Council, Planning Board hears from public on 3A concerns

By Adam Swift

The town council and the planning board held a joint meeting Tuesday night to discuss the MBTA 3A zoning with new consultant RKG Associates.

The consultants laid out the work they will be doing over the coming months to develop options for the town to comply with the state’s MBTA 3A zoning. It will be up to the town council later this year to vote on whether it votes to submit a 3A plan to the state.

Prior to the meeting at the senior center, members of the Winthrop Says No to 3A group held a rally voicing their concerns about the 3A zoning, which would require Winthrop to create zoning for 882 multi-family units as an MBTA adjacent community.

During the public comment period of Tuesday night’s meeting, a number of the Says No to 3A members, sporting signs and t-shirts, spoke against the zoning they said the state is forcing upon the town.

As the joint meeting kicked off, Council President Jim Letterie reminded everyone that there will be a number of special meetings and hearings as the consultant’s continue their work with the 3A zoning.

“This is a big topic and there is a lot to discuss,” said Letterie.

Planning Board Chair Chris Boyce said the role of his board is to focus on thoughtful planning and zoning for the town, and not to decide whether to vote yes or no on approving 3A zoning for the town,

“Our goal is to make a recommendation to the town council,” Boyce said. 

The discussion on the planning board’s end is to take the input from the consultant on how and where the town should zone for 3A, not whether the town should zone for it, he said.

Eric Halvorsen of RKG Consultants said his company’s role is to provide its expertise so it can make recommendations to the planning board about how it wants to try to mitigate the impact of MBTA 3A as much as possible.

RKG has worked as a consultant in a number of communities on 3A zoning, Halvorsen said.

“The one thing that I think is interesting, despite what you might hear about MBTA 3A … is that 3A has a lot of flexibility,” he said. “Yes, there are some metrics that we have to hit – we have to have 12 acres of zoned land, we have to have at least one district of six acres, we have to hit this minimum unit capacity from a zoning perspective of 882 units, we have to hit the 15 dwelling units per acre density metric. There are certain things that we do have to do, but there is a ton of flexibility within the law and within the guidelines about how we can do it.”

For example, Halvorsen said not every single district has to be in the same place and not every district has to be the same size or the same density.

“You can have some districts that allow triple deckers, for example, and some districts that allow much more density,” he said. “But when you blend them together, you get to the 15 units per acre, you get to the zoning capacity. We can do it in a way that is appropriate for your community, recognizing the size of Winthrop, recognizing the access challenges you have out here, and recognizing the environmental concerns.

“I think there are ways we can present the planning board and the town council with at least some workable solutions.”

At the end of the day, Halvorsen said the town may still decide to vote no on complying with 3A, but that the decision is not up to the consultant.

“Our charge is to put forward that plan, and at least lay the facts on the ground and say this is how you could potentially get to a compliant solution,” he said.

Halvorsen said RKG likes to cast a wide net and give a number of zoning compliance options, which can then be pared down to reach the numbers that are close to what the state is requiring.

“In the beginning, we are going to be casting a wide net, working with the planning board, the town council, and the town manager’s office to try to identify districts around town,” Halvorsen said. “(We will) model those, see how they look, and then begin to pare those down to something that seems like a more workable solution.”

The consultant will then work to draft the zoning once those districts are determined, and see if there are changes that will need to be made to the town’s zoning.

“Maybe in some places, your zoning works perfectly and we don’t have to make any changes,” Halvorsen said. “In other places, maybe there are some changes that we have to make. We will try to minimize what those changes are as much as we can, and we will present that back to the planning board and the town council.”

Throughout the process over the next months, Halvorsen said the consultants will be holding workshops with the planning board, presenting at meetings with the town council, and holding public meetings for feedback.

“I’m sure every community you go to, they all think they are unique,” said Letterie. “Winthrop is no different; we feel we truly are unique in so many ways. We are very dense, we are very well built out, and we ask for your indulgence, as I’m sure you are going to get a lot of questions.”

Town Manager Tony Marino said the town is still working with the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities to provide them information on the town’s rules and ordinances and zoning bylaws, as well as the work a previous consultant for the town did on 3A. Marino said officials in that office have been looking at and analyzing the zoning work the town has already done over the past decade.

“No numbers have been finalized and nothing has been done, RKG still needs to do all that work, but those are the types of conversations we are having,” said Marino.

Councilor-at-Large Max Tassinari asked Halvorsen how Winthrop’s density, with about 20,000 residents in 1.6 square miles, would compare to other communities RKG has worked with.

“Probably very high, I would have to measure it, but yes, I’m sure it is very high,” said Halvorsen.

Boyce asked that the next time the town meets with RKG, it provides some more information about communities it has worked with that have similar demographics, and the lessons it has learned from those communities.

A number of the Winthrop Says No to 3A members spoke out during the public comment portion at the end of Tuesday’s joint meeting.

Todd Sacco said it is too soon to know if 3A will have any impact on creating greater affordability for housing in the state.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone has been listening to the No to 3A group when we have shared our research on this,” said Sacco. “This has been being done in California for years, and it is not working. I would encourage you all to research Patrick Condon, 25 years of experience in sustainable urban design, he is a master of urban design, a former professor at the University of British Columbia, and he is ringing the bell that this density building does not work, and causes much more harm than good.”

Sacco also asked why the town has to zone for 3A when there is a possibility that it is already meeting the multi-family unit guideline for 882 units under its current zoning.

“If the goal of 3A is to create more housing and to make housing more affordable – which it won’t – why do we need the state overlay?” Sacco asked. 

Former Council President Peter Gill urged the current council to say no to 3A immediately.

“Continue the process of figuring this whole thing out, and if at the end of the process, you like it, and the town likes it, then change your vote to yes,” said Gill. “But I think, right now, the state needs to know that they have overstepped, and they need to know that we will not put up with this. We have done all these zoning changes over the past few years, and they are there already.”

Several residents noted that there should be a greater emphasis by the town and the state on providing affordable housing, which they said 3A would not do.

“We have to look at this as a constitutional right,” said Vasili Mallios. “We as a community know what is best for our community. We have heard that we need affordable housing.

“Well, guess what, we have a planning board here that can do that job for us.”

Mallios said the town should put grant money towards a study to see what affordable housing measures it needs.

Mallios asked if 3A was about creating affordability, or if it was just a way developers could come in and build.

“I can drive up and down Route 16, Route 1, Revere Beach, you are seeing luxury apartments going up left and right, and there is a little affordability to some of these properties,” he said.

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