentially, [Lexington Center] is being excluded from our overall housing capacity that we need to meet by the state…the Center area is proposed as part of [the village overlay districts], but the state may not count that as fully qualifying with their guidelines,” McCabe said.
In an interview, Peters explained that the Planning Board opted to require ground-floor commercial zoning in Lexington Center despite the state’s guidelines after receiving feedback “from residents and from the Center Committee” that without this requirement attached to new multi-family zoning in this part of the Town, “commercial retail in the Center could effectively go extinct.”
Since the Planning Board’s proposal for multi-family housing in Lexington Center “is so similar in outcome to [the MBTA zoning]” in that it could increase Lexington’s multi-family housing supply – and the Center was an area that residents consistently identified as an opportunity for multi-family housing at the Planning Board’s interactive workshop last October – the Board opted to keep Lexington Center in the proposed zoning. “Lexington Center [is] tagging along with the MBTA communities changes, but it is not going to be counted towards compliance with MBTA communities,” Peters summarized. The Center is a prime example of the Planning Board seeking to comply with the spirit, as well as the letter, of the new law, while also seeking to advance town-wide goals and priorities.
Jerry Michelson, Chair of the Center Committee, said on Wednesday that while the committee has not yet formally voted on the latest Planning Board zoning draft, “the Committee…is definitely for…more dense housing, greater height in the Center, but maintaining it as a pedestrian-friendly, commercial Center, and we want to be a good neighbor to the adjacent neighborhoods.”
To alleviate resident concerns about height, Michelson suggested potential “step-backs” at the third, fourth or fifth story of any development as part of the Lexington Center zoning to “maintain a less shadowed environment of the downtown area.”
Some neighbors of the proposed mid-rise overlay district at 475 Bedford St. said that 60 feet would overwhelm the neighborhood and exacerbate its existing traffic problems.
Despite the law’s intention of developing denser housing near public transit, neighborhood resident Mary Hamilton predicted that the new zoning could lead to more cars on the road in the neighborhood. “Traffic in this area is already a major problem,” she said. “If a solution is ever found to the traffic problems, it will be long after the 475 [Bedford] property has been developed, because it’s ready to be developed now.”
“The residents of this area know that this property will be developed, and welcome multi-family housing on this site instead of single-family homes – but not structures that lodge too many people for the area,” she added, asking that the height of building(s) on the site be limited to a maximum of four stories.
Prior to last year’s Annual Town Meeting, residents of this neighborhood previously successfully organized to prevent a lab development at 475 Bedford St.
Though low-rise overlay districts have 40-foot caps, the proposed zoning offers 15 and 25-foot height bonuses for projects with commercial ground floors, providing the larger height bonus where the underlying zoning is already commercial.
Planning Board Member Charles Hornig said that the Town is trying to encourage the preservation of commercial development alongside the new required residential zoning beyond Lexington Center as well. “Building residential is just a much safer bet than building commercial in Lexington right now,” he said. To incentivize commercial development, “we felt we needed to provide a significant bonus to encourage property owners.”
Beyond debates over the proposed height requirements in the two mid-rise zoning districts, several community members spoke up in support of the proposed zoning.
Chris Herbert, who served as co-chair of the Town’s Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee and is a housing policy expert, praised the Planning Board’s plan for aligning with the goals and needs of the Town identified in the CPAC’s community input process.
Herbert recalled three priorities that emerged through the comprehensive planning process: Addressing “the need for much greater variety of housing;…to reinvigorate the Town Center…[and] to activate the many smaller commercial areas throughout the Town.”
“I appreciate the comments and concerns about density in terms of height,” Herbert said. “However…in achieving the multiple goals of allowing for greater housing and having this commercial activation, there is a problem that has to be squared there.”
“The height…while perhaps not ideal in many respects, is necessary to accomplish all of those purposes,” he said.
Some residents raised concerns that an influx of residents of multi-family housing developed in the proposed zoning districts could overwhelm the Lexington Public Schools system.
“With so many new..residences, there will be probably a lot more new schoolchildren, and I’m not sure where we’d put them,” resident Beth Zonis said.
Hornig noted that the new required zoning is already being factored into planning for the new or renovated Lexington High School, as previously reported.
School Committee member Kathleen Lenihan, speaking as an individual, voiced her support for the new zoning. “Change is never easy, but communities can and must change to meet the needs of residents,” she said. Given the regional and statewide housing crisis, “quite simply, we need more housing for our economy to continue thriving.”
Though Lenihan was not speaking on behalf of the School Committee, she added that the school district “has a master plan for facilities that addresses the scenario of higher-than-expected enrollment.”
A couple of community members suggested that the Town should consider a “cost-benefit analysis” about whether continuing to receive MBTA bus service was worth being subjected to the new zoning.
Town Meeting Member Dawn McKenna (P6) suggested an analysis of “what would happen if we chose to do our own public transit,” pulling out of the MBTA bus service to avoid being subject to the new law.
Herbert argued that the Town should think about its housing obligations as part of the Greater Boston community. “Lexington does need to see itself as part of a broader regional housing market,” he said. Between the Town’s location near Boston and its access to Route 2 and bus lines, “I think we have an obligation as a community to provide a wider range of housing for folks.”
Jay Luker, a Town Meeting Member (P1), member of the Cluster Housing Study Group and MBTA bus rider, added that he saw the Planning Board’s work as critical to the future of Lexington.
“You really embrace the responsibility of thinking about the future, and about what might happen, and what Lexington and all of its neighborhoods might need 20 or 30 years from now,” he said. “The people living here then may have very different needs and face different challenges, and it’s all of our responsibility to let this town evolve and adapt to meet these needs and those challenges.”
The Planning Board voted to continue the public hearing to next Wednesday, Feb. 8, allowing additional opportunities for deliberation and public comment.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated in one sentence that the Planning Board’s public hearing took place Tuesday; in fact, it took place Wednesday, Feb. 1, as stated elsewhere in the article. LexObserver regrets the error.