MIDDLESEX - Back to the center!
As massive swaths of the entire Boston metropolitan area are being transformed by a construction boom largely driven by an upswell of activity in the rental housing market, leaders in communities across the Middlesex East area are trying to focus that economic activity right towards their downtown areas.
And in Reading and Woburn, municipal officials believe they have identified just the right tool to facilitate that type of targeted investment in their economic hubs: The creation of 40R or smart growth zoning districts.
Under the concept, which gained the support of state planners in 2004 with the first 40R legislation being signed into law by then Governor Mitt Romney, cities and towns are encouraged to cluster denser housing developments near downtown areas, which tend to be situated close to public transportation.
To encourage that building trend, state officials will contribute roughly $75,000 to towns that establish a 40R district, while other financial incentives - a one-time $3,000 per unit payment - are also hinged upon the future creation of new housing in those so-called "smart growth" zones.
Romney, who often touted the economic benefits of repopulating long-abandoned downtown areas by re-establishing housing over the tops of ground-level retail spaces, repeatedly heralded the adoption of 40R districts as a way to avoid so-called urban sprawl.
At the time, the state was being swept up in a previous construction boom cycle that revolved around a spiking demand for ownership housing units.
As a result, dense townhouse and condo complexes were popping up all over the state, but those developments were often situated far away from major transportation hubs, grocery and retail stores, and dining and entertainment attractions.
By contrast, proponents of 40R zoning initiatives insist that resulting developments serve to encourage use of public transportation, attract young adults and professionals, and tend to spur additional economic growth in urban areas.
"I'm thinking about how many people will be out there in our downtown, helping out the businesses down there," Woburn City Council member Richard Gately said of the concept recently.
Pending 40R plans
With Woburn just recently beginning its examination of the state-sanctioned planning tool, city-based housing manager Jamieson Properties has the backing of Mayor Scott Galvin and other officials in creating a 40R overlay district in the downtown area by the Woburn Public Library.
In establishing the special zoning district, which would facilitate the construction of a 48-unit apartment complex off of Federal Street by removing two multi-unit homes with 13 units, the city stands to receive more than $200,000 in financial incentives from the state.
As mentioned in his State-of-the-City address at the outset of this year, Galvin also hopes to use 40R planning outside of the downtown area as the municipality looks towards the future of the Woburn Mall site off of Mishawum Road.
Last summer, local residents learned the 23-acre mall parcel had been purchased by a South Carolina based developer. The company indicated it plans to repurpose the property into a mixed-use development, as the existing retail space, which dates back to 1984, faces competitive pressures from the nearby Burlington Mall and the wildly successful Lynnfield Commons outdoor market.
"The city will be working with the state planning council and the site’s new owners to draft a proposed 40R District for consideration that will capitalize on the site’s proximity to underutilized Mishawum Station," stated Galvin in his speech, when he explained the new owners of the mall are eyeing a mixed-use redevelopment of the Commerce Way area parcel.
In pursing the 40R concept, Galvin and others in neighboring cities and towns have likely examined the success of the model in Reading.
Over the past year, thanks to the initial establishment and subsequent expansion of its 40R district, the neighboring town's Community Planning and Development Commission (CPDC) has entertained no fewer than four redevelopment plans involving the construction of some 222,607 square feet of new real estate.
Should all of the plans be accepted by town officials, that major downtown revitalization would collectively bring roughly 140 new dwelling units to the downtown area, not to mention some 14,560 square feet of new retail space.
To date, the 40R petitions either approved or under consideration by Reading's CPCD include:
• The Postmark Square project off of Haven Street, where a new 4-story building, standing 64-feet tall and containing 8,500 square feet of ground-level retail space topped by 50 condominiums, was erected at the former Atlantic Supermarket site
• An approved, but still unconstructed redevelopment of the old EMARC building off of Gould Street, where a new four-story building, which includes 3,500 square feet of commercial space and 55 apartments, is planned.
• A pending 40R application in which the old Reading Car Care and Sunoco Station at 457 Main St., situated by Green Street, would be replaced by a 51,165 square foot structure with 2,560 square feet of retail space topped by 30 apartments;
• And a request by Wilmington resident Leonard Polonski, the owner of a 6,000 square foot lot off of Chapin Avenue, to raze an old tree business and erect a 10,441 square foot building containing four townhouse units.
Insulation from Chapter 40B
Another major attraction is a requirement that the housing include so-called affordable units, or dwellings marketed to income-restricted buyers and tenants.
By creating that housing, communities are able to make progress towards state mandates under Chapter 40B, a controversial Massachusetts law that requires all cities and towns slate as "affordable" 10 percent of their overall housing stock.
A number of surrounding municipalities, including Stoneham, Winchester, Reading, and Woburn, have all dealt with the blowback from not adhering to that 10 percent rule, as the state statute allows builders to skirt local zoning bylaws by designating as affordable at least 20 percent of a newly proposed housing project.
However, under 40R proposals, those same petitioners - who benefit from a smart growth overlay district by being able to pitch denser than normally allowed redevelopments, must adhere to the town's building standards.
In that way, communities escape the often disastrous traffic and neighborhood impacts caused by inappropriately-designed 40B petitions, but are able to make meaningful progress towards making affordable housing available.