May 3, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald
Town Meeting will address this month whether to make permanent the regulations designed to protect our General Residence neighborhoods from the continuing construction of out-of-scale housing. In the past few years, too many homes were built which, even if in compliance with the four corners of Belmont’s zoning by-law, inappropriately dominated homes around them, casting shadows and infringing on surrounding properties.
In 2014, Town Meeting imposed temporary restrictions on the construction of such housing in the General Residence zoning district. This year, it will be asked to remove the time limit that would bring those restrictions to an end. The proposal has wide support and Town Meeting is expected to approve that change. Accordingly, now it’s time to move past the issue of what we don’t want (McMansions) in order to address the far more difficult question of what we do want. Here are three suggestions.
First, the Planning Board should move Belmont into an era where the focus of review is on neighborhoods, not on zoning districts. This can be accomplished in two steps. Step 1. As recommended in Belmont’s comprehensive plan, the town should “strengthen [the] physical definitions of neighborhoods.” Without trying to define precisely what constitutes a “neighborhood” in the brief space I have here –there is significant planning literature on how to define “neighborhoods”—it seems self-evident that there are many distinct neighborhoods in the General Residence zoning district that differ one from another. For example, East Belmont should surely be seen to differ from the neighborhood that borders PQ Park. Despite both areas being in the General Residence zone, they are dramatically different.
Step 2. Having defined the neighborhoods, the town should then establish neighborhood-specific design and site plan standards that can reinforce historical character and development patterns. Again without proposing specific standards here, one can easily see the tremendous differences within the General Residence zoning district. For example, many areas around Waverley Square lack substantial front yards in a way not evident elsewhere. For example, the General Residence area incorporating Warwick Road and Raleigh Road (and environs) has a mix of single-family and two-family homes not in evidence elsewhere. The character of the two areas differs. What would be appropriate to construct in the two areas would differ. The notion that Belmont should base its development review on neighborhood-specific design and site plan standards seems well-founded.
Second, General Residence areas that are along Trapelo Road, Belmont Street and Concord Ave. should be rezoned to allow new housing alternatives, increased mixed use, and additional business. For example, located along Trapelo Road are a number of residential areas which have homes partially or entirely converted into commercial service, medical, and office uses. Called “transition areas” in Belmont’s comprehensive plan, these areas are mostly zoned General Residence. As even our town’s comprehensive plan noted, the current zoning of these areas “does not reflect current uses, or historic development patterns and dimensional standards. Re-zoning of these residential areas would both foster their protection and allow for modest changes in keeping with the character of these neighborhoods.”
Finally, the town should adopt new regulations to affirmatively promote the preservation of small open spaces. We too often lose sight of the fact that the terms “open space” and “parks” are not synonymous. Open space can be privately owned. For example, Belmont has not traditionally adequately considered the role of “yards” in pursuit of open space preservation. One proposal advanced in the past that deserves at least a public conversation today is the recommendation that on-street residential parking be allowed in selected higher density neighborhoods to prevent the loss of yards to accommodate parking.
It is always easier to say what we don’t want than to engage in the required effort to develop positive forward-thinking proposals on how we want to shape the future of Belmont. Indeed, some proposals might require having those uncomfortable conversations where, unlike controlling McMansions, we might not all agree (e.g., allowing on-street parking in some higher density areas of town). It’s called “planning.” Now that the General Residence McMansion restrictions have been made permanent, here’s hoping we can now move on to that next task.