A Look Into Needham’s Future Through Three Proposed Zoning Initiatives

By John Rufo, Principal at Form + Place and Needham Resident

Through a number of newly proposed zoning amendments, Needham can shape its future to create the possibility of more diverse housing options, more beginning and end of life care options, commercial thoroughfares that are less strip than street, and town gateways that are more than just exit ramps to traffic arteries. How does zoning do all this? Well, zoning doesn’t do all this directly, but it does create a framework through which developers and the community can propose ideas that put forward more density or more clever ways of using real estate and the existing building stock. Democracy is wonderfully and frustratingly messy. Changing a zoning ordinance through an open public process challenges us to listen, speak and understand the possibilities that purposeful zoning can set into motion.

Currently on the town’s docket of issues to deliberate are three very different zoning amendment proposals that, from very different angles, stand to shape a newly diverse range of residential types and placemaking strategies. At an open public hearing on the evening of January 29th each of the three proposals was summarized by the planning board and commented on by members of the public. The comment and discussion period was spirited to say the least. Input ranged in equal measure from firmly against to excitedly in favor with plenty of cautious optimism and critical skepticism in between.

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The first proposal to amend the town zoning by-law would permit Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in single family homes. The additional dwelling unit as currently proposed would be for occupancy by family members related to the owner or care givers of family members. The details of the proposal are geared to insure against ADU’s morphing into straight up two-family residences and as such they include definitions and time tables for re-permitting the ADU on a regular basis.

 While the details will be debated and sorted out, imagine if you will the kind of future this could represent for Needham residents. Today in Needham, two-parent households often include both parents working full time to afford to live there, save for their children’s college education, and save a little something for retirement. Nanny / au pair solutions can be critical to creating a workable situation and if the care for a young child were to involve a grandparent or other family member, intergenerational living in two households under one roof could help reinforce family bonds and long-term community connectivity. At the other end of the spectrum, planning for end of life care could be enhanced by the ability to have an elderly or sick loved one living in a separate self-contained dwelling unit that is connected internally to the principal dwelling residence. This seemingly logical concept illustrates some of the challenges of broad stroke zoning ordinances. Traditional approaches to zoning differentiate the needs and priorities for residential and commercial properties, for example, which can restrict the implementation of common sense solutions that take into account the way we live. Today’s trend in zoning ordinances toward creating Mixed-use and Transit Oriented Development Districts belies an understanding that in certain cases there needs to be transitional districts between Commercial and Residential.

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The second proposal discussed was to create a Transit Oriented Development sub-District (TODD) on the current Hartney Greymont site at 433 Chestnut Street. The proposal would allow for a multi-family housing development of up to 148 residential units. Bounded by railroad tracks and an electrical sub-station, it’s an odd site to say the least. As a designer of commercial developments, I can tell you it would be a challenge to accommodate many program types on this site, including new retail, condos or expanded commercial/office uses.

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A developer is proposing a five to six-story apartment building on this site made up of one and two-bedroom units and 12.5% affordable units. While the proposal might seem out of place, given it’s height and density, it is important that we plan for other housing options in Needham. Creating TOD districts around Commuter Rail stations is a logical and smart strategy to manage the inevitable growth of the town. Creating more options for empty nesters, lower income residents, and those needing and wanting to downsize while staying in a familiar community, is a critical issue for the town to address.

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The third zoning amendment being debated by the town is a proposal to create a new Highway Commercial 1 Zoning District in the area often identified as the “Muzi Ford” site, which in fact covers a larger footprint than just the Muzi Ford business (see plan above). The purpose of this proposal is to maximize the economic value of redevelopment to the Town and subject certain uses to proper vetting through a special permit process. This proposal seeks to accomplish the goal of maximizing economic potential through increased commercial density and increased allowable building heights both by right and by special permit.

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The benefits to increased economic impact are obvious in that the creation of a larger commercial tax base will help offset the need for continued residential tax levies as our schools and other public buildings are updated, added to and maintained over time. The aspirational goals and benefits to the Town are a little harder to quantify, however. While as an architect and urban designer I could make an easy argument that this kind of dense commercial district is best sited at a gateway and transit interchange like this, I would also make the argument that a finer grained vision that goes beyond build-out analysis and traffic reports needs to be brought to the community through a well-defined visioning process that includes community and business stakeholders as well as members of the development community. I am sympathetic to the neighbors concerns about what they might ultimately be looking at if the neon Muzi sign goes away…

In the end, it is valid to ask, “Will this development be better?”, and while it seems that some of the massing diagrams presented by one community member were somewhat unrealistic, real steps can be taken in a master plan process to provide flexibility and certainty for both the community and potential developers alike. The thing to keep in mind is that what good zoning does is both act as a catalyst as well as set a framework for the possibility of thoughtful future development. Zoning changes are generally more successful when they are thought of holistically and formed by a community visioning and master planning process. If a town like Needham can articulate a community vision and put in place a process for review, comment, revision and approval, then the messy democracy that is our reality might just be able to survive and sponsor a way forward.