Town officials this week shared an update at a public forum on Wellesley’s efforts to comply with a new state law for communities near public transit stations to allow multifamily housing to be built more easily (see Wellesley Media recording and the town’s MBTA Community page for more details). The meeting, held at the library, was largely attended by event sponsors and town officials, including those from town boards and committees, religious organizations, and advocacy groups.
As those focused on this law emphasize, the call is for zoning that allows multifamily housing to be built, but does not require it to be built. The law specifies no requirement for affordable housing, but does require most of the zoning to be within a half mile of a public transit station.
The town has already met the first MBTA Communities deadline by submitting a basic action plan to the state, and now will seek Town Meeting approval in March for zoning bylaw changes that would allow Wellesley to submit its compliant zoning district plan by the end of 2024. If things were to “go sideways” at that meeting, said Wellesley Executive Director Meghan Jop, the town would still have an opportunity to get a plan approved through a Special Town Meeting later in 2024. Not complying could lead to legal action and loss of access to grants.
As Select Board member Ann-Mara Lanza outlined at the start of the forum, the MBTA Communities initiative is part of the state’s effort to address a housing crisis that in part has been created by restrictive zoning in communities like Wellesley. There are economic and moral reasons to support it. The law seeks to, among other things, promote new housing stock in areas close to businesses and public transit, provide housing opportunities to those who work in town, support a more diverse population, and enable more energy efficient buildings.
The big irony with the MBTA Communities plan is that the MBTA itself is such a mess, with spotty service, inaccessible stations, high fares, and inconvenient schedules raising questions of whether those who would live nearby stations in Wellesley would even use the T much, especially if they work from home or in town (I watched this meeting after the fact…I spent roughly 4 hours that night getting back and forth via the T between Wellesley to Harvard Square, in part due to a late commuter rail train, a slow red line train, and a nearly 2-hour gap between trains out of South Station. At least the conductors failed to check my ticket, not that that’s good for the T’s health either.). Well publicized efforts are of course underway again to fix the MBTA, and locally, work is afoot to make Wellesley’s MBTA stations more accessible for those with disabilities. As it is, the multifamily housing development at William Street, technically within a half mile of a green line stop, isn’t exactly easy to get to by foot or bike.
The good news for Wellesley on its MBTA Communities compliance effort is that relatively minor changes need to be made to its zoning bylaw for the town to show that 1,392 units—the number required here by the state—could be built “by right” without special permits in Wellesley’s compliant zoning district. The big change that will be up for Town Meeting approval is ditching the special permit requirement for multifamily projects in MBTA zones—Wellesley already meets other rules, such as zoning density. This would build on changes related to inclusionary zoning recently approved at a Special Town Meeting.
Between its William Street (the “Nines,” etc.), Wellesley Square, and Wellesley Hills, an area of more than 77 acres, some 1,433 units have been built or could be.
While some some would like to see Wellesley blow by its requirement, the town does have broader plans to address housing needs. It recently got approval at Special Town Meeting to conduct a strategic housing study that would serve as a sequel to its aging housing production plan. Numerous housing projects are also underway or proposed in town, several of them on Worcester Street (Rte. 9).
The town will be exploring new areas to develop as well, with Wellesley Farms, Linden Square (a development agreement would need to be redone or amended), the Tailby Lot at Wellesley Square also being mentioned.
Questions raised at the forum included those about what building in Wellesley Hills might look like, how to ensure more housing is truly affordable, and whether there are any development restrictions in Wellesley Square regarding historic preservation (nope).
Numerous public meetings will address the emerging MBTA Communities plan in weeks and months to come. Among them, the Planning Board (Dec. 18), Select Board (Dec. 19), and another public forum at a date to be determined.