'MBTA Communities' expected to identify zones eligible for multifamily housing 

MBTA Communities forum June 8, 2023Residents discussed zoning issues at the first MBTA meeting, June 8. Tony Moschetto photos

UPDATED July 25: The MBTA Communities Working Group is holding a series of sessions of  "office hours" at the Robbins Library, 700 Mass Ave, so that residents can ask questions about changes that could increase housing density in accordance with state law. The first took place Friday, July 14, from 10 a.m. to noon in the fourth-floor conference room. More are expected Saturday, Aug. 5Tuesday,  Aug. 15;  and; Friday,  Aug. 25. The Town of Arlington -- which estimates that 125 people were at the initial public June 8 meeting, described in detail later on in this article -- accepted feedback until July 17 via this link >>  

A meeting between the working group and the Arlington Redevelopment Board took place in-person-only Monday, July 24.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 25, in the Town Hall auditorium, the working group plans to present an updated map of where multifamily housing could be allowed. This joint meeting with the ARB is to be live-streamed and recorded by ACMi, according to this page of the town of Arlington website. Before that, comments may be sent via email to  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. "to accommodate folks who aren't able to attend in-person," posted the working group and ARB's Steve Revilak on Monday morning on social media -- emphasizing that he was speaking only for himself.

Tuesday evening's meeting is expected to be the last time for changes to the map. Town officials say that it must be completed and sent to the Arlington Redevelopment Board in time for its Aug. 25 public hearing. When endorsed by the ARB, the proposed multifamily zone is expected to go before a vote at Special Town Meeting in mid-October. Arlington is one of 177 municipalities in Massachusetts classified as an MBTA Community and therefore expected by the state to comply with this process, according to Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell. 
Background on events previously, in earlyJune 

The MBTA Communities Working Group last month drew more than 100 to gather input on where additional multifamily housing could be located in Arlington. The 90-minute meeting June 8 at the community center presented the first draft of a zoning map showing potential locations for multifamily housing. Having such locations identified is something that is necessary in order for the town to comply with state law MGL Ch. 40A, Section 3A.

Arlington is one of some 175 municipalities considered a community of the MBTA, aka the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority or simply as the "T," consisting of hundreds of bus routes as well as the train system. As such, they are now expected to designate areas where multifamily housing could be allowed by right, going forward. However, the municipalities are not expected to build such housing.

Residents packed the conference room the evening of June 8, eager to engage, discuss and add input to the process. This was the first in a series of such meetings to take place ahead of the Special Town Meeting in October.

Here is the link to the project timeline.

Contacted by YourArlington early last month, the group's chair, Sanjay Newton, elaborated via email on the process. "The final decision on whether to adopt any zoning change comes from Town Meeting," Newton said. "We are expecting that a Special Town Meeting will be called for the fall to take up this (and other zoning changes deferred from the spring). I don't believe that an exact date has been picked yet."

Newton also clarified, "The changes we will be making are to zoning. The town is not directly developing any multifamily housing -- only creating zoning that allows that choice to property owners."

The group’s goal June 8 was to get residents to talk and come together and to work on eventually reaching an agreement on where in town they think multifamily housing would be the best fit.

Newton deemed it a success. “It was really what we were hoping for -- to hear people talking to each other. It was nice to see neighbors sitting at tables and talking and pointing at the map and drawing their ideas and just grappling with the different options we have and the different choices we can make on how to do this.”

 The state has identified Arlington as an MBTA community because of its public transportation, including multiple bus routes and proximity to Alewife Station, the western terminus of the Red Line.

Zoning ordinance or bylaw required

The law states that an MBTA community shall have a zoning ordinance or bylaw that provides for at least one district of reasonable size in which multifamily housing is permitted as of right. If the town fails to comply, the state may impose financial penalties, or the town could lose out on the state’s new fossil fuel plan.

At the meeting, it appeared clear that the proceedings were not about deciding whether to comply or not to comply.

“We know that MBTA communities is a policy set by the state, and it’s one that we are going to respond to,” said Claire Ricker, the town’s director of the Department of Planning and Community Development. “I think from the get-go we knew -- me, as the director of planning and the Redevelopment Board, and others -- that the best solution to this would come from the community, so we established a working group.”

Speaking of the working group, Ricker said, “They have really taken a lot of ownership over this and have done the lion’s share of the work, and I think what we’re going to see is an iterative project that is going to ultimately result in an excellent solution from Arlington because it’s going to come from the community.”

Newton echoed Ricker’s assessment, telling those assembled that the map will evolve throughout the process. He also spoke of the benefits of complying with the law, saying that it’s the future of the commonwealth and allows Arlington to be seen as “a diverse, inclusive and welcoming community.”

Consultant: 32 acres, 2,046 units

Zoe Mueller, from the consultant firm Utile, explained to the audience that the town plans to develop a total of 32 acres with a target of 2,046 units in all. One acre would have 15 units. If residents want to break up the acreage, they can, but each such “district” needs to be a minimum of 5 acres. The choice essentially is between larger areas with a smaller density or smaller areas with a larger density. Mueller emphasized that it is not about existing structures but rather what could be built.

One of the town’s Redevelopment Board members, Steve Revilak, also a working group member, said the draft map was a product of some internal revisions. “We really tried to take some of the ideas we got from the survey” taken earlier in the year.

The draft map presented featured color-coded areas that corresponded with the survey. Locations nearest the Minuteman Bikeway and other walkable areas were represented, as well as locations closest to bus routes and along the commercial center of town.

After speeches and a recap, it was time for table activity, with eight residents and a facilitator at each table, and each table had a large copy of the color-coded draft map and smaller maps corresponding to a specific location. It resembled an art exercise complete with colored pens, stickers and sticky notes. People were asked to come up with what they thought the best place would be for a location or locations for multifamily housing in town and to mark up the large map accordingly.

After 30 minutes, each table chose a representative to share two things with the overall audience: what they agreed upon and what they were still discussing.

Affordability deemed paramount

The consensus was that affordability is key. The other thing agreed upon is preserving commercial and retail space. 

Town Meeting member Kristin Anderson, who attended the meeting, on Monday contacted YourArlington to say that she and some other residents favor keeping commercial districts out of the MBTA Communities housing districts and also  allowing town zoning bylaws to regulate development of mixed-use buildings that combine retail and residential.

Of the things residents were still discussing June 8, parking issues and the height of the structures were undecided.

 “I thought it was a good introduction to where the town is at this point in its consideration. It was a good opportunity for people to sort of provide feedback. At this point, the town has a fair ways to go, but we have some good ideas out there.” Christian Klein said after the evening concluded. He is chairman of the town Zoning Board of Appeals.

He added, “We had a good conversation about what opportunities there are, and we’ll see where that goes from there. I would prefer to see enough density that the projects would be required to provide affordable units.”

Local resident Rhonda Brown was impressed with the preparation.  “Everything was put together in such a way that all of these people were able to be heard in the small-group work. The maps, the written materials, the slides allowed us to be sufficiently informed so that we could incorporate our own value system with this really challenging issue.”

Asked whether she would attend a future meeting, she said, “I’m certainly encouraged to come to the next meeting because of this.”

Newton was happy with the meeting turnout. “I was really pleased to see so many community members come out and take an interest in this process we’re going through. I’m really excited to continue this conversation and take all the input we got tonight and turn it into the next version of the map.” 

May 3, 2023: Town faces zoning effort in fall; let's start talking


This news summary by YourArlington freelance writer Tony Moschetto was published Sunday, June 11, 2023, and updated later that same day to add a link to the project timeline and to correct an editor's error on a number in a subheadline. It was updated Monday, June 12,2023, to add an explanation from MBTA Communities Working Group Chair Sanjay Newton stating that the final decision on zoning changes is expected in October at the Special Town Meeting -- and that the Town of Arlington will not itself be building any housing. Also added that date were a comment from Town Meeting member Kristin Anderson, an ACMi video and a link to a Town of Arlington website that accepted feedback through July 17. It was updated July 11, 2023, to specify when and where the initial session of the "office hours" of the working group would be, and July 18, to again note that the deadline for formal written feedback was July 17 and that 7 p.m  July 25 in the auditorium in town hall is likely the last time for input into the process. It was updated Monday, July 24, with information from ARB's Steve Revilak about an address to which comments may be sent and to note an in-person-only hourlong meeting set for that night between the ARB and the Working Group, and July 25, 2023, to update time references.