It appears that city officials have finally reached a consensus on zoning the city center. (At least the three most involved boards and committees.)
Last night, elected officials voted to approve the presentation of a revised version of the downtown zoning by-law to city assembly voters in less than two weeks. He accepts the compromises made between the Town Planning Council and the Economic Development Committee.
Two-storey buildings would now be allowed to be used for residential purposes for 50% of the gross floor area above grade. The 40% residential cap would still apply to three-storey buildings. *
In addition, up to four residential units would be authorized without requiring a special planning permit. This is one more unit than in the Town Meeting Warrant. Yet that’s still half the number that was in a previous version discussed during public hearings this summer.
One area that EDC had opposed and which remains unchanged is the floor area ratio. It is still offered as 0.30, as previously approved by planning and the board. (If you’re not familiar with FAR, you can find an explanation I concocted here.)
The proposed zoning by-law is article 10 of the mandate for the special municipal assembly of November 1. It is part of the City’s efforts to revitalize the downtown area, where nothing new has been built since 1978.
The compromised version was supported by Planning and EDC during the Planning Board hearing on Monday evening. Selectmen and some members of Advisory also participated.
The hoped-for, but still pending vote of support comes from the advisory committee. (The committee did not have a quorum on Monday.) They are to take a position at their meeting at 7:30 pm tonight.
EDC, Planning and the BOS have been working on zoning changes to incentivize desirable mixed-use residential and commercial projects with small downtown businesses. In recent weeks, the parties have disagreed on certain details.
The compromise between EDC and Planning follows difficult and heated discussions. In the end, planning chairman Don Morris joked that it had to be the right compromise because no one was completely satisfied.
At an earlier stage of the meeting, the possibility of reaching a consensus seemed doubtful.
While many parties have spoken repeatedly of being “so close” to an agreement, it appeared that no one was doing much to move away from previous positions.
EDC reiterated its arguments against the recommendations made by Planning in September. Planning clarified why they held these positions.
Selectman Marty Healey reiterated his opposition to the restrictions he called an anti-housing position by Planning. Morris objected, saying the board had approved many housing projects scattered around the city.
Morris added that if the settlement was meant to be a housing settlement, it should be called that. Instead, it was touted as an economic development initiative. EDC members clarified that this was mixed-use zoning.
One of the areas of dispute was the capping of authorized housing units without a special permit at three, since four trigger an affordable housing component. EDC’s Julie Connelly argued that three units would be undesirable for developers. EDC chairman Rob Anderson argued that the special permit would discourage developers from including an affordable unit.
Planning member Meme Lutrell continued to warn against licensing an affordable unit right. She was concerned about the building commissioner’s overload and the possibility that units might not be properly counted in the city’s inventory. ** Healey scoffed at the idea of zoning being restrictive due to the workload of city staff.
Healey said if planning couldn’t agree to easing restrictions, he hoped the EDC would move to amend the article on the city’s meeting floor. Still, most parties agreed that it was unlikely to get 2/3 voter approval if the councils and committees involved disagreed.
EDC said the restrictions in the article prevent two-story buildings with a fully residential second story. Andrew Mills, of Planning, explained that this was based on the step of three-story buildings with a second floor dedicated to offices. Planning members suggested a compromise by allowing 50% mixed-use housing, but capping two-story buildings.
EDC members rejected this, arguing that it precluded the possibility of the described three-story project. Repeated criticism has been made of the planning making recommendations for change in September.
Selectmen’s board chair, Lisa Braccio, championed the town planning efforts and process, telling EDC and other members that she trusted the city’s elected zoning experts.
Braccio expressed deep frustration at seeing the officials’ long, hard work for the zoning change unfold. in flames. Healey suggested the two sides were fighting on their heels to defend their initial positions.
Soon after, common ground was found. Since Planning and EDC both accepted two-story buildings with 50% residential or three-story buildings with 40% residential, they agreed to treat them differently.
As for Lutrell’s concern about oversight of affordable units, arguments were made that the requirements were manageable. Morris pointed out to Lutrell that the building commissioner reported to the men of the selection. If it turns out to be overloaded, they will likely provide more staff or a raise. He also assured that he had seen the town planner, the conservation officer and the construction commissioner supporting each other to move the work forward.
As for the municipal assembly where the voters decide, it will begin at 7:00 p.m. at the Trottier college on Monday 1st. You can find my overview of what’s yet to vote (and security logistics) here.
For the official warrant and zoning map related to the article, click here. (This is also where I would expect the City to release the revised section 10 soon.)
* The zoning article review document will replace the previously listed definition for MIXED-USE DEVELOPMENT with:
A development that includes any combination of authorized non-residential uses and one or more housing units within the same structure; provided, however, that the inclusion of two (2) or more dwelling units in a mixed-use development is not considered a multi-family dwelling. The ground floor facing the street must only be used for authorized non-residential uses, and residential dwellings cannot exceed (a) 40% of the gross floor area of the floor area above grade of a three storey building (no residential dwellings in the basement); or (b) 50% of the gross floor area of the floor area above grade of a two-storey building (no residential accommodation in the basement).
** In 2013, the city’s failure to update the affordable housing inventory with the state, creating a window for a 40B project to be forced on the city, was one of the controversies surrounding the development of Park Central 40B.