Three thoughts on Squares + Streets as we get underway in Roslindale Square

NOTE: The following are entirely the personal thoughts of the poster, not the entire organization or even the Board of Directors of WalkUP Roslindale. – mjl

There is no question that the manner in which Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA) leadership and staff are going about the Squares + Streets small area planning process is a departure in significant ways from past practice and that this departure, which is significant, has led to some understandable confusion among those who most closely follow the city’s planning and development processes. Herewith, three thoughts about where we find ourselves at this moment:

  1. Floating Zones are a new thing in this city – This has probably been the most difficult conceptual issue for everyone to get used to. I’m not aware of any prior examples of the Boston Zoning Code containing a set of base zoning districts that aren’t mapped anywhere upon their adoption by the Zoning Commission, but that is exactly what is being done with Squares + Streets. This is not unusual outside of Boston – the concept of floating zones has been around in planning and zoning circles for decades. The new S-zones – S-0 through S-5 – that are slated for a vote on April 17, 2024, will go into Article 26 of the code and will comprise, upon their adoption, only a suite of potential base zones to be deployed later. Each area undergoing the Squares + Streets small area planning process is expected to ultimately bring a selection of these zones down to the ground in the configuration that their process says makes the most sense. This is worth repeating – no part of Roslindale is going to be rezoned as part of the text amendments under consideration next month. Instead, rezoning for a portion of Roslindale Square will only occur after the small area planning process, which is just now getting underway in earnest, has run its course and a multi-faceted plan, of which targeted rezoning is expected to be a part, is adopted by the BPDA.
  2. Planning Processes, at any scale, of 6 to 9 months are, you guessed it, new as well for Boston – This is largely because planning processes leading to rezoning in this city have usually covered much larger areas, typically entire neighborhoods, as part of the so-called “base code” or the original neighborhood zoning article efforts of prior decades or the newer plans such as Plan East Boson and Plan Mattapan. Full neighborhood-wide planning processes like the latter two have taken several years. By being focused about the areas to be examined, visioned, and then rezoned, the idea is to be able to move with the speed and urgency that the ongoing housing crisis demands. And let’s be clear that the housing crisis truly is a crisis, an emergency even, and the Mayor recognizes that
  3. Finally, truly usable As-of-Right Zoning is entirely new – Underzoning with the intent of pulling almost everything that happens into a discretionary approval process has a long, troubling history here in Boston, across the commonwealth, and frankly around the country. If you want to learn more about how this has worked over several decades, I’d suggest taking a look at the work that Amy Dain at the Boston Indicators project has been doing for many years on the deeply exclusionary effects this phenomenon has had in the Boston region and the large share of responsibility it bears for the accompanying housing crisis. The Mayor has long been explicit about her concerns that so much of what actually gets built or expanded in this city goes through a discretionary, politically-driven zoning relief process, particularly before the Board of Appeal. She is hardly the first person to recognize and point this out, but she is the first mayor I’ve seen since I moved to Roslindale almost 24 years ago who is trying to do something about it. This is a problem that affects every part of the code. It’s why so much of what local neighborhood groups discuss has to do with all manner of development proposals ranging from a new multifamily building replacing a largely defunct row of single-story retail down the street to an expansion of their across-the-street neighbor’s house to add a modest amount of living space in their attic. I directly lived through and supported both of these examples in my own neighborhood. Most everyone knows that this is no way to run development review in 2024. But it’s still the day-to-day reality, even as Squares + Streets is the first meaningful attempt being made by the city to move away from this in a serious way on what many think is a sensible place to start – allowing multifamily residential above ground floor commercial/retail uses “as-of-right” in our city’s neighborhood centers without forcing the developers of that housing to engage in a lengthy, costly, and risky discretionary review process to do what we say we want them to do. This puts a significant amount of pressure on getting not only the zoning but also the full suite of implementation components of the small area planning process right.

All of the foregoing said, it’s worth reiterating the concerns and objectives that the WalkUP Roslindale comment and support letter from late January raised. The full letter can be reviewed here, but if anyone wants to know where we’re coming from as we take part in the Roslindale Squares + Streets process, the key concepts are as follows:

  • Utilize Objective Criteria. BPDA staff must use objective criteria to map out the small area plans for Roslindale Square and other neighborhood centers. These criteria should include, but not necessarily be limited to: proximity to transit (both rail and bus), walkability, existing conditions, and anticipation of growth. It is crucial that easily understandable and transparent criteria are utilized to plan and zone these small plan areas to create the conditions for future growth and enhanced density and walkability.
  • Limit Conditional Uses. We recommend that the BPDA reduce the number of conditional uses imposed throughout the new, proposed zoning. While conditional uses have a place in some situations, the proposed zoning can and should go further to make many of these conditional uses allowed by right. We know from experience in Roslindale that conditional uses can bog down applicants and small business owners in unnecessary bureaucracy that delay new housing and new businesses and raise the associated costs.
  • Use Existing Conditions as the Floor. In Roslindale, the vast majority of lots are existing non-conforming. That is to say, the lots were initially developed with small lot sizes, minimal setbacks, and similar characteristics, but made retroactively nonconforming by later downzoning. This situation means almost any development, whether new construction or simple exterior renovations, will require zoning variances. At a minimum, the new zoning should restore existing lots to legal status and remove the requirement of variances to do basic work and simple additions to them. [SPECIFIC MJL NOTE: It is worth pausing on this point, which has been raised above as well. It has been a curious, but entirely consistent feature of zoning in Boston for several decades that almost everything is zoned for something other than what it actually is on the ground. As just on example, my house sits on a 4400 square foot lot in a 2F-5000 residential zoning district on which the first permitted unit requires at least 5000 SF of lot area. In other words, in a fit of what can only be described as bizarre self-loathing, the city saw fit, in 2008 mind you, to zone my property and the property of almost all of my neighbors (whose lots are also less than 5000 SF in area) as non-conforming. In other other words, our current zoning almost uniformly acts like what we have today, in the neighborhood we all say we love, is wrong and not acceptable. I am not exaggerating.]
  • Address Displacement. Displacement is inevitably most prevalent when the status quo is maintained. If no new residential or commercial space is built, steadily increasing demand for both guarantees that residents (renters, aspiring homeowners, and business owners) will be priced out. That said, changes that increase permissible commercial and residential density will result in new construction and potentially higher rents if anti-displacement measures are not considered from the outset. We encourage the BPDA to proactively plan for this in small plan areas under the new zoning and create incentives for existing property owners to keep rents reasonable through property tax abatements and other measures, such as providing current commercial tenants the right of first refusal to return to the space at issue.
  • Engage All Stakeholders. As an organization of neighborhood residents and local business owners, we firmly believe in public feedback and input into planning and zoning decision-making. At the same time, we know that no one group, including our own, can speak for an entire neighborhood, never mind an entire city. We have been impressed by the outreach conducted by BPDA staff to date and urge its continuation as the process moves forward from adopting the proposed set of floating zones to undertaking the small area plans. It is crucial that staff continue to actively reach out to stakeholders where they are. It is well documented that evening meetings are difficult for individuals with small children, evening jobs, and other life commitments to attend, for example. We hope to continue to see opportunities for feedback at pop up events, the Roslindale Farmers’ Markets,  on transit platforms and bus stops, and at community activities where people naturally congregate and deserve an opportunity to be heard.

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