Town Meeting article seeks mixed use, residential above retail in downtown

14Nov15

by Mark Sardella (Wakefield Daily Item)

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One of the zoning measures that will go before the voters at next week’s Regular Town Meeting seeks to encourage a shift toward multifamily, mixed-use developments in Wakefield‘s downtown area.

Article 12 on the Nov. 16 Town Meeting warrant would make it easier for developers to propose projects in the business and industrial zones that would have retail on the ground floor and residential units on the upper floors. The proposed changes to Chapter 190 Section 32 of the Zoning Bylaw would apply only in districts covered by that part of the Zoning Bylaw: the Business District, Limited Business District, Industrial District and Limited Industrial District.

After a public hearing earlier this week, the Planning Board voted to recommend favorable action on Article 12.

The language in the proposed bylaw change describes the goal.

It is the intent of this section to encourage the development (in appropriate locations) of attractive, functional MULTIFAMILY DWELLINGS and mixed use projects that create street-level, sidewalk activity that responds to the social and economic characteristics and needs of the present and future Wakefield. Mixed-use developments including said dwellings in combination with other uses such as retail, outdoor and indoor dining, day care, educational and office uses that attract pedestrian activity and create walkable neighborhoods are desirable.

reavisAt the hearing earlier this week, Town Planner Paul Reavis said that as written now, the land area requirements for the kinds of mixed-use, multifamily projects contemplated in Article 12 would be prohibitive in the downtown area.

Currently the minimum lot size for multifamily dwellings, where allowed, is 40,000 square feet. The proposal under Article 12 is to reduce that to 4,000 square feet.

In the current bylaw, a minimum of 1,200 square feet of land area is required per unit of multifamily housing proposed. Article 12 would reduce that requirement to 750 square feet of land area.

Under Article 12 as printed in the Town Meeting warrant, the proposed changes to the lot area requirements are spelled out, as well as the areas to which those changes would apply.
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Where housing, whether MID-RISE APARTMENTS, GARDEN APARTMENTS, ATTACHED DWELLINGS, or combinations of same are proposed within walking distance, 2,000 feet, of commuter rail stations or existing bus routes, a minimum of 750 square feet of lot area per unit is required. Othe1wise a minimum of 1,200 square feet of lot area per unit is required.” (The Planning Board recommended increasing the applicable area around public transit routes to 2,500 feet.)

Reavis stressed that, contrary to some misinformation that has been spread in the community, the changes would only apply where mixed-use, multifamily dwellings of the type contemplated are allowed under the bylaw; that is, in business and industrial zones. The changes proposed in Article 12 would not apply in any residential districts, Reavis emphasized, even those that are within 2,500 feet of a rail or bus line.

Reavis noted that the distance of 2,500 feet from a rail or bus line comes from studies showing that as the distance most people are willing to walk. He noted that communities designed in this way promote walking and healthier lifestyles. In addition, it was noted that multifamily housing within walking distance of public transportation means that those residents are likely to have fewer cars, which could be a benefit in terms of traffic and parking.

brian_mcgrail3Speaking at the hearing, Brian McGrail of Outlook Road said that the proposed changes “will increase the value of downtown properties.”

Reavis pointed out that the provisions of Article 12 would also streamline the process for developers seeking to build projects of the type covered by the article. Currently, a developer would have to go to both the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals. The proposed amendment specifies that the ZBA will be the Special Permit-granting authority.

Bronwyn Della-VolpeBronwyn Della-Volpe of Cyrus Street asked where all the parking for these buildings would be.

“If you’re building housing, with no plan for parking, isn’t that a problem?” she asked.

“I think vacant buildings and what we have downtown is a problem,” Reavis replied. He said that parking requirements are not being waived in the proposed changes.

Planning Board member Matthew Lowry pointed out that a developer would need to provide a parking plan based on the number of units proposed.

brunoPatrick Bruno of Mackenzie Lane argued that by allowing more density in multifamily dwellings the town was allowing downtown properties to become extremely valuable to developers. Consequently, he asserted, the town gives no consideration to taking a property by eminent domain to create an open parking lot.

Bruno suggested a reason why businesses are dying in the square.

“People think there’s no parking in downtown Wakefield,” he observed. “But nobody in Town Hall ever thinks about taking any property to develop an open parking lot. You make these properties so valuable that the town doesn’t have the opportunity to buy or take it by eminent domain.”

The Planning Board vote to recommend favorable Town Meeting action on Article 12 was unanimous.

Regular Town Meeting begins Monday, November 16 in Veterans Memorial Auditorium at the Galvin Middle School.

[This story originally appeared in the Nov. 13, 2015 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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