For cities and towns in Massachusetts, increasing density requires outreach, reaps benefits

Daderot (Wikimedia Commons)

By Lillian Eden
BU News Service

BOSTON – The combination of constantly rising housing costs, traffic congestion and inadequate public transit options has prompted planners to consider new options in how to create developments that combine more affordable housing with amenities designed to allow people to live, work and play in walkable communities.

“Just about everyone agrees metropolitan Boston has a housing crisis,” wrote Amy Dain, a research associate at MassINC in a 2019 study commissioned by the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.

Although the study was done in and around Boston, housing is a problem being addressed in some western Massachusetts communities too.

“I think that there’s been a growing movement across greater Boston to allow more housing. And some of this comes from a growing acknowledgement that when we restrict supply of housing that causes price escalation,” Dain said.

There’s also an increasing push for home, work and play to be within walksheds, meaning things, like schools, libraries or cafes are located close enough for people to walk to them. In recent years the city of Boston installed maps with walking time estimates for various points of interest.

One way to add density and increasing walkability is by requiring or allowing mixed-use development. One example is a building with businesses on street level and residential space above it. A single, mixed-use property can provide both commercial and residential tax revenue, which is an incentive to cities.

“There’s been a concerted effort in the last 20 years for cities and towns to adopt mixed-use zoning,” Dain said, adding this would not be a return to a century ago, when there was no zoning, and towns and cities could mix uses anywhere.

“The new zoning isn’t really just about a free market return, it’s about requiring that there be first-floor retail or commercial in residential buildings,” she said. “The requirement makes developers consider adding a retail space from the beginning, even if that’s not what they normally would have done with the space without the requirement.”

Increased walkability isn’t the only benefit of mixed use and higher density developments.

“Mixed use is ideal just because you have the synergy between the commercial uses and the residential. And I think the more kind of residential units we can create in our business district … just helps to promote the local businesses,” said Denise Gaffey, director and city planner in the Melrose Office of Planning and Community Development.

Although mixed-use is generally considered favorable, it depends on the use, she said. Not all businesses are created equal, so a community has to be mindful of what would be a good fit for the retail space, and factor in things such as parking availability, which can make a business more viable and the type of business, she said.

The city wouldn’t consider putting in, for example, a business with a drive-through in an extremely residential area.

“The neighbors say they want some retail, but I think it would really depend on the retail, right?” she asked. “I think they like the idea of a mom and pop coffee shop that they could just walk to, but, if it was, like, a Dunkin’ Donuts, they probably wouldn’t be so excited about it because they would consider that as bringing a lot of traffic.”

Melrose, a small city north of Boston with almost 30,000 residents, has long had a history of mixed-use, high density and transit-oriented development, Gaffey explained.

Although adding the first mixed-use development in the town was a years-long process launched in the early 2000s, there were a few things going in the project’s favor: the area being developed was underused and Melrose did a lot of community engagement every step of the way, Gaffey said.

The location was a key part of it, too. The city is about a quarter-mile from the end of the Orange Line, and there are multiple commuter rail stops within city limits. Building housing at a higher density allows more people to take advantage of public transportation.

“Once that project got built, and everyone saw how great it was, I think that helped us a lot,” she said. “It’s really been a successful project. And it is the poster child for transit-oriented growth because it’s right at the Orange Line.”

The success of that first project opened the door for other similar projects, she said. The properties have increased the viability of businesses and the housing availability within the city.

“It’s nice to be in a community that’s growing as opposed to declining,” Gaffey said. “You kind of want to be in a community that has a lot of vitality, and that’s growing. And I think introducing new housing and new people into the community is one way to do that.”

Despite vastly different definitions of the term high-density, the western Massachusetts city of Northampton, which has a similarly sized population to Melrose, has also worked toward increasing housing density and having mixed use developments, according to Carolyn Misch, senior land use planner and permits manager of the city Planning Board.

“We still feel like it’s important to maintain commercial space and commercial viability whatever that mix might be, and continue to foster residential development, you know, behind those first floor and above,” she said, referring to buildings where ground floor space that fronts the street and hosts retail.

Mixed-use includes areas where there are commercial spaces, offices, restaurants, hotels and retail with or without residential space. Additionally, Smith College is located within city limits, and the city is near the Five College Consortium.

For Northampton, a certain density must be met in order for certain services to be feasible. For example, she said, the city is part of a regional bike share program which is one of the largest electric pedal assist bike shares in the country. The program just finished its second season and will begin again in April, she said.

“What we talk about is what kind of densities support public transportation, what kind of densities support bike shares, what kind of densities support different beneficial elements that people in our community define as high value. Generally to support transit, we need six-to-eight units per acre. That’s not a very high density tabulation,” she explained.

Misch said that development projects in Northampton are also successful because of a lot of community outreach, explaining that Northampton knew they had a gap in the city’s housing availability because of a needs assessment. The city is also taking into account the need to build more sustainably.

To accomplish this goal, planners take advantage of previous infrastructure and develop places where it’s possible to walk to services like schools or libraries, she said. 

“It’s important for us as a community to focus that development where we can provide access by means other than just solely relying on the automobile and building further and further out from our centers. And of course, that supports the commercial base as well,” Misch said. “We can’t really have a vibrant downtown if everybody lived five miles away from downtown.”

One issue, which resonates across the commonwealth is community pushback on projects.

“One of the biggest issues we’re having here is … not the regulatory framework so much as actually what gets built on the ground. And there’s still a lot of neighborhood pushback on projects,” Misch said.

“People are extremely risk averse about allowing change in cities and towns,” Dain said.

Both Melrose and Northampton stressed the importance of good, comprehensive outreach, and fielding concerns as they arise.

“It was important for us to show that we’ve lost units over time,” Misch said. “So we weren’t necessarily saying that we’re going to completely change the character of the neighborhoods and the densities, but we’re actually going to go back to what densities were allowed when those neighborhoods were first built. And so that helped bring along that support for those zoning changes.” 

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