BALANCING ACT: MBTA zoning mandate generates hopes and fears

A public forum on Massachusetts’ controversial housing zoning law gave the Marblehead Planning Board a sense of where residents stand on the charged issue.

Marblehead residents huddle in small groups during Thursday’s MBTA zoning meeting to discuss concerns and ideas regarding compliance with the state mandate. CURRENT PHOTO / WILLIAM J. DOWD

Nearly 60 residents engaged in an information session and workshop to share their input on how the town can comply with the impending state mandate requiring denser multifamily housing. 

“No decisions have been made yet on where to put this district or districts,” Town Planner Becky Cutting told residents. “We’re still in the idea phase, soliciting input to develop something that will work for Marblehead.”

‘An incredible opportunity’

The state law, known as MBTA zoning or multifamily zoning, was passed by the Legislature in 2021 and requires approximately 177 communities served by the MBTA to have at least one district allowing multifamily housing as-of-right at minimum densities. The law is intended to spur housing production in eastern Massachusetts? Including providing more affordable options.

Marblehead, considered an “adjacent” MBTA community due to its proximity to commuter-rail stops in Salem and Swampscott, must now rezone at least 27 acres for multifamily housing at densities of at least 15 units per acre. Failure to comply could result in loss of state funding and invite legal challenges under fair housing laws, according to town officials.

“I see this as an incredible opportunity for us to really shape the future, to address significant issues around affordability and housing diversity,” said resident Renee Keaney.

She sees benefits for seniors who want to downsize and stay in town near friends and family. The zoning could also help young families and workers like teachers find affordable starter homes, she said.  She pushed back against those focused only on potential negatives.

“People don’t want to have to leave a community they’ve invested in and love, where they know all their neighbors,” she said.

While no one argued against the zoning mandate on Thursday, there has been pushback. Keaney said resistance comes from fear of change, and she encouraged residents to be open-minded, learn about possibilities and provide meaningful input.

“Don’t just envision some nightmare scenario of 900 new units overflowing schools,” she argued. “This is a chance to shape how we want development to happen.”

Where to zone? 

As for where the MBTA zoning will go, participants suggested the following as potential spots: — — The existing Smart Growth overlay district — which generally promotes walkable, sustainable development near public transportation — in pedestrian-friendly areas along Pleasant Street.

— Tapping into Atlantic Avenue’s mixed-use.

— Finding underutilized buildings and parcels — especially around Green Street and Tioga Way. 

— Working with the Marblehead Housing Authority to redevelop public housing sites like Broughton Road.

“We could really benefit by doing this with the Marblehead Housing Authority sites like Broughton Road,” Cutting said. “This is something that’s happening anyway, it’s included in the overlay. And it’s approximately eight acres in size. So this is one of those things that’s going to happen anyway, so we could really benefit by doing that.”

Cutting also pointed to underutilized buildings like a mostly vacant office building on Tioga Way as a zoning option, along with bringing multifamily housing to the 10-acre campus of the local Jewish Community Center, which she said has expressed interest.

“We have an aging office building on Tioga Way and the old Community Store as possibilities for adaptive reuse,” she told attendees.

Marblehead resident Rich Patoski has professional experience with affordable housing programs and sees the zoning mandate as an opportunity to address economic diversity.

“Here’s an opportunity for Marblehead to really shape the future, to address significant issues around affordability so people who grew up here can stay in town,” he argued.

‘No one likes a mandate’

Cutting acknowledged that some believe the state mandate puts Marblehead in a difficult position. But she tried to frame it as an opportunity.

“No one likes a mandate,” she said. “But there is one, so we’re going through this exercise to see how and if we can do this in a way that benefits Marblehead.”

To make the required density of 15 units per acre more tangible, Cutting showed slides of existing developments in Marblehead that already meet or exceed that number. She noted apartment buildings, townhouses and subdivided homes.

“This density already exists here in various forms of multifamily housing,” she pointed out. “So this is something we’re familiar with.”

The impact on town infrastructure, schools and changing Marblehead’s characteristics topped the list of residents’ concerns. Moreover, participants favored townhouses and cottage courts — clusters of individual cottages or cabins, each providing a self-contained living space for guests  — among multifamily housing options.

Cutting said the town plans to assemble a task force composed of local stakeholders, including town officials, housing advocates, developers and residents, to help study options and provide recommendations for where and how to implement the required multifamily housing zoning.

“This is a zoning change, not an actual development project,” she reminded residents. “We want your input to help shape something that works for Marblehead.”

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