May 3, 2018 — McMansions are out: What’s next?

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.

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January 18, 2018 — Belmont’s Comprehensive Plan — Much yet to do

January 18, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

In this third part of a three-part series that examines Belmont’s ten-year comprehensive plan, I examine aspects of the plan that have not been pursued in the eight years since it was adopted.  The progress taken to implement some aspects of the plan, as considered last week, should not mask the lack of progress elsewhere.

Much of what has not happened involves our local business centers. The comprehensive plan recommended that Belmont “establish a more predictable approval process [for new development] that focuses on design standards and impact analysis.” The plan noted that existing zoning focuses on “height, density and use,” factors which do “not ensure compatibility of new development with [Belmont’s] historic character and development patterns…” These new standards have never been considered.  The plan recommended rezoning Belmont’s business centers to allow “mixed uses,” a combination of residential and commercial uses, an action not taken.  This failure, the plan says, “inhibits an appropriate mix of uses and scaled new or infill development which can enhance the vitality of these districts.”

Re-visioning Belmont’s “commercial centers” was recommended.  For example, the plan recommended defining new business centers, including Central/Palfrey Square, East Belmont and Brighton Street (“Hill’s Crossing”) (nearby Hill Estates), each having its own individual character.  This recommendation has been ignored.

Preserving Belmont’s neighborhoods received considerable attention in the comprehensive plan.  The plan indicated that Belmont first needs to “strengthen [the] physical definition of neighborhoods.”  After doing that, the plan recommended “establishing neighborhood-specific design and site plan standards [that] can reinforce historical character and development patterns.” This has not been pursued.

For historic preservation, the comprehensive plan recommended a by-law to protect “specimen trees,” along with increased use of “scenic road designations.” (Somerset Street is Belmont’s only “scenic road”).  Neither have been pursued.

Increasing the “walkability” of Belmont is one essential strategy for a sustainable community.  The comprehensive plan recommended that “sidewalks should be included in road reconstruction policy.”  That is still not done. Not too many years ago, the Board of Selectmen determined that Belmont’s limited resources should be devoted to road repair and reconstruction, excluding sidewalks.  Perhaps now that there are sufficient resources for road repair, a corresponding sidewalk repair and reconstruction plan should be prepared.

Some things recommended in the comprehensive plan are beyond the direct control of Belmont and have not been pursued.  Improving bus connections to Alewife (such as diverting existing 128 shuttles to/from Waltham) is one example.  Advocacy by Belmont’s leaders is what is needed, not direct decisionmaking.

Some action steps, seemingly reasonably “easy,” have not been pursued.  Improving signage for Belmont Center parking has never occurred.  One certainly does not drive down Waltham’s Moody Street and wonder where municipal parking is located.  Similarly, developing a signed pedestrian circulation plan for the Leonard/Common/Concord intersection, as recommended by the plan, should be manageable.  Why do people feel they must risk their lives to get from Clark Street / White Street / Belmont Center to the Post Office? Is that process more difficult than it sounds?

The comprehensive plan recommended steps increase bicycling to school.  Designating bike routes to school, marked by signage, was one recommendation  not pursued. But who decides? The Selectmen? DPW? Office of Community Development? Similarly, “providing bicycle parking/storage at transit stations” and other public destinations was recommended but not done.

Comprehensive plan recommendations to increase housing alternatives have received some of the least attention.  The plan recommended consideration of allowing accessory/in-law apartments and allowing three-family structures where they have been historically located.  Allowing increased attached single-family housing and townhouse development was recommended for consideration. None of these have been considered, let alone adopted.

The failures identified above, if inaction can even be considered a failure –“failure” may be unduly harsh of a word– cannot be laid solely at the feet of the Selectmen.  Multiple decisionmakers can/should consider what was recommended in the 2010 comprehensive plan and what needs to be done to bring forth those recommendations for decision.  Inaction may simply indicate the lack of resources to pursue all of the plan’s recommendations, even over eight years. Inaction may also simply indicate the inherent difficulty in converting a “recommendation” into a “proposal.”  Ultimately, while much has been done since Belmont adopted the town’s 2010-2020 comprehensive plan, much remains to be done.

Roger Colton has been a Belmont resident since 1985 living in the Cushing Square neighborhood. He is also the host of Belmont Media Center’s podcast, “Community Conversations” and a guest host of Belmont Media Center’s weekly news program, “Belmont Journal.”  He’s a Town Meeting Member and chair of the Belmont Energy Committee.  Colton can be reached at Colton.Conversations@comcast.net.

November 2, 2017–Time to revisit McLean senior housing

November 2, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

In 1999, in one of the most contentious debates ever to face Belmont, making recent dust-ups over the sale of liquor licenses and the design of our town green look like pillow fights, Belmont’s Town Meeting voted to approve a comprehensive development package for property that McLean Hospital had proposed to sell for housing development. As part of the compromise that Town Meeting ultimately approved, various stakeholders received something to advance their particular interests.  Substantial land was preserved as open space.  Property was set aside for an affordable housing development.  High-end condominiums were to be constructed on some land. And land for a new cemetery was provided to the town.  All of those projects have since come to fruition.

Another part of the McLean compromise, however, has grown stale over the years. It deserves to be re-opened.  One parcel of the McLean land was zoned exclusively to allow a continuing care facility for over-55 persons. The property was bought by the American Retirement Corporation, which ultimately received a permit to build a “community” with nearly 500 living units (350 independent living, 136 assisted living).  After ARC received its permit, construction costs skyrocketed and the market for continuing care facilities collapsed. The project was eventually abandoned.  The land has gone unused ever since.

The need for additional life-cycle housing in Belmont continues unabated.  Aging Belmont residents continue to leave town when they find they no longer need a bigger home. Perhaps they can no longer physically take care of a single family home with multiple bedrooms (along with the accompanying yard). Perhaps they simply no longer want to do so. There is, however, no place in town for these seniors to move when they decide to downsize their living space. And they leave.

All the while, the McLean property sits vacant.

And the McLean senior housing property will continue to sit vacant because the zoning decision that was made twenty years ago limiting its use to a continuing care facility is out-of-date. The world has changed since that zoning decision was made. Efforts today focus on maintaining independent living for our aging residents rather than on moving our seniors into large-scale continuing care facilities.

Help is available. The Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, along with others such as the Boston Society of Architects and KPM (a nationally-recognized public accounting and business consulting firm), sponsors an annual competition that develops proposals for places just like the vacant McLean property. The FHLB matches graduate design students from area universities both with mentors from academia and with design and financial professionals in the Boston area.  In its 18th year, the competition develops proposals, including both design and financing, that address a local sponsor’s needs and desires while offering ways in which such proposals can be practically implemented in the real world.  Graduate students from at least two area universities must be on each team.  Participating schools range from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, to Boston University, Tufts University, the Boston Architectural College, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, and the MIT School of Architecture and Planning.

Belmont has both the need for additional life-cycle housing for the aged and a location that, at least in 1999, was seen as appropriate to help address that need.  Given that the FHLB competition provides precisely the type of help Belmont could use, it would make sense for Belmont to ask to be a local sponsor in the FHLB initiative. The real question, of course, is whether Belmont is willing to revisit its 20-year old zoning decision restricting the use of the vacant McLean property given that the rationale for that restriction has long-since expired.

September 22, 2016: Unbundled parking: Fewer cars from Cushing Village

September 22, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

As the final up-or-down decision grows near on whether the proposed Cushing Village development will move forward, it is important to consider not only “whether” the development will proceed, but to consider, also, “how” it will proceed.  In a prior Guest Opinion in the Citizen-Herald, for example, Cushing Village developer Chris Starr committed that “residential parking will be ‘unbundled’ from their monthly apartment rent, which will encourage residents to use the nearby public transit and go car-free if they prefer.”  That commitment should be carried forward by the new developers.

One way to manage parking, and thus help control the automobile traffic generated by new developments such as Cushing Village, is to “unbundle” the parking from the living units, such as was proposed by Chris Starr.  According to the Transport Policy Institute at Victoria University, “optimal parking supply is the amount that motorists would purchase if they paid all costs directly and had good parking and transport options.”

“Unbundling means that parking is rented or sold separately,” the Institute explains, “rather than automatically included with building space.”  Rather than rent an apartment with two parking spaces for $2,000 per month, in other words, the apartment is rented for $1,700, with each parking space rented separately for $150 per month.  In this way, residents of the building pay only for the parking they need.  For a development such as Cushing Village, which sits directly on a bus line to significant public transportation options (e.g., the T at Harvard Square, the train in Waverley Square), persons who choose to rely on public transit in lieu of a car are not forced to pay for parking spaces that they choose not to use.  In contrast, people who choose to rely on automobiles are called upon to pay the full cost of parking those automobiles.

The primary community benefit of unbundling the rent and/or sale of parking spaces from the underlying living unit is that the process attracts individuals who choose not to use cars as their mode of transportation.  The ready access to shared automobiles, such as Zip Cars, which will be located at Cushing Village, provides that transportation option when needed.

Unbundling has an unquestioned impact on reducing automobiles in new developments. In a 2013 “review of parking standards” in the Concord (MA) zoning code, Concord was told that “charging separately for parking is the single most effective strategy to encourage households to own fewer cars, and rely more on walking, cycling and transit.”  Unbundling residential parking, Concord was told, “can significantly reduce household vehicle ownership and parking demand.”

Concord was told that the process of unbundling parking makes “the cost of providing parking clear to residential and commercial tenants and buyers, and [helps] them make more informed decisions about their transportation needs.” Typically, the Concord zoning study found, “unbundled parking reduces parking demand by 10 – 30%.” One impact of this reduced parking demand is either that building size can be reduced or that developers can “build less parking and more of the functional building space (whether that is living units, commercial space or office space).”

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency of which Belmont is a member, agrees. According to MAPC, unbundled parking “is not only more equitable, but can also reduce the total amount of parking required for the building. . .Communities should encourage developers to unbundle the price of parking. . .”

As Cushing Village moves forward under the guidance of a new developer, Belmont would be well-served if Toll Brothers makes clear its commitment to follow-through on previously-announced plans to unbundle the pricing of parking and building space.

August 25, 2016: Lack of life-cycle housing changes Belmont’s character

August 25, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Much has been written in recent times about the need to preserve the “character” of Belmont.  Even a quick ride around the Waverley Square area, or around the Grove Street Park neighborhood, reveals the disturbing trend toward massive newly-constructed housing units that tower over their neighbors and dwarf the homes that surround them.

In addition to these changes with the physical housing in Belmont, however, another equally fundamental threat to the character of Belmont is taking place at the same time. This threat, however, is less visible on a day-to-day basis and, as a result, has gained far less attention by Belmont’s policymakers.  People should take heed.

Belmont is increasingly becoming a community where a person cannot reasonably expect to live out their life, including when they are starting out and when they are aging.  The terminology used by community planners refers to “life-cycle housing.”

The lack of affordable housing certainly contributes to the failure to provide cradle-to-grave housing.  However, an exclusive focus on housing affordability diverts attention away from other factors affecting the supply (or lack thereof) of life-cycle housing.  Addressing the issue requires a consideration of housing types and numbers, not merely an examination of prices relative to income.

Belmont’s supply of rental housing, for example, is in sharp decline amongst our double-and triple-deckers.  In just the past fifteen years, the number of units rented in Belmont’s double-decker homes has declined by more than 20 percent; the number of rented triple-decker units declined by nearly one-quarter.  In 2013, Belmont had nearly 500 fewer rental housing units in two-family homes than existed in 2000, while there were nearly 200 fewer rental units in three-family homes.

The trend in decreasing rental housing is often associated with the increased conversion of two- and three-family homes to condominium units.  Each condo is individually sold, rather than the building as a whole being sold to a single buyer.  Each building that is converted to condos tends to eliminate a unit of rental housing.  Two owner-occupied units replace a one-owner/one-renter situation.

One impact of this decreasing supply of rental housing in Belmont’s double- and triple-deckers is the squeeze it places on Belmont’s aging population.  An older person in Belmont is no longer as able to live in a double-decker home, using the rent from the second unit to help subsidize the operating expenses, including property taxes, for the building as a whole.  If one of Belmont’s aging households no longer wants to live in a four-bedroom single family home, the supply of double-deckers, in which they historically might have lived in a smaller more manageable unit, while using the other as a source of income, is quite simply less available.

It’s also one reason that Belmont’s young adults cannot come back to Belmont to begin their careers.  Consider that the number of households age 34 and younger who rent in Belmont has declined by more than 30% just since the 2000 Census.  The number of Belmont households age 34 and younger, renter and owner combined, has declined by more than 20% in that same time period.

Belmont takes pride in preserving its “small town character.” One aspect of that community character, however, is the notion that one can be borne and grow old in their home town.  That character of Belmont is now slowly slipping away.  The character of Belmont inheres not solely in the physical structures that make up its housing stock, but in the people who live here.  Policymakers who assert their commitment to maintaining the character of our community should devote time to addressing our town’s small, and declining, supply of life-cycle housing.

February 12, 2015: Belmont 2040: Housing

February 12, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

“Housing diversity.”  It’s a hot-button issue in Belmont.  Some local officials in Belmont recently have sought to conjure up images of housing diversity as a threat to the character of our community.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Increasing housing diversity references the need to create work-force housing in Belmont.  An increased supply of work-force housing is critical to the long-term viability of both our state and local economies.

Consider the December 2014 report of the United States Chamber of Commerce. The CoC noted that improving access to housing “is one of the greatest ways to boost. . .economic growth in America. . .If housing were just about housing, the topic would be important enough. But it’s about more than that.”

The consequence of lacking adequate housing opportunities, according to the CoC, is that “highly productive cities [are] walled off from many of the people who are best able to contribute to the local economy.” “We could do a lot worse,” the CoC said, “than offering job creators and recent grads decent places to live that don’t suck up all their capital or force them into far-off communities.”

The CoC analysis reflects conclusions reached more locally by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC).  MAPC is the regional planning agency serving the 101 communities of Metro Boston. MAPC reported in 2014 that its planning region, which includes Belmont, will need to build 435,000 new homes by 2040.  Two-thirds of these, MAPC found, will need to be multi-family units (such as condominiums, townhouses and apartments).

The changing face of Massachusetts supports the creation of additional multi-family housing, MAPC found.  The state’s households, for example, are smaller today, decreasing from an average of 3.5 people in 1970 to 2.5 people today.  Even if a community’s population stays constant, MAPC said, its need for housing units will increase.

In addition, the population will become younger in the next 25 years.  In Belmont, more than 25% of all residents are age 55 or older.  Not only will those aging residents need smaller places to live (if they are to remain in town, while living independently), but their retirement from the workforce, MAPC noted, will deplete “the supply of our region’s most critical asset: a skilled, well-educated workforce.”  An adequate supply of quality affordable housing is essential to attracting new, younger workers.

To continue to attract that new work force, “a community not only has to be special, but it has to be attainable,” according to Don Ensign, one of the founders of the Design Workshop, an international urban planning firm.

Attainability can be measured by housing affordability.  An even more accurate measure of affordability, however, is “location affordability,” a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) metric combining both housing and transportation costs.  For a community to be affordable, HUD says, the combined cost of housing and transportation should not exceed 45% of income.  On average, Belmont’s current location affordability index is 53%.

Belmont residents can sit back and hope that the world won’t really be different in 2040.  We can insist that we like things the way they are right now, and that change represents a threat to our community’s character. Or Belmont residents can help contribute to the viability of our community’s future.

That doesn’t mean that Belmont must have large-scale dense development everywhere.  But to consistently oppose smaller, denser housing anywhere in Belmont is wrong.  We owe it to ourselves, to our children, and to our grandchildren to recognize the needs of maintaining a vibrant economy, and a vibrant community, not only in 2015, but in 2040 and beyond.

August 28, 2014: Belmont needs to be more affordable

August 28, 2014: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Fifty years ago last week, on August 20, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act into law.

The President declared that the law would “help our people find their footing for a long climb toward a better way of life.”  LBJ stated that “in helping others, all of us will really be helping ourselves.”

In enacting this legislation, Democrats and Republicans, both, joined America’s War on Poverty declared by the President just months earlier, in his January 1964 State of the Union address. Fifty years later, it is appropriate to reflect upon how that effort has played out in our own local community.

One important first step in this reflection is to acknowledge the extent of economic hardship in Belmont.  More than 1,400 Belmont residents today, young and old, live with an annual income below the Federal Poverty Level.  One-quarter of these residents are Belmont kids under the age of 18; another one-in-five are Belmont seniors age 65 or older.

A discussion of poverty, however, does not reveal the complete story of economic hardship in Belmont.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) calculates a living wage for all Massachusetts communities.  A living wage is that income needed for a basic standard of living without outside assistance.

In Belmont, MIT reports, a living wage for a household with one parent and one child is $25.94/hour ($53,961/year).  A two-parent family with one child needs a wage of $20.99/hour ($43,699/year), while a two-person household with no children (which covers most of Belmont’s aging population) requires $17.33/hour ($36,050/year). These living wages are between three and four times higher than a Poverty Level income.  More than 4,900 Belmont residents –one-fifth of our community– live with income below 300% of Poverty.

Belmont is a generous community in supporting local residents who may be facing financial hard times.  The Belmont Food Pantry offers free assistance with groceries.  The Belmont Affordable Shelter Fund offers emergency assistance for housing-related crises.  The Town offers property tax breaks for those who need them.  Belmont Light offers discounted electricity rates for those in financial need.

And, yet, these initiatives do not fully address the aspirations that LBJ so eloquently expressed in 1964.  Addressing the short-term financial crises facing our neighbors isn’t quite the same as providing “the answer of opportunity” that the President discussed.

While the War on Poverty declared by President Johnson cannot be won by local government actions, local government actions are needed to support any progress that might be made.  Actions to support economic opportunity need not originate in Washington.

  • Belmont needs to be wary of the lack of welcomeness toward affordable two- and three-family homes, whether expressed explicitly or inherent in a lack of attention to disproportionate burdens imposed on persons not living in single-family homes.
  • Belmont should fully fund its education system, so that “activity fees” will not pose barriers to participation in fundamental educational activities such as theatre, athletics and music.
  • Belmont should continue efforts to ensure that it is a bike-able, walk-able community, allowing residents to avoid a necessary reliance upon expensive single-occupancy automobile trips for basic household needs such as shopping and medical attention.
  • Belmont should provide a range of housing opportunities, serving the needs of residents in all stages of the life-cycle, from the young to the old.

On the 50th anniversary of our national commitment to economic opportunity, we should not merely celebrate that commitment, but we should renew that commitment both individually and collectively through local public policy.