Wellesley officials explain MBTA Communities zoning & answer questions

The town of Wellesley held the first of 2 forums designed to update people on its plans to comply with the state’s MBTA Communities zoning law and to answer questions.

The in-person Feb. 8 meeting, an intimate gathering at the police station that consisted mainly of town board and committee members, elicited questions from the public on issues such as parking, traffic, and the scope of zoning (see Wellesley Media recording of the roughly 1-hour meeting below). Executive Director Meghan Jop and Planning Director Eric Arbeene hosted the event. An online-only sequel is slated for March 7 at 6:30pm (registration is open) and the town has been collecting resources about MBTA Communities on its website.

The state has put rules in place requiring communities like Wellesley where public transportation stations exist to zone for multifamily housing development nearby and by right (no special permit needed) to help address the regional housing crisis. Wellesley is practically already in compliance, with historic density rules that fit the bill and the big development at Wellesley Office Park counting toward its magic number. Though the town does need to make a few tweaks that Town Meeting will be urged to approve this spring so that Wellesley can meet its year-end compliance deadline.

Some, like the Charles River Regional Chamber, would like to see the town go even further in its efforts to encourage a wider variety of housing, though town leadership will look to an upcoming housing study to help inform a strategic plan for doing so. As seen during recent hearings about proposed housing developments in town that would require zoning changes in residential districts, existing residents have been resistant to new buildings being approved on an ad hoc basis. The recent multimillion dollar sale of numerous office properties by Haynes Management has some in town optimistic that these could be redeveloped to support Wellesley’s housing needs in commercial districts.

While the state rule is designed for new housing to be able to take advantage of public transportation, so that an influx of new residents won’t greatly worsen traffic, the shortcomings of the commuter rail both in terms of accessibility and scheduling currently work against that (try to get to a Celtics game via the commuter rail from Wellesley or slog it on the green line from Newton, for example, or negotiate a kid school drop-off and get to the office in Boston by 9am).

Jop expressed optimism about the MBTA’s improvement efforts, however, including the promise of local and express trains down the line. She also pointed to the availability of fixed stop and on-demand buses, plus efforts by Wellesley Public Schools to increase bus use through lowering and eventual elimination of fees. One attendee urged town officials to think about transportation options not just for those in MBTA Communities districts, but all across town.

Another attendee wondered about how the town plans to address possible increased traffic: “Oftentimes the argument for gridlocked traffic is well it’s already gridlocked, so it’s just gridlocked.” The combination of commercial and residential traffic would be a concern, she said.

Jop contended that more housing won’t necessarily mean worse traffic based on the spread of trips throughout the day typical of residential properties vs. commercial ones. (Anecdotally, since we’ve been working at home in recent years, we’ve seen big traffic increases in our mostly single-family neighborhood not near a public transportation station—a combination of remote workers zipping out for multiple trips per day, ubiquitous landscaper and construction vehicles rambling through, and seemingly non-stop package and food delivery vehicle traffic. I’m not saying we’re not part of this problem.)

Town officials were able to clarify some of the finer points of complying with the MBTA Communities rules, such as that refurbishing some existing multifamily housing like that along Washington Street in Wellesley Hills, could count toward Wellesley’s compliance numbers. It was asked whether parking requirements for developers might be changed for those building in MBTA Communities areas, with the assumption that these residents might be less reliant on private vehicles, but Arbeene said no immediate changes on that front are planned.

Jop said more underground parking facilities could be built, and that in some cases, space behind buildings can be reconfigured to be used more efficiently to accommodate parking and other amenities. “There really is a lot of opportunity for redevelopment even within the existing footprints for potential mixed use or residential,” she said.

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