Of the 40 articles on this spring’s Town Meeting warrant, plenty have generated spirited debate inside and out of Cary Hall. But Article 34 – the Planning Board’s proposal to create zoning districts where multi-family housing is allowed by right, instead of by special permit, to comply with state housing requirements – has dominated public conversation in Lexington more than any other issue Town Meeting faces this year.
As proposed, Article 34 would zone 12 different areas totaling 227 acres around Lexington – including Lexington Center – where multi-family housing would be permitted by right, with the goal of encouraging the development of multi-family housing near public transit to alleviate the state’s housing crisis.
Planning Board members unanimously support Article 34, and have said that the proposal meets the state’s requirements as well as the Town’s own housing and commercial goals. The proposal was developed over several months of public meetings, and the board made some changes to its proposal in response to public input, such as reducing the proposed height in areas including Lexington Center and removing potential districts such as Wilson Farm. But some community members and Town Meeting Members have criticized the proposed zoning and continue to call for bigger changes – in particular, excluding Lexington Center and reducing the overall acreage proposed.
Ahead of Monday’s debate and anticipated vote, Town Meeting Members have put forward two amendments to Article 34. Proponents argue that their amendments will improve the proposal itself and its chances of passing at Town Meeting.
Todd Burger (P9) proposed an amendment that would moderate the approach to Lexington Center, subjecting the area to a more restrictive special permit approval process.
Burger believes Lexington Center should be included in Article 34, and suggested that including the Center under a special permit designation would constitute a middle ground that satisfies those who would prefer to remove the area from the proposal entirely. The change, he said, would create an additional check on what developers can do in the Center, “giv[ing] people a greater sense of control.”
“The best place for multi-family housing in the entire town is in the Center – access to services, access to a grocery store, access to the MBTA service, access to the Lexpress service – so to exclude it is to…allow multi-family housing in places that are less desirable rather than those that are most desirable,” Burger said. He opposes the tendency to push multi-family housing to the perimeters of communities. Like the Planning Board and Center Committee, Burger believes that the proposed zoning will ultimately increase foot traffic in Lexington Center, benefiting local businesses. But subjecting the Center to special permit approval, and requiring step-backs to reduce shadows, will help maintain the Center’s historic and human-scale look, he said.
“My wife and I moved here 32 years ago for two principal reasons,” Burger said. “One was the schools, and the second was the look and feel of the Center. And it can definitely get better, but I don’t want to see it get worse.”
In a meeting Tuesday, Planning Board members unanimously voted to oppose Burger’s amendment. Vice Chair and Town Meeting Member Michael Schanbacher (P3), an architect, said that one concern the Planning Board had was that the required step-backs Burger proposed would drive up construction costs to a prohibitive extent. He added that in his view, the site plan review process in place for all zoning districts in the Planning Board’s original proposal would result in a rigorous board review of any building projects without discouraging developers altogether. On the other hand, he said the increased unpredictability of the special permit process would be more likely to preclude development.
“I put something out to Town Meeting inviting anyone who was interested – whether or not they were proposing an amendment – to have a conversation,” McKenna explained, “because in my experience, in town government, it was going to be a logistical nightmare and very difficult for Town Meeting to understand what’s out there if all the proposals that I had heard people talking about doing initially were to come forward at Town Meeting.”
Those conversations led to an unlikely agreement among the dozen members, despite radically different starting points. Some were hoping to reduce the acreage by at least half, some looking to phase in the full acreage proposed by the Planning Board, and some – including McKenna – were encouraging Town Meeting not to approve Article 34 at all, and to instead refer it back to the Planning Board for further consideration.
Collectively, they proposed an amendment that would cut the by-right acreage of the proposed amendment to 98 acres – more than the 50-acre minimum required to comply with the state law – but would include 36 additional acres zoned for multi-family housing with special permit approval. The amendment would also cut the number of districts from 12 to seven, removing Lexington Center. And it would modify the conditions for 60-foot heights in some of the proposed districts, increasing the required setbacks to mitigate the shadowing the height could create.
McKenna was “masterful” in facilitating the conversations that led to this agreement, said Lin Jensen (P8), one of the 13 amendment co-sponsors. “Even 20 minutes before we came to [an] agreement, I thought it was not possible,” she said.
Jensen, along with Pam Hoffman (P7) and Tina McBride (P7), had been developing their own proposed amendment that would dramatically reduce the total acreage of Article 34. The Planning Board’s original proposal, Hoffman said, had “high potential for unintended consequences.” The group reviewed all of the Planning Board’s proposed zoning districts and “really looked carefully at neighborhood-by-neighborhood where there were small houses that could be impacted by having a five- or six- story building next to them.”
“We don’t think that’s necessary, and we don’t think that’s fair,” Hoffman said, “because there are plenty of places to put taller buildings – it does not have to be impacting, impinging on neighborhoods.”
Hoffman, Jensen and McBride believe any proposal for Lexington Center should be developed in a separate zoning proposal after a Center-specific community outreach process. “We need housing in the Center,” McBride said, “but it’s not one size fits all…it has to be specific to the Center.” Though the Town’s recently approved Comprehensive Plan included outreach to many stakeholders about how to improve the vitality of Lexington Center, the group said that a separate, Center-specific community engagement process overseen by a professional facilitator was necessary to develop a thoughtful plan for the Center’s future.
Barbara Katzenberg (P2), Jay Luker (P1) and Tom Shiple (P9) – the Town Meeting Members who formed the Cluster Housing Study Group in 2021 to look into ways to encourage more diverse housing types in Lexington – also joined McKenna’s working group and support the amendment.
“We all had our bright lines that we did not want to cross,” Katzenberg said. “But I think [McKenna] did an excellent job of helping to have a productive conversation in which we tried to find common ground.”
“We fundamentally support the original motion as it is,” Shiple said, but “we can come to the compromise amendment.”
“We’ve done deep analysis to convince ourselves that we don’t think the pace of development will be overwhelming,” he added. While the original 227-acre proposal seems “massive” to some, “we think that’s called for just to get any kind of meaningful development.”
While they support the original motion, the Cluster Housing Study Group came to the conclusion that “this debate between by-right and special permit is basically not resolvable until we try,” Shiple said. The amendment, with some by-right districts and some subject to special permit approval, “will provide a natural experiment in real time” that will help inform the community’s approach to zoning that encourages housing moving forward.
The Cluster Housing Study Group was able to agree to support removing the Center from this amendment, Katzenberg said, because in their outreach to community members, “the Center is just a lightning rod for strong opinions. And many people who are generally supportive of this article feel that the Center is special and needs special treatment.”
On the whole, though Lexington is not required to comply with the state law until the end of 2024, the proponents of this amendment all feel it is important for Lexington to take action now to meet the state’s requirements and encourage multi-family housing in Lexington.
“I feel strongly that I would like to see Lexington be a leader, not to be the town that’s dragging its heels,” Katzenberg said.
“At the end of the day, we all came to the conclusion – even those of us who initially wanted to just [indefinitely postpone] it – that we are better off dipping our toe in the water and starting this process than delaying it again,” McKenna said.
The working group’s amendment has already gained the support of community members like Tad Dickenson, who otherwise strongly oppose the Planning Board’s original proposal. Earlier this year, Dickenson expressed concerns that 227 acres of by-right zoning could result in a sudden and sharp increase in Lexington’s population that could strain the Town’s services and taxpayers. Dickenson was also concerned about the Planning Board’s proposal eroding the look and feel of the Town Center. Tall buildings could block sunshine, especially in the winter, he said. What’s more, for him, Lexington Center is “that one little piece of your life that’s the same if you’ve lived here for a long time.” Dickenson has lived in Lexington for 40 years.
But at the Planning Board’s meeting Tuesday, three members voted against the working group’s proposed amendment, while one voted in favor of it and one member abstained.
Vice Chair Schanbacher was part of the board majority opposing the amendment. Despite the working group’s good intentions, in his view, the amendment would effectively push multi-family zoning to the outskirts of town.
In crafting its original proposal, the Planning Board worked deliberately to “make sure that these different districts were sort of stitched into town and not just on the periphery,” Schanbacher said. “This was about providing equity for these future developments to make sure that they didn’t feel as if they were out in this industrial zone, where there are 90-foot high lab buildings immediately adjacent to them – we should have them intermixed within the overall town.”
Schanbacher believes that it is essential for Lexington Center to be included in the zoning proposal. In his time on Town Meeting, he has heard many conversations about how to support Lexington Center – “we just keep continuing to kick a decision down the road,” he said. “I don’t feel that we need to continue to belabor this and take more time.” Including Lexington Center in Article 34 “makes it an integral part and only reinforces the statement that we’re making to the greater Metro Boston area about how committed we are to meeting the goals of the MBTA Communities Act.”
Planning Board Chair and Town Meeting Member Robert Peters (P7) abstained from voting on the amendment Tuesday evening. But in a follow-up email to LexObserver on Thursday, he explained that he had decided he would oppose the amendment as well.
“Finding common ground is wonderful where and when possible,” he wrote. But “it’s clear that the remaining districts are less walkable, less convenient to public transportation as well as proximate to existing retail areas and really do not well represent the Commonwealth’s and the Town’s goals.” He praised the working group for their deep engagement and work on the amendment, but intends to vote against it on Monday.
“The choice of districts was an intentional compromise between a large group of people with diverse views,” Hoffman and Shiple wrote in a follow-up email on behalf of the working group in response to Planning Board members’ criticism. “All seven districts in our amendment are directly on a bus line or within a 10-minute walk of one….We see approval of the article as amended by us as the beginning of a process, not the end.”
LexObserver could not reach Robert Creech, the only board member who voted in favor of the working group’s amendment, for comment by press time.
Planning Director Abby McCabe said that it’s important not to conflate the state’s multi-family housing requirements with affordable housing. While Article 34 as proposed would reserve about 15% of units in larger developments for individuals making 80% or less of Area Median Income, the other 85% of units would be market-rate.
That said, “suburban communities have historically excluded or over-regulated multi-family homes,” McCabe wrote in an email to LexObserver. “In nearly a century of zoning, Lexington still does not have a multi-family zoning district anywhere on the map.”
“The Planning Board’s proposal comprises 2% of Lexington’s total land area,” she added. “It was never about the quantity of acres; it was always about the quality of acreage.”
More than 50 years ago, Town Meeting voted in favor of a multi-family affordable development that a townwide referendum later resoundingly rejected. Former Lexington resident Bill McKibben wrote about that vote in his book and memoir The Flag, the Cross and the Station Wagon.
“Places like Lexington built up debts over the last fifty years – a debt to the people who, for reasons of history well known to all, couldn’t get in on the ground floor of the rise in real estate prices, and also an enormous carbon debt as we drove between giant homes,” he wrote in an email to LexObserver. “[The MBTA Communities Act], with its emphasis on equity and its background in transit, offers a small downpayment on some of those debts.”
“Lexington, in 1971, had the chance to start making the town a more diversified and equitable place – it whiffed on that opportunity,” he added. Article 34 “is another opportunity, decades late – but as with many things, better late than never.”