In the ongoing effort to stimulate economic development, towns often have a full range of resources available, but none may be more important than early engagement of the private sector.
The Town of Winthrop, Massachusetts has been very proactive in working to re-envision their Center Business District [CBD] by utilizing regional planning agencies like the Metropolitan Area Planning Council [MAPC] to study key variables including zoning and parking. Winthrop also engaged MassDevelopment and Form + Place, Inc. to produce a master plan for their CBD – a process that included a feasibility study of a key town-owned development site in the core area. Following the adoption of the master plan, Winthrop was able to obtain a MassWorks grant to help unlock necessary infrastructure improvements. Even with a well constructed planning approach such as this, many towns struggle to define a strategy that will ultimately stimulate economic development. Often changes to zoning are undertaken without a clear understanding of what is needed to unlock the potentially catalyzing project that could lead to successful implementation.
In its comprehensive plan, the Town of Watertown, Massachusetts put forward a multi-faceted vision for future development that included crafting design guidelines for village centers and key commercial corridors. In addition, the plan called for the repositioning of the east end of Arsenal Street - largely zoned industrial – into a Regional Mixed-Use District [RMUD]. With town resources focused on putting forward new design guidelines, Boylston Properties and The Wilder Companies, owners of the Arsenal Mall, approached town leadership with an offer to help implement the new zoning framework. Form + Place was retained to help steer a collaborative effort between the development team and the town.
A first draft of the new Regional Mixed-Use District [RMUD] was completed in April of 2015. The new district was designed to facilitate transformative development in a key “gateway” location, which was identified in the comprehensive plan as needing an innovative approach to zoning. One of the most important aspects of the proposed regulation was to allow multi-family residential within a mixed-use context, a use currently prohibited in the industrial districts that defined the area. In addition, the developers hoped to update key dimensional criteria to allow flexibility for taller buildings, which would not only help achieve an increase in density that the town desired, but also take advantage of views, and promote access to the adjacent open space conservancy land and Charles River Reservation.
Another significant goal of the new RMUD zoning was to establish an approvals process conducive to regionally-scaled development that would likely be phased over a significant period of time. The incorporation of a new Master Plan Special Permit process now allows developers to submit for a holistic conceptual master plan approval, followed by detailed site plan reviews for each project phase, which are reviewed for consistency with the master plan.
Engaging the private sector to help craft zoning can be complicated politically, especially when a community is feeling the pressure of growth. Strong town leadership and planning staff are critical to the process, as they must help quell fears that zoning proposed by a developer is not in the town’s best interest, especially when it can be linked to a proposed large-scale project. Utilizing the private sector to assist with these types of efforts, however, presents a tremendous opportunity for a community, since the proposed zoning criteria are likely to be shaped by a strong understanding of market forces. Community outreach efforts are often a key to assuring that an appropriate balance of flexibility and certainty is achieved, and efforts such as this are most likely to succeed if there is an effective collaboration between public and private entities.
After nearly six months of dialogue with Watertown staff and town officials, plus extensive feedback from community stakeholders, a new zoning amendment was approved at a joint public hearing of the Planning Board and Town Council on March 2nd, 2016.