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  • Writer's pictureS. Good

The MBTA’s Transit Oriented Development Program (TOD): A Crucial Initiative for Addressing Massachusetts’ Housing Crisis

Massachusetts is grappling with a housing crisis where demand significantly outstrips supply, causing soaring prices and a shortage of affordable housing options. To mitigate this crisis, the MBTA's Transit Oriented Development (TOD) program is a pivotal initiative aimed at enhancing housing accessibility and affordability. This program not only involves revising zoning laws but also reimagining urban development, transportation, and community planning.

Understanding the TOD Program and Section 3A of Chapter 40A

Central to the MBTA’s TOD program is Section 3A of Chapter 40A, a groundbreaking zoning law that mandates all MBTA communities create at least one zoning district allowing multi-family housing by right. This legislation enables these districts to potentially be able to build multi-family units without needing special permits or variances, and must be free of age restrictions and suitable for families with children.

This new zoning law represents a significant shift, especially for communities that traditionally favored single-family homes and restrictive zoning. The objective is to rapidly increase housing units, particularly near transit stations, to improve accessibility and potentially alleviate the housing crisis.

Implementing the New Zoning Law: Case Studies

Several communities across Massachusetts are actively embracing the new zoning requirements, setting a precedent for others to follow.

Attleboro: A Model for TOD

Attleboro is a prime example of a city effectively implementing TOD principles. The city has rezoned areas around its commuter rail station to allow higher-density housing, encouraging the development of multi-family units. By leveraging its proximity to public transit, Attleboro aims to create a vibrant, accessible community that reduces reliance on cars and promotes a walkable environment. New developments in Attleboro are designed to cater to diverse demographics, ensuring inclusivity and family-friendly amenities.

Watertown: Embracing Placemaking and TOD

Watertown is another notable example where the new transit-oriented housing rules are transforming the urban landscape. The city has undertaken significant placemaking efforts, focusing on creating vibrant, walkable communities around transit hubs. By integrating housing developments with public transportation, Watertown is reducing traffic congestion and supporting the state’s climate goals. The city’s zoning changes have facilitated the development of several mixed-use projects that combine residential units with retail and commercial spaces, enhancing the overall livability of the area.

Watertown - Four Corners
Watertown Square with proposed transit-oriented zoning changes. Courtesy of the City of Watertown

Malden: A Strategic Approach to TOD

Malden has also taken significant steps to align with the TOD program. The city has implemented zoning changes that allow for higher density residential developments near its Orange Line stations. Malden's approach includes ensuring that new developments provide affordable housing options, aligning with the state’s goals to increase housing accessibility. The city’s proactive stance on TOD is expected to attract new residents and businesses, fostering economic growth and community development.

Addressing Non-Compliance and Its Consequences

Despite the clear benefits of the TOD program, not all communities are compliant with the new zoning requirements. Non-compliance can result in significant repercussions, including the loss of eligibility for crucial state funding programs like the Housing Choice Initiative, the Local Capital Projects Fund, and the MassWorks infrastructure program. These programs are essential for supporting community development projects, and losing access to them could severely hinder a town’s growth and infrastructure improvements.

Challenges and Pushback: Navigating the Complexities of TOD

While the TOD program holds great promise, it also presents several challenges that need to be addressed for successful implementation.

Community Resistance

One of the primary challenges is resistance from local communities. Concerns about changing the character of neighborhoods, increased traffic, and strain on local resources are common. For example, in some suburban areas, residents fear that higher-density housing will lead to overcrowding and a decrease in property values. Addressing these concerns requires effective community engagement, transparent communication, and demonstrating the long-term benefits of TOD.

Practical Implementation Issues

Even in communities supportive of TOD, practical challenges can impede progress. Some proposed locations for new developments comply with zoning laws on paper but face real-world obstacles. For instance, site conditions such as contamination, inadequate infrastructure, or challenging topography can make development difficult. Additionally, economic factors, such as high land costs or insufficient financial incentives for developers, can hinder project feasibility.

Example: Arlington's Struggle with TOD

Arlington’s experience highlights some of these challenges. While the town has made efforts to comply with Section 3A, practical issues like limited available land and high development costs have slowed progress. Developers in Arlington have encountered difficulties securing financing for projects, leading to delays and, in some cases, project cancellations. This situation underscores the need for comprehensive support, including financial incentives and streamlined approval processes, to make TOD a viable option.

Moving Forward: Strategies for Success

For the TOD program to achieve its full potential, several strategies need to be employed:

  1. Enhanced Community Engagement: Engaging with residents early in the planning process can help address concerns and build support for TOD initiatives. This includes organizing public forums, workshops, and informational sessions to explain the benefits of TOD and how it can improve community quality of life.

  2. Financial Incentives and Support: Providing financial incentives to developers, such as tax credits, grants, and low-interest loans, can help overcome economic barriers to TOD projects. Additionally, streamlining the approval process can reduce delays and make projects more attractive to developers.

  3. Comprehensive Planning and Coordination: Coordinating with various stakeholders, including transit authorities, local governments, and community organizations, is crucial for successful TOD implementation. This includes aligning transit planning with housing development to ensure that new housing is well-integrated with public transportation.

  4. Flexibility in Zoning and Regulations: Adopting flexible zoning regulations that allow for creative and innovative development solutions can help address practical challenges. This includes considering alternative building designs, mixed-use developments, and adaptive reuse of existing structures.

In conclusion, the MBTA’s TOD program represents a forward-thinking approach to addressing Massachusetts' housing crisis. By promoting high-density, transit-oriented developments, the state can create more inclusive, accessible, and sustainable communities. The journey to full implementation may be challenging, but the potential benefits make it a journey worth undertaking.

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