MBTA Communities Options Presented

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Reading, MA — Community Development Director Andrew MacNichol opened a forum on Wednesday, June 12, where he presented six options for compliance with the MBTA Communities law, reminding the crowd assembled in the RMHS library of some of the parameters for compliance with the law. Reading is one of 177 communities in the Commonwealth required by the law to develop zoning allowing by-right multi-family housing, primarily within one-half of a mile from the depot. At least one rezoned district must allow for a minimum of fifteen units per acre and be at least forty-three acres in size. 

MacNichol stressed that the forum was convened to evaluate the six options provided by a consultant and to help develop zoning changes that could be presented to Town Meeting in November. “What forms would we like, and where would we like to see that form,” MacNichol explained. He reported that 94% of Reading is zoned for single-family housing only. He also explained that, according to the law, multi-family housing is not just large apartment complexes but also could be structures with as few as three units.

He also stressed that the law only requires zoning, not the building of units. “Zoning guides future development, not what exists today,” he affirmed. MacNichol further cited the Reading Master Plan of 2006, which stated, “Reading will provide a variety of housing types for a diverse population.”


MacNichol completed his analysis by stating that Reading has done a good job of providing for large-scale development, as seen throughout the downtown in the past few years. However, Reading lacks the “missing middle,” that is, developments with three to ten units. While multi-family housing is 21% of Reading’s housing stock, 60% of that is developments with twenty units or more.

The first option given by the consultant places all of the compliance in the downtown and in the transitional residential areas surrounding it, using twenty-two acres downtown for larger-scale development and zoning for that “missing middle” in the 221 acres surrounding downtown. Strengths of this approach are that it will truly diversify the housing stock, with multi-family housing having the best access to amenities. The weakness of this approach is managing the larger developable lots in town. “[It will create] a variety of housing that looks to fit, in scale, with existing neighborhoods,” MacNichols explained.

The second option is referred to as “transitional corridors,” which takes the concept from option one but places the zoning changes not surrounding the downtown but rather on radii expanding out of downtown, specifically South and North Main Streets and Woburn Street. Strengths of this approach include opportunities for new visioning as well as variability in development. A major weakness is that the existing areas are very vehicle dependent.

The third option, “commercial compliance,” would place the entire compliance area downtown, with a reimagining of the 40R district. Using this model would require a zoning allowance for fifty-five units per acre in the district. Strengths of this approach include that it would mimic current downtown development, and that utility improvements in the district have already been completed. Weaknesses include the need to allow four-story buildings by right as well as difficulty in managing appropriate parking ratios. Another concern is that downtown could become mostly housing with little commercial expansion. Higher development costs of these projects could also lead to higher-cost housing, the opposite of the goals of the MBTA Communities law.

A fourth option expands option three by extending it down South Main Street. This would allow for only twenty-five units per acre zoning, similar to the scale of what exists today, but limiting buildings back to three stories. This approach would also allow for the minimum acreage requirement within the half-mile requirement. Weaknesses of this approach include the possible loss of existing and future commercial growth in favor of residential development. There would also be little incentive for mixed-use development. The South Main Street corridor also lacks connectional amenities, making it vehicle-dependent. There are also many rear residential abutters to consider, as seen in the recent approval process of the new proposed mixed-use development on the corner of South Main Street and Pinevale Avenue.

Option five would zone the area currently zoned for industrial as multi-family residential. Strengths of this approach are the revitalization of a currently underutilized area as well as a large potential of developer investment. Weaknesses include the fact that even moderate density allowances cause the number of units to add up quickly. There is also a concern that the town at large has had little discussion on plans for this area.

Option six would open up all commercial areas in town for residential development. Strengths of this approach are similar to option five, as well as little impact on existing neighborhoods. The weakness being that Reading’s modest commercial sector could disappear under this approach.

Most of the commentary from those in attendance emphasized the desire to protect existing neighborhoods and character of the town as well as retaining local control over zoning. Resident Maryanne Downing suggested a proposal that would rezone over existing multi-family areas like the Johnson Woods development. 

In response to questions, MacNichol indicated that rules around historic preservation supersede the MBTA communities regulation. He also shared that rezoned sites have to be at least five acres in size and that “patching together” smaller sites would be out of compliance with the law. He also shared that 50% of the compliance area needs to be contiguous.

Several other comments were made opposing the law itself. Resident John Sasso suggested, “The community wants [affordable housing], but we don’t want to be forced into this.” 

MacNichol reminded the crowd that his job was to work with the Community Planning and Development Commission (CPDC) to develop a compliant plan to present to Town Meeting. Town Meeting would then decide how to vote on the proposal.

Resident Tara Gregory suggested that the town should strive to do more than the minimum to comply, using a mix of small and large-scale housing where it makes sense. Resident Nancy Docktor suggested using larger areas with smaller densities to comply.

CPDC chair John Weston shared that the questions regarding MBTA Communities in Reading can be boiled down to two issues, the first is how to “do” downtown, and the second what the town does to meet the remaining requirements of the law in other areas of the town.

MacNichol concluded the discussion by sharing that the maps and concepts would be available on the town website and that CPDC would be workshopping the proposals in the near future.

The forum closed at 9:20 pm.

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