At its Feb. 15 meeting, the Planning Board unanimously voted to recommend that Town Meeting approve its amended zoning proposal to satisfy state multi-family zoning requirements and meet local housing needs.
Since the Planning Board opened a public hearing on the proposal earlier this month, members heard public comments from more than 60 community members over three meetings as well as receiving dozens of written comments. In response to community feedback, board members made multiple changes to the originally proposed zoning – most notably, lowering the maximum height in Lexington Center and North Bedford Street areas from 60 feet to 52 feet.
The state’s MBTA Communities law seeks to address the housing crisis across the Commonwealth by requiring communities served by public transit to approve zoning where multi-family housing can be built by right instead of by special permit, as previously reported. To create capacity for its required 1,231 units, Lexington must zone at least 82 acres with a minimum gross density of 15 units per acres (the Town could also meet the zoning requirements by creating capacity for 1,231 units on a minimum area of 50 acres).
The total area of the Planning Board’s proposal exceeds 160 acres, which amounts to a small fraction of the Town’s total land area of 10,000+ acres. Planning Director Abby McCabe and Planning Board members have said that the zoning proposal’s area surpasses state requirements because they want to satisfy both the letter and the spirit of the law while tackling some of the Town’s longstanding housing priorities as identified in Select Board goals, a townwide survey and the Comprehensive Plan.
“The Planning Board, for two or three years now, has been focused on housing,” Planning Board member Charles Hornig said last week. “Even before we started the work on the MBTA community housing, we were talking about a lot of different initiatives to address housing issues in a lot of different ways.” While the Planning Board has prioritized the MBTA Communities requirements because the Town must comply by the end of 2024, Hornig said, “I’m glad we haven’t taken that as an excuse to forget about all of our other housing goals.”
Planning Board Vice Chair Michael Schanbacher said he prefers to think of the law “more as an opportunity than a requirement.”
“It gives us the opportunity to provide multi-family housing [that] we are in desperate need of, both in the region and in the Town,” he said.
The Planning Board’s zoning proposal consists of an overlay district, an option which is superimposed on top of existing zoning without canceling it out. The overlay district includes three different height tiers applying to about 10 different areas around town. Because the 60-foot mid-rise overlay districts proposed at North Bedford Street and Lexington Center generated the most pushback from community members concerned about excessive height, the amended proposal replaces those two mid-rise overlays with a 52-foot height cap, amounting to about four stories instead of five.
A few residents have suggested removing Lexington Center from this proposal altogether and considering it independently at a later date, avoiding the deadline pressure of meeting the new state guidelines. But Planning Board members have emphasized that the proposed mixed-use zoning in Lexington Center satisfies the Town’s commercial and housing priorities.
“This is something that’s important to the Town, it’s important to the residents, it’s important for the Center to become more vibrant,” Planning Board member Melanie Thompson said. “It’s just important to have the look and the feel of a community that we really need.”
During a public comment period Feb. 15, Lexington Center Committee Chair Jerry Michelson praised the Planning Board for taking stock of the Town’s needs as a whole instead of addressing zoning requirements piecemeal. On those grounds, he encouraged the Planning Board to keep the Center in this zoning proposal. “To pluck out the Center, and push it down the road again, isn’t really worth it because this is part of what we need,” he said.
Among other changes made in response to community input, the Planning Board decreased the commercial height bonuses in low-rise overlay districts and increased the required parking allocation to one unit per dwelling. Members also agreed on a nonresidential development height bonus of 45 feet on top of 70-foot high-rise overlay districts on Hartwell Avenue because underlying zoning permits buildings up to 115 feet in that area already. (The Planning Board proposed height bonuses as part of this zoning to help incentivize and preserve existing commercial development, as previously reported.)
At last week’s meeting, Planning Board members also reviewed affordability restrictions attached to its proposed zoning. The zoning would require 15% of units to be subject to affordability restrictions as long as a feasibility study finds that development is still economically viable at that level. A majority of Planning Board members support making this housing eligible for the Subsidized Housing Inventory (SHI), meaning it would be specifically designated for households earning 80% of Area Median Income.
Lexington, and other communities, must maintain an SHI of at least 10% to avoid consequences from a state law that allows developers to disregard existing zoning to build more affordable housing if a community falls below 10%. Lexington’s number of affordable units has remained stagnant for about a decade even as the total number of houses in town has grown. Some Planning Board members worried the Town risked falling below the 10% SHI threshold if its proposal did not conservatively require 15% of units to be SHI-eligible.
Lexington currently has an SHI of about 11.05%, but only about half of those units are actually affordable due to a loophole in the law that counts all market-rate units in developments containing 20-25% affordable units toward a community’s SHI.
On the other hand, Planning Board member Hornig expressed concern that applying the SHI affordability requirement to 15% of units would not meet the Town’s workforce housing needs, which fall into a broader definition of “affordable” – anywhere from 80% to 150% of Area Median Income.
McCabe expects the feasibility study reviewing viable levels of affordability to be completed by the end of next month.
As the Planning Board has refined its zoning proposal, community members have raised big-picture questions about how increased multi-family housing in the Town could impact town services, especially public school enrollment.
At last week’s meeting, Planning Board Associate Member Michael Leon said he wanted to “dispel this belief that tomorrow or next year you’re going to see any significant impact or increase in the amount of development” under this new zoning. Developers would still face “so many impediments – financial and logistical” to building developments that significantly increase multi-family housing under this bylaw, he said, so any increases to multi-family housing in the Town will likely take a long time.
“It’s not going to be a wave, it’s not going to be a tsunami; it’s going to be a very slow, slow process with a small fraction of all these overlay districts accommodating the type of development that we’re trying to enable,” he said. “This is something I would not be afraid of.”
In response to questions about potential effects of the zoning on school enrollment, two members of the Town’s Enrollment Working Group recently released an open letter to the Planning Board and Planning Director that also emphasized that development would likely take a long time to develop from this zoning.
“Growth occurring through broad overlay district zoning that covers many smaller individual properties is more likely to lead to a gradual increase in housing density than similar districts composed of a small number of large properties,” group members Joe Pato and Rod Cole wrote in the letter. (Though Pato is a Select Board member and Cole is a member of the Capital Expenditures Committee, the two wrote this letter only in their capacity as Enrollment Working Group Members.)
Specific to potential school effects, Pato and Cole added that the number of students enrolled in LPS is not directly correlated with the number of housing units in the town, based on demographic and migration patterns in Lexington from the 1950s through the beginning of the pandemic. “Growth that is spread across the community broadly is easier to absorb into the school system than the same growth concentrated in one or two locations,” they added.
“The proposal has evolved and is far better today than where we began,” Planning Board Chair Robert Peters said before the Planning Board voted to recommend the article to Town Meeting. “The process has worked as it was designed.”
At its meeting next week, the Planning Board will review a draft of its report to Town Meeting, which begins March 20.