Op-Ed: Too soon to thrown in the housing
[original title by authors: "HOUSING & DEVELOPMENT: 'FRIENDLY'
Marty Rosenthal and Don Weitzman
Wednesday, January 22, 2003 Brooklione TAB
Though some of us have spent countless hours for almost two years fighting
two proposed projects under Chapter 40B, the "anti-snob-zoning"
statute, we are amused to hear accusations that we're either anti-housing
or "NIMBY-ites" or both. For four decades Brookline PAX leaders
and members have proudly worked hard for both diversity and affordable
housing; e.g. fighting for public housing, authoring the 1987 inclusionary
zoning by-law, and fighting for rent control and restrictions on converting
rental housing to condominiums. We've also fought hard for civil rights
and racial diversity and openness.
Last year, we urged a Community Preservation Act ballot question. The
CPA, by an average tax surcharge of 1.5 percent or about $29 (but with
exemptions for low-income individuals and moderate-income seniors), would
have brought in up to $7 million in state funds for housing, open space,
and historic preservation. But an all-out offensive by the selectmen and
the anti-tax crowd convinced Town Meeting to keep CPA off the ballot.
Instead, Brookline has a housing strategy which is over-reliant on, and
mistaken as to the definition of, "friendly 40Bs."
The two recent 40Bs, 121 Centre St. and St. Aidan's, though different,
share certain major flaws illustrating the town's myopia. On the former,
the Housing Task Force's opposition was too little and too late; and the
selectmen as a board should have officially and quickly taken the burden
off the rag-tag guerilla-warriors in the neighborhood. On St. Aidan's,
the selectmen very early in the process endorsed a concept which was flawed
both quantitatively and qualitatively.
Both of these proposals have been widely-perceived as huge threats to
neighborhood preservation, another deeply held value of Brookline's and
in PAX. Balancing the needs of neighborhoods against the need for affordable
housing is neither trivial nor easy. It is now clear that - especially
while the town fails to adequately pursue other approaches - some new
development is probably unavoidable, including selective and thoughtful
density increases. We cannot simply say either "protect the neighborhoods"
or "housing at any cost" or, especially, both.
We could get lots of housing, and even help the tax base, if we Manhattan-ized
Brookline; but destroying neighborhoods in an effort to save us from exclusivity
would be a fatal error. Part of what makes Brookline both unique and so
appealing is its character as at once urban and suburban. Losing half
of that equation in any large chunk of Brookline by permitting too much
sprawling concrete would be a slippery slope to Brookline's ruination.
So, what makes a development acceptable? First, the town must abjure the
myth that increased density is only appropriate in already-dense parts
of town. We hear, e.g. from the developers, the refrain: "This neighborhood
is already built-up, so what's the big deal?" But low and moderate
income housing, and some selective density increases, belong in all neighborhoods
and all parts of town; and the excuse of access to public transportation
is merely that, an excuse.
Second, scale, density, and design are constraints which must be carefully
weighed as much as possible in all host neighborhoods. Third, in particular,
North Brookline, the area under 40B siege, is already at a "tipping
point." According to Open Space 2000, the "planning area"
of St. Aidan's is "the neighborhood most deficient in open space.
[Brookline's] inventory of unprotected, private open space includes ...
religious organizations ... . Some parcels ... are important, .. [e.g.]
in a neighborhood with a deficiency of open space." Appendix H shows
that the same planning area has the least open space per capita, about
24 percent of the townwide average, about 7 percent that of "Fisher
Hill/Middle Brookline," and about 4 pecent that of "South Brookline."
It's time to declare trees, leaves, grass, air, sky, and light as "endangered
species" in North Brookline, and the area as an "Environmental
Danger Zone" even under current zoning.
Many locations, including in North Brookline, can handle limited increased
density without further eroding precious greenspace. But the plans for
121 Centre and St. Aidan's (most recent design) could not. St. Aidan's,
in particular, may be the most significant private landscaped property
in North Brookline. Yet, a significant number of low and moderate income
housing units are now proposed there; so it's clearly a project generally
worth pursuing - especially if it maximizes (1) the units which are permanently
affordable to low and moderate incomes, and (2) rental housing.
Herculean and time-consuming organizing by the neighborhood, led by many
longtime affordable housing advocates, and in a neighborhood already welcoming
far more of that than most, has finally and rightfully caused the town
and developer to focus on the following important goals: the historic
church must be preserved; the "forecourt," its venerable 150-year-old
beech tree and other significant trees, and the public view of the forecourt
must all be preserved. Some town officials have undervalued the importance
of this astonishing greenspace gem and oasis to the environmental soul
of North Brookline; and the risky idea of moving the tree seems downright
ludicrous; and a scale of construction, to the extent possible, in synch
with the surrounding neighborhood.
Finally, we must "push the envelope" and "think outside
the box" for ways to obtain more low and moderate income housing
and without destroying neighborhoods, considering, e.g.: a townwide goal,
at a minimum, of 10 percent low and moderate income housing, and not just
because it is the 40B threshold, below which towns are subject to 40B
developments; prioritizing development which is both permanently and entirely
(or at least primarily) affordable to low and moderate incomes, and especially
rental housing; re-energizing the Housing Authority, which has an apparent
aversion to both new development and acquisitions; increasing the 15 percent
construction set-asides for new buildings; more adaptive reuse of existing
buildings; legitimizing in-law or accessory apartments; more priority
for housing with state and town properties (e.g. recent commercial projects
at Webster St. and 1010 Commonwealth); infusion of more town money into
the Housing Trust Fund; and again trying to put our money where our mouths
are with a C.P.A. ballot question.
Neighborhood activists need to count on town officials to be both more
proactive and more sensitive to the precise nature of the risks Brookline
faces. We also look to the imminent Comprehensive Plan for future help
in preserving both Brookline's diversity and it's fragile eco-system.
PAX welcomes discussion about pursuing both goals, without either pitting
one against the other or exaggerating the "zero-sum" nature
of the choice. Maybe, in the long run, we'll discover we cannot have our
cake and eat it too; but isn't it too soon to throw in the towel?
Marty Rosenthal is co-chairman of PAX and Don Weitzman is a PAX Board