Momentum for more housing choices in the state

Lawmakers need to create incentives
for communities to increase housing stock


Jan 2, 2018

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER joined the fight to promote housing last week—adding more push to the consensus that 2018 is the year to tackle the commonwealth’s housing crisis head on.  As we head into the 2018 session, it’s time for the Legislature to pass bills that will make it easier for our cities and towns to produce more housing while creating healthy, walkable, and equitable communities.

The governor announced a housing production goal, incentives to encourage city and town officials to back housing, and targeted legislation to make it easier for officials to get good housing measures approved.  All are great steps supported by smart growth and housing advocates.

In fact, the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance had proposed legislation with similar “opt-in” programs, most recently in a bill that the state Senate passed last June. This has been a key plank of our “Great Neighborhoods” campaign, and kudos to the Baker/Polito Administration for making it happen.

Baker’s announcement continued the momentum generated recently by 14 metro mayors, led by Boston’s Marty Walsh and Somerville’s Joseph Curtatone, who launched a regional housing partnership. Over the next six months, the mayors will collaborate to set a regional housing production goal, address local zoning deficiencies, and develop effective housing strategies.

Over the past year, the Legislature has already been working on a significant housing and zoning reform bill. The “Great Neighborhoods” campaign seeks, like Baker and the mayors, to build more multifamily housing and accessory (“in-law”) apartments. However, our campaign goes further to provide municipalities with 21st century zoning and planning tools, curb sprawl, and allow for more predictable permitting in all communities.

With housing costs rising in Greater Boston, there is a moral imperative for everyone to act. Too many low- and middle-class families are precariously housed. This instability lowers school performance, creates immense public health costs, and even prevents residents from being engaged citizens.

At the same time, the economic future of our commonwealth requires that we attract and keep the young talent that drives our innovation economy.

Recognizing the crisis, Baker set an aggressive but realistic goal of producing 135,000 more homes by 2025. This number is consistent with our needs—and doable if we start in 2018.

The new Housing Choice program rewards municipalities for building housing. Cities and towns qualify by creating a certain percentage of units over the prior five years, or by a combination of production and adoption of best practices. The carrot for winning the Housing Choice designation is money, including a dedicated grant program, technical assistance and priority funding for state capital dollars.

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance salutes the governor for encouraging communities to address local barriers to housing and smart growth. We should do more to address the state-level barriers as well.

In addition to incentives, we think there should be a healthy discussion about some minimum standards across the state. All communities have a role and responsibility to address housing injustice and affordability.

There are also many places where we need statewide consistency and modernization, considering that Massachusetts zoning law has not been significantly updated since 1975. Areas ripe for reform include: special permits, board training, master plans, appeals, and site plan review, to name a few.

The Senate passed a zoning reform bill in June 2016, which was refiled this year by Acting Senate President Harriette Chandler. The House is working on its own version.  Both bills directly tackle such issues in addition to building multifamily housing in more communities, making accessory apartments easier, and prohibiting discrimination in zoning decisions.

The “Great Neighborhoods” coalition is ready for the next steps.  Our advocates range from housing and economic justice organizations to environmental and mobility groups to business and municipal leaders and we’re building a strong grassroots base to help pass this much-needed reform.

As a commonwealth, we dug ourselves into this housing crisis by limiting the housing we allowed for several decades.  It will take hard work to dig our way out, but momentum is clearly on our side. Let’s create healthy communities, keep our region economically competitive, and build more housing by passing these bills.

André Leroux is executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.  Lisa Wong is the former mayor of Fitchburg and deputy director of the Asian American Civic Association.

Housing Choice: An Important Win

Yesterday, the Governor launched the most important new smart growth program in years, and I was honored to stand behind him during the event in Roxbury. It is a big win for the Baker-Polito Administration to make zoning reform and housing production a priority.

I want to share with you our press statement on yesterday’s announcement. We still have a lot of work to do to build support for passing a Great Neighborhoods bill in the Legislature, but the Housing Choice Initiative creates important momentum, rewards cities and towns for doing the right things, and creates a coordinated approach to these issues throughout state agencies.

Establishing a municipal opt-in program with real incentives for smart growth has been a long-time goal for the Alliance. We thank Governor Baker and Lt. Governor Polito for their accomplishment.

Sign our online petition supporting Great Neighborhoods legislation.

Governor Baker Launches “Housing Choice Initiative”

Key victory for Great Neighborhoods campaign

Press Statement
December 11, 2017

The Great Neighborhoods campaign, led by the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance (MSGA) and a statewide coalition of advocacy organizations, local leaders, business groups and residents, declared a significant victory with the announcement of Governor Baker’s Housing Choice Initiative. The new program will incentivize cities and towns to improve their local zoning practices and build more housing in sensible locations like downtowns, town centers and redevelopment areas. It also establishes a statewide goal of 135,000 new homes created by 2025.

“Housing Choice will encourage communities to build more of the homes that we need in walkable and welcoming places,” said André Leroux, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance and spokesman for the Great Neighborhoods campaign. “We are very pleased that the Baker-Polito Administration recognizes the fundamental role that zoning reform plays in solving our housing crisis. Local leaders, business groups and residents from all across the state have been asking for an incentive program for cities and towns for many years and kudos to the Governor for making it happen.”

“We have long recommended that the Commonwealth provide the kinds of incentives for housing development that Governor Baker is offering today. So it is particularly gratifying for us to see this kind of support from the Administration. We believe this program complements the Great Neighborhoods legislation currently pending in the State House, and we look forward to working with legislators to pass a major land-use bill this year to make the Housing Choice Initiative even more effective.”

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance leads a broad campaign coalition calling on legislators to pass a “Great Neighborhoods” bill in 2018 to reform planning, zoning, and permitting in the Commonwealth. One of the campaign’s principal goals is to create more housing, especially for young people and seniors.

The Senate version of the Great Neighborhoods bill (Senate Bill 81) is sponsored by Senate President Harriette Chandler. It is a re-file of legislation adopted last June by that chamber.

The House bill (House Bill 2420) was filed by House Ways and Means Vice-Chair Stephen Kulik and Division Leader Sarah Peake, and is currently under review by the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government.

Support for addressing our state’s zoning and housing deficiencies has been rising. Nearly 80 legislators co-sponsored at least one of the Great Neighborhoods bills, and last week, 14 mayors and managers in the Greater Boston area launched a regional housing partnership to address the issues in a collaborative effort.

Leroux concluded, “Housing Choice is a great first step by the Baker/Polito Administration to address the crisis of reasonably-priced housing in Massachusetts. It is clear that for the Commonwealth to remain economically competitive, we must build more housing. But we must do so in a way that protects open space, creates healthy and walkable communities, and gives communities the tools they need to maintain the high quality of life that Massachusetts’ cities and towns enjoy.”

The last time that Massachusetts’ zoning law was significantly updated was in 1975.

For more information:

Spotlight: Accessory Apartments in the Great Neighborhoods Bill

The Boston Sunday Globe ran a feature on the front page of its Real Estate section this past week titled, “Can In-Law Apartments Help Ease the Housing Crisis?” and cited a State House bill—our Great Neighborhoods bill—that would establish some statewide rules for accessory apartments.

Sign our online petition supporting Great Neighborhoods legislation.

Let’s take a look at what these “accessory dwelling units” (or ADUs for short) are and what they might look like. Then I’ll explain the ADU provision included as one piece of the development reforms included in the Great Neighborhoods bill.

Accessory apartments are modest-sized housing units that belong to the same property as its main home. This could take the form of a basement apartment, an in-law suite, a converted garage, or a “tiny home” in the yard.

The idea was widely practiced in the past, and it is coming back strongly as young people look for housing they can afford in desirable communities where single-family home prices are out of their reach; and also for older homeowners who want to stay where they are but would like a family member, caretaker, or simply a renter to help make that possible. It’s an invaluable form of housing for disabled family members who want to live independently but with support nearby.

The beauty of ADUs is that it allows homeowners to contribute to solving our housing crisis while doing something that helps make ends meet and ultimately increases the value of their property. It’s a win-win.

Additionally, it’s a tool that costs the government no money and creates affordable units without subsidy. ADUs allow incremental growth that fits snugly into single-family neighborhoods, with designs that are unique and customized.

It’s an idea that’s catching on in Massachusetts. The City of Newton, for example, passed an accessory apartment ordinance this April that will make it a real option for many single-family homeowners in that community.

However, there are 351 cities and towns in the state, and large numbers of them don’t allow ADUs at all, or have many rules that restrict their use.

That’s where our Great Neighborhoods proposal comes in. Passing a local ADU ordinance is hard, and requires a super-majority—generally two-thirds—of the City Council, Board of Selectmen or Town Meeting to approve. Rather than have 351 fights across the Commonwealth, the proposed legislation (House Bill 2420 and Senate Bill 81) would establish consistent minimum standards across the state. Yet each community would be able to tailor its own local rules in important ways.

The Great Neighborhoods proposal would allow property owners the right to build an internal accessory apartment within their single-family home on lot sizes of 5,000 square feet and larger. There must be a separate entrance to the unit from the outside or the inside of the home, and it shall not be sold separately from the main home.

The municipality may require owner-occupancy on the premises and may also cap the total number of ADUs at 5% of the community’s total housing units. Finally, the ADU may be no larger than 900 square feet and no more than one additional parking space may be required.

And that’s it! If the municipality wants to create additional rules to allow freestanding ADUs, they are free to do so at their discretion.

This provision was widely and intensely debated during last year’s State Senate debate on the bill, and we believe that most people were satisfied that the result is a fair compromise that makes this tool available to all cities and towns while respecting local authority.

Sign our online petition supporting Great Neighborhoods legislation.

We welcome your thoughts. Feel free to reach out to me at

Other resources and articles:


How Cities Get “Granny Flats” Wrong (City Lab)

Are Accessory Dwelling Units Allowed in Your Town? (Strong Towns)

ADUs: A Flexible, Free-Market Housing Solution (Strong Towns)

André Leroux is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.

Community Benefit Districts

With a team of three State Senators and three State Representatives negotiating the final version of the Economic Development bill, it is worth looking at an important item that could make its way into Massachusetts law: Community Benefit Districts (CBDs).

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance has made passing Community Benefit Districts one of our top priorities because it addresses a unmet need: with smart growth and walkable areas booming, how will communities manage these vibrant places?


Community Benefit Districts (CBDs) can be a solution.

The CBD proposal empowers communities to solve their own problems based on their unique characteristics. Some examples of how it could work:

  • A downtown district that cleans snow from the sidewalks, empties trash receptacles every day, provides extra security, landscapes and maintains plantings, manages special events, works with agencies to improve transportation, implements a shared valet parking program for restaurants, recruits new businesses, and identifies possible locations for affordable housing.
  • A cultural district (like a Little Italy or Chinatown) that provides cultural programming and art, offers outdoor seating, tells the story of the neighborhood families through plaques and banners, helps develop design guidelines that accentuate the unique character of the neighborhood, works with property owners to support family businesses instead of chains, works with other cultural communities across the region and even internationally to strengthen and renew the heritage of district, and attracts new entrepreneurs and investment from that cultural group.
  • A Main Street CBD that markets itself as a destination for visitors with a website, events, and social media, manages a farmer’s market, provides technical assistance to small businesses, helps the municipality review new development proposals and develop rules to encourage food trucks, and raises funds for small plazas and a new dog park.
  • An arts district that creates a way for artists to directly participate in managing public spaces, organizes festivals, supports public art projects, and works with property owners to develop long-term affordable live-work spaces for artists so that they do not get pushed out by rising prices.
  • A series of suburban town centers connected by a shuttle service, with shared regional marketing and coordinated events.
  • A historic district that develops maintenance plans for aging structures, implements painting or other improvements on a regular schedule, repairs and manages neglected properties, hosts events, researches, documents, and preserves local history, coordinates works with tourism boards and historic sites, and integrates the story of the community in contemporary development.


The fact is, local governments need additional capacity to develop and manage busy areas like downtowns, Main Streets, and village centers. These special places need extra services (such as cleaning, branding, cultural programming, landscaping, supporting local businesses, etc.) that the municipality cannot provide.

Community Benefit Districts (CBDs) can help solve the problem by establishing a local public/private/nonprofit partnership managed by a 501c3 nonprofit, which could be either an existing organization or a new one.

To establish a CBD, a community would work with local property owners to develop a management plan and assess themselves a fee (like a condo fee) to pay for implementing the plan. The private and nonprofit property owners, municipality, businesses, and the community at-large would oversee the nonprofit management organization, and could dissolve it if desired.

CBDs are similar to Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), but offer advantages that could make them more attractive to many cities and towns.

For example, Community Benefit Districts:

  1. Explicitly require the engagement of residents, nonprofits, and municipalities in addition to private property owners and businesses;
  2. Are easier to establish and dissolve even while increasing public accountability and transparency;
  3. Do not require districts to be renewed every five years;
  4. Must be managed by a 501c3 nonprofit organization;
  5. Require a Memorandum of Understanding with the municipality to prevent privatization of municipal services;
  6. Offer a streamlined process for amending the district boundaries and management plan;
  7. Allows a ramp-up period of up to three years;
  8. Includes protections for small property owners, such as a cap on representation by large property owners when forming the district;
  9. Provide communities tremendous flexibility in terms of services, governance structure, and revenues to accomplish their goals;
  10. Bring districts in line with state nonprofit oversight; and
  11. May link multiple districts or municipalities.


The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance has spoken to groups across the state who have already expressed an interest in learning more, including from cities and towns as diverse as: New Bedford, Lowell, Worcester, Boston, Andover, Salem, Somerville, Plymouth, Beverly, Melrose, Cambridge and Lawrence.

If would like to discuss Community Benefit Districts or would like to schedule a presentation to your group, please contact me or Larry Field.

Supporters include: Massachusetts Municipal Association, Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, MassCreative, Springfield Chamber of Commerce, Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, and LOCUS: Responsible Real Estate Developers and Investors, among others.

Lead sponsors of CBD in the Legislature include Senator Eileen Donoghue (Lowell) and Representative Brendan Crighton (Lynn).

Maximizing the return

It would be short-sighted for the City of Boston to approach 115 Winthrop Square as a one-off fiscal transaction rather than part of a long-term strategy to make the downtown socially and financially sustainable.

A Boston Globe article last week reported that the six developer bids for 115 Winthrop Square—a closed public garage in the heart of Boston’s financial district—range from $50 to $151 million. None of the bidders are being cheap. Each offers a different bundle of public amenities, whether it be 40% affordable and workforce housing units, new public spaces or street connectivity.

Yet one sentence in the Globe article raised a red flag: “But some at City Hall see the project as a rare chance for Boston to reap tens of millions of dollars in one swoop and are pushing the BRA to maximize the return.” If maximizing the return focuses solely on dollars, then Boston risks losing a major opportunity and we oppose it.

Everyone agrees that this is a strategic location between South Station and Downtown Crossing and this is an opportunity to strengthen the sense of place in an emerging mixed-use downtown. With Millennium Tower and other recent housing proposals, an exciting 24-7 downtown is on the way. That elevates the need for public amenities that align with the “new” downtown, that argues for increasing the walkable connections, and that increases the need for affordable housing so that downtown is not just for the super-rich.

The open house for the six proposals, which was a novel, praise-worthy approach for the city, demonstrated that we have six different contributions on offer for downtown. The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance strongly urges the BRA to evaluate each proposal in terms of its public value, rather than dollars. The City needs to manage its downtown like a portfolio, and a healthy long-term return requires diversification, a blend of products and projects that are not all tied to same segment of the speculative economy.

This issue is not limited to the BRA’s sale or lease of 115 Winthrop Square. The Governor last fall announced an initiative to dispose of state-owned property, including some developable parcels close to public transit. The same question facing the BRA is faced by the Commonwealth: do you sell assets to the highest bidder in order to maximize the money you can plow back into the MBTA or even the general fund?

With a state budget over $38 billion or city budget nearing $3 billion, even a hundred million dollars can disappear pretty quickly. But long-term neighborhood sustainability, priceless.

Congratulations to our Placemaking Fund Mini-Grant Winners!

Read project descriptions and press release.

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance (MSGA) and the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) Boston are pleased to announce the Placemaking Fund mini-grant awards. Thanks to all who applied.

With 35 applications, it was a very competitive process and speaks to the overwhelming interest in placemaking resources in our Commonwealth.

The winners are as follows:

Download Awardees List and Projects
Placemaking Fund Awardees (PDF)

Placemaking Fund: Request for Interest (RFI)

The Boston Local initiative Support Corporation (Boston LISC) and the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance (MSGA) are excited to announce that we are now accepting Letters of Interest (LOI) for our pilot “Placemaking Fund.” Mini-grants of up to $5,000 will be awarded to projects through a competitive process described in the document attached. A total of $45,000 in funding is available to be awarded in 2016. To apply to the Placemaking Fund, follow the guidelines in the Request for Interest (RFI) below.

Please respond no later than Friday, May 13, 2016, midnight.

Download the RFI

Placemaking Fund RFI (PDF)
Placemaking Fund RFI forms (Word)

Seven Massachusetts communities win “Complete Streets” Kudos

The Red Sox may have had a bad 2015, but Massachusetts scored big last year for adopting new “Complete Streets” policies. When Smart Growth America unveiled its national rankings today, seven Massachusetts communities were in the top 16.

Longmeadow (tied for 3rd), Weymouth (4th), Ashland, Natick and Norwell (all tied for 7th, and Lynn and Framingham (both tied for 9th) got raves in The Best Complete Streets Policies of 2015.


The Best Complete Streets Policies of 2015 (PDF)

Complete Streets is about breaking down the barriers between driving, transit, walking and biking. It is a different way of thinking—integrating the needs of people and place in the planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance of all our transportation networks.

So, it is very good news that so many Massachusetts communities made that commitment in 2015—and did it so thoughtfully. According to the Smart Growth America report, there were 82 jurisdictions nationally that made a similar commitment last year. Since 2005, when there were only 32 jurisdictions nationally with a “Complete Streets” policy, the number has grown to 843.

The Complete Streets movement has been gathering momentum nationally, with the Surgeon General in September 2015 and Congress in December 2015 promoting complete streets as the best way to think about mobility.

It is no accident that Massachusetts is beginning to score nationally—and catch up to states like New Jersey and Michigan. Starting in 2013, the Massachusetts Public Health Association led a statewide campaign that succeeded in getting a “Complete Streets” certification program into law (other key advocates included the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, MassBike and WalkBoston). Enactment of a “Complete Streets” policy is now a requirement for certain MassDOT funding and technical assistance.

As of February 2016, when MassDOT officially opened the $12.5 million program for this fiscal year, 30 communities had made the commitment. But developing a “Complete Streets” policy is not just checking a box—each community must decide how to integrate the different transportation modes given its particular conditions.

So kudos to the seven communities in Massachusetts who, in the words of Smart Growth America, developed “exceptional policy language” and can serve as national models.

Senate Housing Report Advances Smart Growth

The Massachusetts State Senate issued a special housing report on Wednesday with 19 recommendations. Smart growth proposals include:

  1. Leveraging state land to develop additional affordable housing, particularly near public transportation;
  2. Property tax relief for low-income homeowners in exchange for the option to purchase the property down the road for permanent affordable housing;
  3. Requiring every municipality to allow apartments to be built in one or more suitable locations;
  4. Adequate resources for the Smart Growth Housing Trust Fund;
  5. Support for Community Land Trusts;
  6. Allowing home owners to create “accessory dwelling units” on existing properties; and
  7. Mandatory training for local Planning and Zoning Boards.

The Special Housing Commission, which included the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, was created by Senate President Stan Rosenberg to address the housing crisis in the Commonwealth.

Since most of the real power to achieve housing production is on the local level, zoning is a big target.  The report calls out our zoning reform bill, Senate Bill 2144: An Act Promoting the Planning and Development of Sustainable Communities, in particular, for further exploration by the Legislature.

The report proposes additional ways to lift zoning barriers:

One is to require every community to allow some reasonable level of multifamily housing.  A third of our 351 communities allow only single family homes and 207 have not permitted a building with more than 5 units in over a decade.  With millennials and downsizing baby boomers demanding multifamily housing, this is a major reason why rents and prices are up.  This proposal is already in House 1111 promoted by CHAPA, an Alliance member.

At a time when the average number living in a household is falling, many single family neighborhoods consist of homes that have become too large for present needs.  Yet, local zoning makes it difficult for residents to adapt their homes by adding an accessory unit for relatives or to rent.  The State Senate report recommends allowing one accessory dwelling unit “as of right” on any lot that is above a reasonable minimum size.

State-owned land is potentially a key asset for affordable housing.  If the State can lease these properties to affordable housing developers at below market value, the economics could work.  This is a particularly important strategy for areas close to public transit, where land values—and gentrification– are rising.  Last fall, Governor Baker embarked on a program of leasing state properties, but most state agencies would need new state law to sell or lease below market value.

An intriguing idea in the report is creating a new program, by local option, for municipalities to offer property tax relief to seniors and/or persons with moderate income in return for the right of first refusal when the home is sold.  When the homeowner is ready to sell, the municipality can assign that right to an affordable housing developer.

There are many other great ideas in the report, which you can read by clicking here.  Senators Linda Dorcena-Forry and Harriet Chandler led the Commission and deserve enormous credit for their approach. They and their staffs ensured that the diverse set of stakeholders talked with each other and found common ground.

Now it is time to get many of these ideas into law.

Smart Growth Spotlight: Tension in the Burbs

Our region may indeed be the Hub of the Universe (who’s to say?), but we trail many other metro areas in the U.S. and the world when it comes to building interesting, dense, and lively development in the suburbs.

In some ways, we’re learning. On October 26, Concord officials and community members celebrated the opening of Brookside Square, a mixed use development close to its commuter rail station in West Concord village. The 74 apartments and 36,000 square feet of office space built by Oaktree Development will add to West Concord’s luster. It is a highly walkable village, with a mixture of restaurants and retail shops and—perhaps surprisingly—a small business incubator space. 

Concord has been thinking about this moment for years—Brookside Square replaced a fading commercial complex that, sooner or later, would have been redeveloped. Concord knew what it wanted and got it. There is more foot traffic for local merchants.  There are amenities to help draw young professionals, including a “pocket park” built by the developer that will be accessible to the public via a network of walking trails along the banks of Nashoba Brook and Assabet River. The property will connect with the regional Bruce Freeman Rail Trail and Bike Path when it is completed.

In another local example, the Town of Winchester re-zoned its Center Business District in June. Although Winchester has a very walkable town center and commuter rail station, it has not grown in years. Now it has an opportunity to double the amount of housing in its town center, bring new customers for their local businesses and restaurants, and diversify its tax base.

Although Town Meeting approved the re-zoning by an incredible Town Meeting vote of 136-9, it took many years of hard work, visioning, and organizing to get there. The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance was pleased to partner with and support the Town through this process as part of our Great Neighborhoods program.

With appropriate zoning in place, the Town’s parking lot next to the commuter rail station becomes a prime location for a mixed use building that could add housing, jobs, and an active streetscape in addition to parking. In a savvy move, the Town realized that residents needed to visualize what change would look like, so it invested $30,000 in hiring three different architectural firms to design alternatives for the site. The result was that residents weighed in about what they liked and didn’t like regarding each scenario. Not only did excitement build for the possibilities, but the feedback helped the Planning Board develop a set of design guidelines for the entire town center.

Winchester will now take the next step by hosting a “LinkUp” to introduce smart growth builders to the town’s vision. This meeting will be convened by LOCUS, a national organization of private smart growth developers, and it will help establish a frank conversation about the cost of construction, permitting process, and other issues that will help inform the Town as it moves forward.

Similar re-zoning examples include Newburyport, which in September passed a Chapter 40R smart growth district around its commuter rail station, as well as Andover and Mansfield, which also re-zoned around their commuter rail stations this past year.

Affluent communities are fortunate that they can proactively attract private investment to deliver smart growth development that will position their town centers or villages for the future. But sometimes residents see a threat instead—usually a perception of more people, kids and cars (why these may be perceived as threats is a whole other blog post). Between those two perspectives is the challenge of visualizing how developing a parking lot or vacant commercial property will make a difference in our daily lives. 

This challenge of visualizing change is currently being played out in Newtonville, one of Newton’s “villages.” The site is a city-owned parking lot across from a commuter rail station and the famous Star Market that hangs over the MassPike. A community process that started eight years ago led to unanimous votes to re-zone the parcel and offer the land for sale or lease. After considerable study, the City put out a request for proposals in February 2012 that attracted six bids.

The winning bidder proposed 80 apartments (since reduced to 68), 5,000 square feet of street-level retail, and a new public plaza. Austin Street Partners, which (coincidently) includes the developer who just opened Brookside Square in West Concord, is also returning 127 rebuilt parking spaces to Newton and adding 90 underground spaces. 

Unfortunately, it is not clear yet whether the Newtonville story will end like the ones in Concord and Winchester. The Board of Aldermen is expected to vote in the next month and it is likely to be a close vote. 

How did an easy decision become controversial?

Highly vocal opponents don’t visualize the future the same way as the project’s community proponents. Where proponents see new life on the street, opponents visualize auto gridlock.  Where proponents see 17 units affordable to a police officer or teacher, opponents see school costs.  Where proponents see 51 market rate units that will allow young professionals or downsizing baby boomers to stay in Newton, opponents see unwanted “luxury” housing and gentrification. 

With two-thirds of Millennials desiring to live in walkable, transit-accessible places at the same time that seniors shift to apartment living, suburban communities have a real test before them.  Communities like Newtonville need to decide between planned growth and unplanned growth. For its peers like West Concord village, Winchester Center, Andover and Newburyport, the future is already happening.


Newtonville’s Austin Street muncipal parking lot on left, proposed development on right.

MSGA Testifies on Zoning Reform

Today the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance presented testimony to the Legislature’s Community Development and Small Business Committee about the growing need to reform the laws that govern development in our state. We are managing, at the same time, to produce fewer homes than our residents want, at a higher cost than many can afford, making it harder to attract employers, forcing municipalities to spend on unsustainable infrastructure, not producing enough of the walkable neighborhoods that make our communities healthy, consuming too much forest and farmland, and putting too much greenhouse gas into the air. That is quite a feat.

Download Full Testimony

For more information, please visit our Zoning and Permitting Reform page.

Taking Advantage of Big Opportunities

Kendall Square and the South Boston Waterfront are exciting smart growth opportunities.  But they also are magnets for fear—and sometimes anger—about large-scale development and the rising cost of housing.

We were reminded of that fear and anger when WBUR included the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance in a short call-in segment this week on development in those new neighborhoods.  There has been big news coming out of Kendall Square this year, with a proposal to rezone 14 acres for redevelopment of the federally-owned Volpe Center site and MIT’s announcing specifics for six new buildings on parcels rezoned in 2013.

The big picture is very good for smart growth:  there has been a swing away from auto-dependent development in the suburbs and ever-expanding subdivision frontiers and single-use office parks, and towards development in walkable, transit-connected, urban places.  Kendall Square and the South Boston Waterfront are examples of this trend, as parking lots are turning into buildings and people on the street.  We have to make sure that opportunities are maximized, but having the opportunities is exciting.

The rising cost of housing is something we care deeply about and promoting mixed-income neighborhoods is a critical smart growth goal.  That is also a goal of Cambridge and Boston, which have inclusionary zoning requirements for residential developers and linkage fees for non-residential developers so that both help produce deed-restricted affordable housing.  Cambridge is on its way to tripling the linkage fees it requires and Boston is likely to start considering higher linkage fees as well.  This is important, as we need to raise expectations for affordable and middle income housing when and where a market is hot.  One can reasonably argue about the “right” level of these requirements—cities and advocates need to be realistic and remember that other goals (e.g., creating great public spaces) may also require developer concessions.

In the debate over housing costs, we have to remember that the current crisis is fundamentally because Greater Boston has significantly underbuilt multi-family housing since 1990.  Effective rents have generally risen since then, turning us into one of the highest-cost metro areas in the country.  That’s why Governor Patrick and Mayor Walsh both set ambitious housing production goals.

Large-scale development can also be a scary thing, and nothing triggers that more than abstract debates about building height or massive amounts of square footage.  (The Cambridge Planning Board has discussed the possibility of a signature 500 foot tower and a city councilor has talked about 1,000 feet.) Reasonable people can differ about exactly how much, but if you can’t have significant density in places like Kendall Square where can you do that?  In our view, the debate should center more about making a walkable, vibrant neighborhood.  That includes the mix between housing, office and retail/restaurants; public spaces; traffic and parking management; promoting small retail uses; design that enhances a lively street; more investment in transportation infrastructure; and public/private district management to help create and sustain the new “community.”

The fear and anger are out there for a reason.  Part of the challenge when there are such big opportunities is building a true community vision about the mix of incomes and the density necessary.

Why Businesses Are Moving Downtown

As shown by Smart Growth America’s survey released today, there is a trend nationally and locally for businesses to move to walkable city and town centers.  There is a message here: cities and towns that become more walkable and cultivate a strong sense of place will have a competitive advantage.

Under the model that prevailed for 50 years, businesses were looking for single-use suburban office and light industrial locations.  Employees could live anywhere—they arrived and left by car and parked in surface parking lots.   Economic development strategy primarily focused on marketing the locations—access to highways, cheap land costs, and any concessions the municipality could offer.  Most municipalities weren’t thinking about where the workers would live; in fact, many would frankly say they wanted the jobs, not the housing.

That model is clearly shifting, as companies see a compelling need to attract and retain talented young workers who want to work in walkable and vibrant locations. To take two metrics, the siting decisions surveyed showed a jump in walk score of 36 points (from 52 to 88) and in transit access score of 27 points (from 52 to 79). 

But it is not just about walkability and transit.  Businesses were looking for vibrant places—restaurants, retail, housing, and public space.  At a panel discussion, a Cushman & Wakefield broker said “Our brokers are not pitching an office or a store or a place to live, they are pitching a lifestyle.”

What does the new economic development strategy look like?  It means identifying the places where you have—or can picture having–the kind of neighborhood that will attract businesses.  That is likely to be a downtown, or secondary business district, but it could also be underutilized land near transit. 

Then it means evaluating your zoning in those places—and making sure that the zoning promotes a mix of uses, appropriate density, and emphasizes connectivity by all travel modes. 

And it means asking whether there is a strong sense of place and actively thinking about place-making.  It also requires governance that will provide the amenities and programming that will sustain that sense of place.  Such governance can be provided by business improvement or community benefit districts (if the legislature passes a bill we support, H 144/S 1070). 

The trend to downtowns has another implication for municipalities.  For those cities that are already seeing property values rise, there must be increased focus on building social equity into the equation (using tools like inclusionary zoning and linkage between commercial development and housing). 

Massachusetts is lucky to have a lot of walkable urban places.  If cities and towns want to be part of our thriving 21st century economy, we’ll see even more in the years to come.   

The full report can be found here:

Bus Rapid Transit can transform the MBTA

Do you know what BRT is?

For the past two years, the Greater Boston BRT Study Group has been exploring the potential for Bus Rapid Transit with local transportation experts, planners, and community leaders.

We are proud to support their analysis showing that Gold Standard, cost-effective BRT is possible in Greater Boston and could bring significant benefits to residents, commuters, and the economy.


The report, titled Better Rapid Transit for Greater Boston: The Potential for Gold Standard Bus Rapid Transit across the Metropolitan Area, offers the first citywide technical analysis of BRT.

Throughout this process, we have come to see BRT as a potential missing piece in the suite of transit options being considered for Greater Boston’s future. Gold Standard BRT has many characteristics that make it worth including:

  • Agility. BRT is a highly agile system that connects neighborhoods better than a traditional hub-and-spoke rail system. BRT doesn’t require tracks and connects seamlessly to bike and pedestrian transit, and its dedicated lanes (separated from traffic) are easily plowed during snow.
  • Cost-effectiveness. Because BRT does not include complex track infrastructure, it requires less upfront capital to construct. BRT can on average be up to seven times more affordable than light rail, per mile.
  • Immediacy. BRT can be implemented more quickly than rail systems, relieving pressure on the MBTA’s aging train and trolley infrastructure.

The Study Group, convened by the Barr Foundation, partnered with the non-profit Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP), a world leader in the study of BRT systems, to analyze a number of potential corridors in which BRT could reduce congestion on the T, serve underserved communities or groups, provide more direct connections between neighborhoods, and bolster planned future development.

Through a comprehensive technical analysis, ITDP and the Study Group prioritized five corridors in which BRT shows particular promise.

The report can be found at Join the conversation about BRT by using the hashtag #bosBRT or tweeting to @bosBRT.

Olympics: Put Legacy First

The goal of Boston 2024 is to win the Olympic bid, but our goal at the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance is to create infrastructure and thriving neighborhoods that will strengthen Greater Boston and the Commonwealth for decades to come.  In other words, put legacy first.

That’s the message of a report issued today (June 9, 2015) by the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, alliance member MAPC and close ally Transportation for Massachusetts. (MAPC is the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency for 201 cities and towns in the Greater Boston region.)

Read the Report Here

With coordination and good planning, the goals of winning the bid and putting legacy first are compatible. And, as New York City has shown, planning for the Olympics can move a city forward even if it loses the bid.

We propose a coordinated planning process that focuses on the legacy impacts of the Games—the long-term, regional benefits that will last beyond 2024. Our prime recommendation is an Olympics Planning Commission to oversee public planning around the Games.

The potential smart growth legacy is real: the Olympic venues provide an opportunity to create new and vibrant neighborhoods, meaningful improvements to existing parks and open spaces, and critically-needed infrastructure, especially related to transportation.

But the report pulls no punches about the possible downside risks, especially the prospect of rising housing prices and displacement.  We make nine recommendations to prevent displacement, as well as recommendations to build affordable housing at venue sites after the Games end. We also warn against allowing the venues to sprawl throughout the state, which would force visitors into cars. This can and should be an Olympic Games that are fully accessible by transit, bike and walking.

With the Boston 2024 Committee planning to issue a significantly more detailed bid proposal on June 30, it is time to have a robust public conversation that defines the legacy we want—and how to create a public process that ensures that legacy remains our focus. The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance will be part of that conversation and we hope that you will join us in putting legacy first.


Zoning Reform: Almost Doesn’t Count

It was a whirlwind end to the 188th Massachusetts Legislative session. Despite the calls of many legislators and supporters to bring House Bill 4065, An Act Promoting the Planning and Development of Sustainable Communities, to a vote, it did not come up before time ran out. With the real estate market heating up and cities and towns struggling to plan and re-
zone more than ever, this was a lost opportunity. Forty years of inaction is unacceptable.

See yesterday’s Boston Globe editorial about this unfinished business.

We’re proud of the coalition that came together to advance this bill, ranging from local officials, planners and municipal staff to environmentalists, affordable housing advocates and the public health community. Nearly sixty Representatives and Senators signed on as co-sponsors when it was introduced by Rep. Stephen Kulik and Senator Dan Wolf. Newspapers around the Commonwealth ran commentary in support of the bill. Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance Director Andre Leroux and Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone spoke to WBUR’s Radio Boston about the importance of the legislation. The Municipalities Committee, chaired by Rep. Sarah Peake, reported the bill out favorably.

It’s clear there’s an appetite for change when it comes to our outdated zoning and permitting laws. Thank you to everyone who helped get the attention of the Speaker and the Senate President. We have to make sure that improving planning and development are at the top of the list in 2015 for legislative leadership—and the new Governor.