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Developer files application for Mugar site permit, citing affordable housing

UPDATED, Sept. 6: Oaktree Development has taken the next crucial step in seeking to build a 219-unit development called Thorndike Place on the Mugar site in East Arlington.

Zoning Board of Appeals logo

On Thursday, Sept. 1, the North Cambridge developer delivered three boxes of information to the Zoning board office on Grove Street supporting its application for a comprehensive permit to town Zoning Board of Appeals. Officials have been waiting for this move since December.

A range of town officials and residents have opposed the plan since the spring of 2014, when it first became public. They have cited issues of traffic and flooding. A number of town people involved over the past 17 months have been asked to comment.

In a telephone call to YourArlington Friday, Sept. 2, Gwen Noyes, senior vice president of marketing at Oaktree, reported the application had been filed. The next day, she emailed a lengthy information sheet, which concludes:

'Myriad of benefits'

"While many of the concerns of the people of Arlington are understandable (flooding issue, traffic concerns), there are a myriad of benefits that could be realized by the town if and when Thorndike Place is built. Not only would the project be a meaningful step towards solving the town's significant affordable- housing shortage, but with a cooperative effort, the wetlands could be preserved in perpetuity, the area could be developed with walking trails through maintained natural habitat, and improvements to the flood plain drainage could be instituted.

"After owning the land for 50 years and proposing some plans that were not appropriate or in compliance with current wetland protection regulations, the Mugars have asked Oaktree to work with them on a housing and land conservation plan that will be a genuine, long term benefit to Arlington. Oaktree intends to work with the Town to accomplish as cooperative a 40B process as possible, and to realize this beneficial goal for everyone."

The statement is reported in full below; it makes these key points:

-- 40B: The town's 1.53-percent calculation of the town's land area called "affordable" -- achieving "safe harbor status" -- appears to Oaktree’s consultants to be overstated.

-- Wetlands: Of the 17.7 acres, 11.5 of them are wetland, spurring neighbors' concerns about flooding. "Our civil engineer assures us that whatever is to be built will cause no worsening of flooding conditions," the statement says. Recently, Brookside Square in West Concord, completed in 2015 on a site with a brook that is subject to flooding, a state official cited the project as "a great example for other suburban and rural communities of how we can build needed housing for the 21st century in a way that benefits both economic development and the environment."

-- Traffic: Now with significant delays at Route 2, Lake Street and Mass. Ave. at peak hours, traffic "is not expected to result in any substantial change in flow," the statement says. A study assumes that one in three residents would bike or walk to work or to the nearby public transit.

-- Schools: Thorndike Place plans include 104 one-bedroom apartments, 92 two-bedrooms and j23 units with three-bedrooms. "A relatively small influx of new students could be expected to enter the school system," the statement says.

-- Affordable housing: The town's affordable-housing inventory (5.64 percent) "falls well below the threshold established by the Massachusetts Comprehensive Permit Law. According to the town's 2016 Housing Production Plan, Arlington needs to add several hundred additional units by 2020 to meet 'the needs of an aging population, the town's significant number of family households, smaller households including seniors looking to downsize, and households earning a range of incomes.'"

 Thorndike Place Information Sheet (full text from Oaktree)

Oaktree is providing the following information about The Thorndike Place proposal for the Mugar property because we realize there is much concern about it. There is also a lack of clarity as to what the project being proposed actually is and what its impact on the community would really be. Through the Zoning Board of Appeals process, which will likely commence in a matter of weeks, we plan to discuss the project and willingly incorporate any improvements that can be mutually agreed upon.

The application submitted to the ZBA is a publicly available document and has many illustrations and detailed documents offering a fuller picture than the summaries below.

Thorndike Place Overview

Thorndike Place is a land conservation and housing development which, as currently proposed, will provide the Town of Arlington with 219 units of housing (25 percent of which will be affordable) while preserving approximately 11 acres of open, conservation land in perpetuity. Owned by the Mugar family for over 50 years, the 17.7-acre site sits adjacent to Thorndike Field, near Spy Pond, and is an eight-minute walk to Alewife Station in Cambridge. The transit-oriented, energy- efficient project will be comprised of 12 ownership units housed in six duplex townhouses, and 207 one, two, and three bedroom rental apartments. Three of the townhouses and 55 of the apartment units will be designated as permanently affordable (only those earning 80 percent or less of area median income will be eligible to purchase or rent). The four-story apartment buildings would be located behind a buffer of trees and the townhouses on Dorothy Road in E. Arlington.

Chapter 40B

If approved, Thorndike Place will be built using Chapter 40B, the MA statute which enables local Zoning Boards of Appeals (ZBA) to approve affordable housing developments under flexible rules if at least 20-25% of the proposed units have long-term affordability restrictions. The Town of Arlington’s Chapter 40B housing inventory currently includes a total of 1,122 Low or Moderate Income Housing units, which constitutes 5.64 percent of Arlington’s total housing stock, well below the ten percent (10%) threshold established by the Massachusetts Comprehensive Permit Law. While the Town of Arlington Planning Office has previously stated that it has achieved "safe harbor" status from the 40B statute due to an alternative calculation that exempts towns from 40B

if 1.5 percent of the town's land area is devoted to housing classed as "affordable", the 1.53 percent calculation submitted and accepted by the Town appears to Oaktree’s consultants to be overstated.

Wetlands Conservation Issues

The 17.7-acre site is composed of approximately 11 acres designated as wetland and wetland buffer area (by the MA Department of Environmental Protection) or Flood/Hazard Area (by FEMA), and approximately 5.6 +acres of buildable area. The site is a Planned Unit Development zoning district, as defined by the Town of Arlington Zoning Bylaw, where Two-Family Dwelling use is permitted as of right and apartment house use is allowed by special permit.

The buildable area is situated above the flood plain, in accordance with FEMA guidelines, with the provision that a very small portion of the wetlands (less than five percent) may need to be reconstructed during the building process. This is a regulated practice for construction projects near wetland areas – similar to the housing projects such as Vox on 2 and CambridgePark Place across Rt. 2. Regulations for working in such an area will be scrupulously adhered to.
One concern Arlington neighbors have raised is the impact that the development will have on flooding, currently a significant problem for the area. The Mugar property is a critical stormwater buffer for the surrounding and low-lying neighborhoods of East Arlington. The proposed stormwater systems for Thorndike Place will be designed – as a matter of course – in accordance, and in compliance, with the MassDEP Stormwater Management Policy and with its related technical guidance to ensure stormwater is properly managed. In addition, best management practices will be implemented in accordance with a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan that must be secured in accordance with the U.S. EPA’s Stormwater Management Regulations in connection with the filing of a US EPA Construction Stormwater Management NPDES Notice of Intent. Moreover, the system will be designed to treat the required water quality volume and water recharge volume so that post-discharge rates do not exceed pre-development rates.

Our civil engineer assures us that whatever is to be built will cause no worsening of flooding conditions; further hydrological testing will be done to ascertain the compliance of current or revised plans to all regulations and best practices. Optimally, there is a possibility that there could be a reduction of flooding in the area. For instance, identified construction materials that were disposed of at the site while Route 2 was being built diminish the effectiveness of the filtration process of the natural environment, and could be removed, thus improving drainage. Additionally, proper site design and maintenance could allow currently backed up water to be naturally filtered and to follow its topographic path through existing culverts under Rt. 2, and on to the Little River.

Oaktree Development has worked with a number of environmentally challenging projects during its 40-year history, most recently Brookside Square in W. Concord, completed in 2015. On a site with a brook that is subject to flooding, MA DEP Chief of Staff Stephanie Cooper cited the project as “a great example for other suburban and rural communities of how we can build needed housing for the 21st century in a way that benefits both economic development and the environment.”

Other Environmental Considerations

In addition to the wetland concerns, the Mugar property’s open space as it currently exists has certainly not realized its full potential as an environmental resource. The area is now tangled with invasive species, is inaccessible to hikers and strewn with trash. The Thorndike Place proposal could provide access to raised wildlife viewing walkways, connect to the Minuteman Bike Path and provide an impetus for the town and developer to work on solutions that could vastly improve the area over time as a natural habitat, similar to the enormously successful wetlands reclamation project Cambridge completed on the other side of Rt. 2 a few years ago. The project plans also include a publicly accessible playground between the existing neighborhood and the proposed apartments.

Traffic

Traffic in the area, which already operates with significant delays at the intersections of Route 2, Lake Street and Mass Ave during morning and evening peak hours, is not expected to result in any substantial change in flow. A traffic study conducted by MDM Transportation Consultants estimates that Thorndike Place will add approximately 75-80 vehicle trips per peak hours, adding approximately one vehicle per minute to the nearby streets. Among traffic planning professionals, this is considered a barely perceptible increase to an already admittedly bad traffic condition.
The study factors in the assumption that one-in-three residents would bike or walk to work or to the nearby public transit, as empty nesters, seniors and millennials seeking housing on the Red Line to access the Cambridge tech and life science sectors, are expected to be the primary demographic for Thorndike Place. While there is no direct access to Route 2 currently planned for the development, an alternative driveway ramp connection could be made as a way to reduce dependence on local roadways. This idea would be pursued only if the Town wished to do so.

Schools

In order to understand the potential impact that Thorndike Place would have on the school system, it is helpful to examine both the demographics of the development and the findings of the Arlington Housing Production Plan (HPP) with regards to school enrollment. Project plans for Thorndike Place currently include 104 one-bedroom apartments, 92 two-bedrooms and just 23 units with three-bedrooms. Given the predominant demographic that the development is expected to attract (millennials, empty nesters, and downsizing seniors), a relatively small influx of new students could be expected to enter the school system.
The Hardy School is the elementary school that would be absorbing the potential new students. Although Hardy is not currently at capacity, it is anticipated that it will be by the 2017-2018 school year. However, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (which prepared the AHPP) projects that Arlington’s school age population may peak around the year 2020, and “will likely decline thereafter”. The report further states that the Ottoson Middle School is in need of renovations, and Arlington High School has received an accreditation warning from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) due to building conditions. As a result, the School Department is planning for renovation or reconstruction of both schools in the next five years, as well as exploring expansion potential, both of current schools and alternative spaces.

It is reasonable to assume that by the time Thorndike Place is completed, many of the school system’s capacity issues will have been addressed, and the system should be able to absorb the modest enrollment increases that Thorndike Place will potentially add.

The town’s and the Mugars’ earlier Housing and Conservation Effort

In 2009 and 2010, the Town approached the Mugars about working on a plan that would include developing apartments on their land. The town wanted to make an application for a wetlands protection grant that would award funding for conservation of approximately 11 acres of the Mugar’s open space. The Town worked cooperatively with the Mugars to generate a plan that included the construction of townhouses and apartments in basically the same area as this proposal. The award of wetland protection funding to Arlington did not come through, so the project was abandoned.

Affordable Housing

As previously stated, the Town of Arlington’s affordable housing inventory (5.64 percent) falls well below the threshold established by the Massachusetts Comprehensive Permit Law.
According to the 2016 Housing Production Plan (HPP), Arlington needs to add several hundred additional units by 2020 to meet “the needs of an aging population, the town’s significant number of family households, smaller households including seniors looking to downsize, and households earning a range of incomes.”

The affordable housing crisis extends well past the Town of Arlington, and is especially acute in the Greater Boston market. The Greater Boston Housing Report Card published in November of 2015 states that “the best solution to the widening gap between available affordable housing units and population growth in Greater Boston (is) the development of more multi-family structures…(but) dozens of cities and towns around Boston don’t allow multi-family construction.”

Conclusions

While many of the concerns of the people of Arlington are understandable (flooding issue, traffic concerns) there are a myriad of benefits that could be realized by the town if and when Thorndike Place is built. Not only would the project be a meaningful step towards solving the town’s significant affordable housing shortage, but with a cooperative effort, the wetlands could be preserved in perpetuity, the area could be developed with walking trails through maintained natural habitat, and improvements to the flood plain drainage could be instituted. After owning the land for 50 years and proposing some plans that were not appropriate or in compliance with current wetland protection regulations, the Mugars have asked Oaktree to work with them on a housing and land conservation plan that will be a genuine, long term benefit to Arlington.
Oaktree intends to work with the Town to accomplish as cooperative a 40B process as possible, and to realize this beneficial goal for everyone.


Dec. 23, 2015: Zoning board readies one of its Mugar project defenses

Dec. 9, 2015: MassHousing approves Mugar 40B application
Nov. 24, 2015: Mugar developer submits document, and town awaits 40B decision
Oct. 7, 2015: Selectmen respond to MassHousing; agency expected decision soon
Sept. 25, 2015: Mugar developer submits 8 project documents after August deadline
Aug. 19, 2015: Selectmen's comments on Mugar project sent to MassHousing
Aug. 13, 2015: Details few as Mugar site developer looks ahead
July 15, 2015: Hearing on Mugar site appliocation tough to schedule 
June 29, 2105: July 22 meeting set as developer moves toward 40B Mugar application
June 9: Step toward 40B filed for Mugar site; town seeks more time to respond
May 26, 2015: Speakers at Hardy send a clear message about Mugar site: NO
Cambridge Day, April 26: 3-year Cambridge master-plan process to start with Alewife
April 5, 2015: Coalition responds point by point to Mugar developer's statements
Opinion: Arlington's Belskis on 40B
March 31, 2015: Coalition seeks to preserve Mugar site from development         
Coalition to Save Mugar Wetlands: WordPress | Facebook
March 8, 2015: Belmont Uplands permit issued; opponents vow to continue

This news summary was published Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, and updated Sept. 6, to clarify where application arrived.

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