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Here’s Where Developers Can Build Thousands Of Units Under New MBTA Zoning Plans

Just in the nick of time, the Boston area's 12 rapid transit communities approved new zoning plans to comply with the state's ambitious housing law ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline.

A commuter rail train pulls into West Medford station in late September 2022.

The cities and towns that voted for new zoning are Braintree, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, Milton, Newton, Quincy, Revere and Somerville. With the new zoning plans, the communities will allow for a combined capacity of over 83,000 units, according to advocacy group Abundant Housing Massachusetts.

“These communities are leading the way in saying yes to more housing. Zoning alone will not solve our shortage, but it is a critical tool for eliminating barriers to creating more housing in the places people want to live,” Lily Linke, MBTA communities engagement manager at Citizens’ Housing & Planning Association, said in a statement.

The 2021 MBTA Communities Act mandates 177 communities in the state — those with at least one transit stop or one within a half-mile radius — to zone for more by right housing. The law aims to address the state's housing crisis, especially in communities that have historically pushed back on new multifamily development. Any communities that don't comply with the law will risk legal action and lose state funding opportunities.

The 12 rapid transit communities are the first in a long line of cities and towns that need to approve and submit new zoning guidelines to the state. Those with commuter rail stations and adjacent communities are next to submit zoning plans by Dec. 31, 2024, and then adjacent small towns' plans are due by Dec. 31, 2025.

Now that the plans have been finalized and approved by communities, they have been submitted to the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities for approval. Salem and Lexington, both commuter rail communities, submitted their plans early and have already been deemed compliant by the state.



A map of Braintree's Red Line South zoning district

In a 6-2 vote on Dec. 19, Braintree approved four districts covering 204 acres along the Red Line and Greenbush commuter rail line to be zoned for by right housing development, The South Shore Buzz reported. The city unveiled its draft plan in the final months before the deadline, still needing community feedback and approval, the Boston Business Journal reported.

The plan would allow for 3,800 new units. The districts include a 127-acre district called Red Line South near the Braintree MBTA stop, an 18-acre district near Weymouth Landing/East Braintree commuter rail stop, a 49-acre district on Grossman Drive and a 9-acre site in South Braintree, Banker & Tradesman reported.



Becoming one of the first rapid transit communities to adopt new multifamily zoning, Brookline passed zoning on Nov. 15 that could produce more than 1,500 new housing units. The rezoning focused on the town's Harvard Street, a main corridor that includes Brookline Village, Coolidge Corner and JFK Crossing.

The plan allows four-story condo and apartment buildings to be developed. The state law requires Brookline to zone for 6,990 housing units around its Green Line stops, but it already has some existing multifamily zones that are built out and comply with the law. The town has also called for 15% of any new housing built along Harvard Street to be set aside as affordable.



Cambridge didn't need to vote on a new plan for the MBTA Communities law. In its action plan, the city said it had already complied with the law. The city needs a minimum unit capacity of 13,477 across several stops along the Red and Green lines. Although the city hasn't made any zoning changes, it did pass an amendment that would make developing taller, denser affordable housing projects easier, reported.



Being the last community to comply with the law, Chelsea City Council voted on Dec. 21 in favor of its MBTA Communities Act zoning guidelines. The city voted on three overlay subdistricts that would span from Second Street to the Everett border, which the board found had many lots that were perfect for redevelopment and wouldn't cause much displacement. The city needed to adopt zoning that would bring the by right unit capacity to 3,639.



Everett's Commercial Triangle

The city is one of the few that didn't have a major overhaul to find a plan to comply. The bulk of the multifamily zoning compliant with the law is around the city's Commercial Triangle, a district that has been reimagined for multifamily and mixed-use development. Everett has seen a wave of development in its Commercial Triangle and needed to change zoning to allow as of right zoning and continue to bring on mixed-use by right developments.



On Dec. 21, Malden approved new zoning guidelines around its Malden Center and Oak Grove Orange Line stops that have six subdistricts, according to the city. The subdistricts will bring the by right unit capacity to 6,930. In September, the city asked residents to participate in a survey to gauge public sentiment. The survey received 1,529 responses, with 54% of respondents saying they didn't want to see more multifamily housing built in the city.



On Dec. 12, the Medford City Council voted in favor of the Wellington Station Multi-Family Overlay District, according to the city's website. The zoning district is around the city's one Orange Line stop at Wellington Station. The 138-acre district will help push the city's unit capacity to 6,443. The zoning will coincide with Medford's comprehensive plan for its Wellington Circle station areas, which includes the Wellington air rights project for which the city is seeking a developer.



As the second town on this list — the rest are cities — Milton’s elected town meeting members voted 158-78 on Dec. 11 in favor of new zoning guidelines that would allow 2,586 units to be built along the town's four trolley stops. The zoning plan includes six subdistricts on Eliot Street, Blue Hills Parkway, East Milton and Granite Avenue. The town also approved a second article that would create mandatory mixed-use districts in the Milton and Central Avenue Station subdistricts.

The town had initially pushed back on the law, arguing that it shouldn't be considered a rapid transit community because the trolley operates differently than the Orange, Green, Red and Blue lines. Residents have tried to oppose the vote by gathering resident signatures to trigger a townwide vote on the plan, the Boston Globe reported.



Storefronts on Union Street in Newton Centre

The new zoning plan, which was approved Dec. 4 in a 21-2 vote, would allow 8,745 housing units to be built by right in six village centers: Newton Centre, Newton Highlands, Waban, West Newton, Newtonville and Auburndale. That total is 415 more than the minimum 8,330 but much smaller than the plan first presented to the council. Almost 700 units were slashed, but councilors voted to keep Auburndale as part of the new plan.

The vote came after three contentious city council meetings and after state leaders sent letters asking for compliance. Before the new zoning plan, Newton had just more than 1,100 new units built in the decade ending in 2020, accounting for only 3% of its housing stock.


City council members unanimously voted in favor of the plan on Dec. 17 for two zoning districts near the Quincy Adams and North Quincy MBTA stations, The Patriot Ledger reported. The combined districts create zoning capacity for 13,985 new multifamily units. The city is required to create zoning for more than 11,700 new units. The planning department decided to exclude neighborhoods of single- and two-family homes, excluding 78 separate parcels from the new zoning plan.

The zoning would lead the way for more developments like The Abby, a mixed-use project that was built in a similar transit-oriented overlay district and included 600 units, as well as a Target and a Paris Baguette bakery, The Patriot Ledger reported.



The city approved a 40R smart growth overlay district, incentivizing multifamily development with at least 20% affordable housing, for the Green Street and Shirley Avenue neighborhoods on Dec. 4, according to Chief of Planning Tom Skwierawski. The Shirley Avenue district is directly adjacent to the Revere Beach Blue Line station, and the Green Street district is within a half-mile of the Beachmont Blue Line stop. Ultimately, the city approved 6,135 units by right through these new zoning districts.

Revere faced some challenges, as one of the biggest housing projects in the city, Suffolk Downs, wasn't eligible to count toward the total units because it had been approved by a special permit. The city also ran into issues with a district it wanted to include because it was deemed an “environmentally excluded area,” although housing was zoned by right. 



The Somerville City Council approved four amendments on Oct. 21 to its Urban Residential and Neighborhood Residential districts that make up more than 60% of the city, Cambridge Day reported. The amendment helped to legalize triple-decker developments and loosen affordable housing requirements that helped the city zone for a minimum of 9,067 units by right.

“The idea is that we’re hoping to see more of these structures that so many people love,” Jeff Byrnes, member of the pro-housing group Somerville YIMBY, told the Globe. “They’re not going to be naturally affordable anymore, but it is going to mean more homes across the city, even if it is a modest number.”