BPDA Suggests New Guidelines for Zoning Here

By Michael Coughlin Jr.

As part of the PLAN: East Boston initiative, which looks to shape the future development of East Boston, the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) unveiled a draft for updated zoning guidelines in residential areas during a Neighborhood Residential Workshop on Wednesday, Oct. 19.

The proposed zoning updates would fundamentally change the building approval process in neighborhoods. Rather than zoning focusing on the use of a particular building as it is now, such as a one-family or three-family building, zoning would concentrate on the dimensions of the building itself.

In the recommendation, there would be maximum limits for buildings’ height, depth, and width and guidelines on the front, side, and rear yard setbacks, lot coverage, and permeable surface area.

These maximums and guidelines, however, would be determined by the buildings that already inhabit East Boston. The density of each neighborhood, coupled with the proximity of buildings to the street, would also help determine zoning restrictions.

“To be frank, right now, the zoning that covers East Boston and especially the zoning that covers neighborhood residential areas is outdated, and as a result, a lot of new development – new buildings that come into the neighborhood can simply ignore it,” said BPDA Urban Designer Adam Johnson.

Johnson outlined that under the current zoning rules, new developments can file a case with the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for variances to bypass the current restrictions. According to the BPDA, East Boston has the highest ZBA caseload in the City of Boston on a parcel-by-parcel basis, with 26 cases per 1000 parcels.

The issue with the current zoning guidelines is that the variances can breed unpredictability in the area. “That process – that unpredictable process can yield a changing neighborhood that is out of scale and is out of character with what exists now,” said Johnson.

To the BPDA, the zoning updates would allow for more predictability in the future development of East Boston and introduce more opportunities for affordable housing while still preserving existing housing through policy. 

Naturally, the reaction to the recommendations was mixed when the question and answer portion of the meeting began. Many citizens who attended the meeting expressed their apprehension about preserving single-family homes and that developers could take advantage of the new zoning and erect three-story buildings near single-family homes.

Joseph Arangio, a resident, was one of those people who seemed none too pleased with the plan. He questioned the need to squeeze more housing in the area, referencing the redevelopment plans at Suffolk Downs that will add around 10,000 units to the area.

“That’s not enough? That’s not enough – you have to get into single-family and two-family zones to squeeze a three-story unit next to a single-family home or give developers the right to come in and build those things and disappear,” said Arangio.

While some people were not fans of the proposed changes, others, such as David Lank, came out and spoke in support of the BPDA’s plan.

Lank and his wife recently bought a plot of land in order to build their family home in East Boston. They eventually settled on the idea of a building with a larger unit to live in and another unit to rent to afford their mortgage.

Lank’s plans were denied during the current zoning process in what was a plan that garnered an overwhelming majority of support in the neighborhood.

“I have never been through a more problematic experience building something that had so much support from the neighborhood, and it was not because of the city. It was because of economic restraints and, more so, in addition to that, the current zoning process,” said Lank.

“The current zoning process allowed kind of a free for all to occur where the whims of people on the zoning board weighed in.”

Lank also explained that economically one-family units might not be so prudent nowadays, adding, “Construction costs are so high just to build anything that to spread it across only a single-family, or two family is not very efficient.”

As debate rages on, the BPDA made it clear that they are ready for and welcome all feedback. Throughout the end of the month and into November, the BPDA will meet with neighborhood associations to discuss the plans.

Overall, the BPDA maintains its excitement for potential zoning changes in what it sees as beneficial to East Boston.

“We feel like these recommendations collectively imagine a neighborhood that is more resilient, more affordable, and fundamentally more predictable,” said Senior Planner at the BPDA Kristina Ricco.

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