China Moon ME11.09

LANDMARK DEVELOPMENT - Above, in a recent meeting, Stoneham attorney Charles Houghton pitches a proposed condomininium redevelopment at the former China Moon restaurant site off of Route 28 in Stoneham to Stoneham Planners. The new overlay district will directly facilitate a proposed condominium redevelopment at the former landmark site.

Town officials and citizens in Stoneham wasted no time in setting aside the needed by-right multi-family housing acreage to come into compliance with the state’s new “MBTA Communities” regulations.

During a Special Town Meeting in Town Hall in the middle of October, Stoneham voters floated a new overlay district around a 7.6-acre strip of commercial land on Route 28 heading towards Reading for mixed-use residential and multi-family housing.

As explained by Stoneham Planning Board veteran Kevin Dolan, the new overlay district will directly facilitate a proposed condominium redevelopment of Stoneham’s landmark China Moon site while simultaneously ensuring compliance with the new state housing mandate.

“This article will bring the town, if not into compliance, then very, very close to compliance with 40A (3A). It’s a recently passed law enacted by the state legislature that allows for more housing,” explained Dolan, referring to the exact section of Mass. General Law that is impacted by the MBTA Communities requirements and the larger package of state mandated zoning reforms.

“At the last Town Meeting, we passed a zoning change for Fallon Road [that helped us include 36-acres of land in a separate mixed-use housing district]. This new area is about 7.6 acres and goes along Main Street from Elm Street to Collincote. So think of China Moon and Hugo Harrington’s up to Elm Street,” Dolan added.

Prominent town businessman John Melkonian, whose family owns the nearby Stoneham Ford dealership, reportedly paid $9.25 million for the 3-acre property at 170 Main St. in order to block another denser housing development from moving ahead on the site under the state’s Chapter 40B statutes.

A cultural icon of sorts in town, the family-run China Moon restaurant first opened its doors in 1953 and served generations of Stonehamites before shutting down months after the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

In total, 72 ownership condominiums, including 21 single-bedrooms and 52 two-bedroom dwelling units, are reportedly being eyed for the old restaurant site. Stoneham Ford has also taken over a second strip mall style building adjacent to China Moon and converted the space into an office use.

Because the commercial parcel sits in Stoneham’s Highway Business District, where multi-family housing is prohibited under current town regulations, Melkonian needed a zoning change in order to move ahead with the redevelopment.

A bigger housing vision

Asked this summer to render a recommendation in regards to the China Moon proposal, Town Planning Director Erin Wortman approached Stoneham’s Select Board and elected planners in August with a pitch to rezone the entire 176-acre “Highway Business District” district for by-right multi-family housing.

Hoping to settle the MBTA Communities question once and for all, Wortman explained that by including properties along either side of Route 28 with a separate 36-acre mutli-family housing overlay off of Fallon Road, Stoneham would be virtually assured compliance with the mandate.

The so-called “housing choice” regs, enacted as part of a larger economic development and zoning reform bill passed by the state Legislature in 2021, aims to spur the construction of up to 344,000 new apartments, condos, and mixed-use housing projects across Massachusetts over the next 20 years.

Heading into the recent Town Meeting, Stoneham officials were under the impression the town would need to size its new by-right housing districts to allow for the construction of up to 2,032 new dwelling units. However, under revised “minimum capacity” standards promulgated by the Mass. Executive Office for Housing and Economic Development (EOHED), that threshold has been more than halved to 1,016 units.

Worried about loosing too much of Stoneham’s commercial tax base to poorly though-out housing redevelopments, Dolan and Planning Board Chair Frank Vallarelli ultimately pushed for a compromise that targeted a much smaller section of Route 28.

“Right now, we have 10,000 housing units and the mandate is to increase that by 20 percent. If you estimate three people [end up living in each apartment], you’d be popping our population by 6,000 people. It’s a concern because of traffic,” Dolan contended during a Town Hall discussion in August.

“I don’t mind new rentals going in and I don’t mind rezoning. But we should take baby steps and not rezone the entire Main Street corridor in one fell swoop, especially when we have a year-and-a-half to get this done,” Vallarelli later remarked.

In compliance years ahead of time

Facing an original 2024 deadline complying with the MBTA Communities program, Wortman and other officials have for months now insisted Stoneham will have an easier time than neighbors in responding to the state mandates.

“I think Stoneham is set-up well for this legislation. I think we can be smart about this and have a good conversation,” the planning director advised the town’s Select Board during an initial public hearing regarding the mandates last spring.

Under the original draft regulations, some 175 communities across the state that receive direct MBTA services - or abut a municipality with a bus, subway, or commuter rail stop - would have been required to amend zoning bylaws to let developers construct multi-family housing developments with a density of at least 15-units per acre.

Besides agreeing to set aside at least 50-acres of land for such by-right projects, communities will also reportedly have to meet a “minimum district unit capacity” that is based upon the total number of housing units in each city and town and the type of MBTA services available to area residents. Another clause that is still included in the EOHED regs, forces communities with bus, subway, or commuter-rail stations to designate their new by-right multi-family housing districts on land situated within a half-mile of those MBTA locations.

With communities across Massachusetts rebelling against the mandates, EOHED Secretary Mike Kennealy, in an open August 10 letter to cities and towns, explained dramatic changes were being made to the draft regs.

Those amendments included the elimination of the “bus community” designation, which drastically lowered the “minimum housing threshold” for many Middlesex East communities. So-called “MBTA adjacent” communities like Burlington, Stoneham, and North Reading, are also being asked to set aside smaller zoning districts.

“The guidelines establish ‘circuit breakers’ that prevent multi-family unit capacity from exceeding 25% of a community’s existing housing stock, or the minimum land from exceeding 1.5% of its total developable land area,” Kennealy wrote.

“The portion of a multi-family zoning district that must be located within a half mile of a transit station now varies based on the amount of developable station area within each MBTA community,” he added.

Originally, the initial MBTA guidelines presented by state officials last spring would have required communities within the Middlesex East region to sanction the potential construction of 17,132 housing units. Below follows summaries of how the latest set of regulations impacts several area cities and towns of interest.

• Winchester, dubbed a bus community despite the MBTA’s Wedgemere Station stop on the commuter rail, was first asked to allow for 1,627 new multi-family units. Under the changes, the town now falls under the “Commuter Rail” category, meaning the town will have to set aside at least 37-acres of land to allow for the construction of 1,220 units;

• Burlington, originally defined as an MBTA bus community, was first being required to establish a by-right zoning district with room for 2,086 new housing units. The town is now an “adjacent community” that will have to allow for the potential construction of 1,043 units;

• The Town of Wilmington, first classified as an MBTA bus community, was originally asked to allow for 1,664 new multi-family units. Now deemed a “Commuter Rail” community, Wilmington will have set aside at least 50 acres of land to allow for up to 1,248 housing units.

• Tewksbury, initially defined as a rare MBTA adjacent community with no existing public transportation services in town, was originally required to zone for 1,214 new units. That standard has not changed;

• Wakefield, labeled an MTBA bus community, was last spring informed it would have to allow for 2,261 new housing units. Now classified as a “Commuter Rail” town, that minimum unit capacity has been reduced to 1,696 units.

• and North Reading, with no in-town MBTA services, was first notified it would have to allow for a minimum of 750 new multi-family housing units. That mandate has not changed under the revised guidelines.

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