Zoning Commission Approves Latest PLAN: East Boston Zoning Amendments

By Michael Coughlin Jr.

After years of work, the zoning recommendations laid out in the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s (BPDA) neighborhood planning initiative, PLAN: East Boston, are set to be enacted after the Boston Zoning Commission approved text and map amendments to the neighborhood’s zoning during a hearing last week.

PLAN: East Boston, which the BPDA Board adopted in January, has been in the works since 2018 and sets out to guide growth in the neighborhood, according to Kristina Ricco of the BPDA.

After six years of community engagement, which included more than 200 events, meetings with an advisory group, and more, PLAN: East Boston was developed and includes recommendations for the public realm, transportation, policy considerations, as well as land use and built form — also known as zoning.

Regarding zoning, the main topic of last week’s hearing, Cyrus Miceli of the BPDA, said, “East Boston’s current zoning does not reflect what exists there today.”

He also detailed that over the last year, East Boston has had the second-most non-compliant proposed projects in the city.

“This reliance on the ZBA (Zoning Board of Appeal) has done a number of things, but it has created unpredictability mostly and neighborhood development patterns and generally signals a need for zoning reform,” said Miceli.

“The proposed amendments to Article 53 that we’re bringing you today seek to remedy this condition,” he added.

Miceli outlined four zoning amendment goals, including recalibrating residential zoning, providing more opportunities for mixed-use development, encouraging active streets, and simplifying and modernizing zoning. 

After detailing these goals, Miceli provided specific recommendations for the amendments to East Boston’s zoning.

First, use tables were updated and consolidated, while definitions were improved. “These updates cut the number of existing use categories in half while retaining the same clarity and specificity and land use regulation determined through the PLAN: East Boston planning process,” said Miceli.

He also indicated that the updates, while specific to East Boston, are aligned with the BPDA’s broader zoning reform initiatives.

Regarding residential zoning, the number of subdistrict types was reduced from 10 to three, and dimensional requirements were right-sized and simplified. Additionally, retail and service establishments will now be permitted on corner lots.

The three new residential subdistricts are East Boston Residential (EBR)- 2.5, 3, and 4, with the number corresponding to the maximum number of stories allowed in the area. Moreover, each residential subdistrict has its own maximum number of units and dimensional regulations.

Similarly to residential zoning, mixed-use zoning will also have three subdistrict types: Mixed-Use (MU)- 4,5, and 7, again with the number corresponding to the maximum number of stories in an area, each with its own dimensional regulations.

Miceli explained that mixed-use zoning would allow residential and commercial uses to coexist in an area, concentrate around transit hubs, and introduce flexible form-based dimensional regulations.

It should be noted that the places where this zoning would apply, including Maverick, Day, Central, and Orient Heights squares, were displayed during the hearing.

Concerning waterfront zoning, the amendments will decrease the number of subdistrict types from six to two, increase height and density, and relax land uses.

However, Miceli said, “It’s important to note that the majority of East Boston’s waterfront remains subject to the regulations of state-controlled designated port areas. These regulations severely limit allowed land uses along the waterfront and ultimately supersede Boston zoning.”

The waterfront subdistricts include a waterfront mixed-use subdistrict, which allows a maximum of five stories, 65 feet in height, and 2.0 FAR. Residential uses and PDAs (planned development areas) are also allowed in the mixed-use subdistrict.

Meanwhile, the waterfront economy subdistrict also permits a maximum of five stories, 65 feet in height, and 2.0 FAR but does not allow residential uses or PDAs.

As for economic development areas (EDAs), two have been created. There will be increases in height and density in these areas, and there will be relaxed land uses in specific EDAs to allow residential uses.

The new EDAs are the Porter Street EDA, which allows a maximum of four stories and 2.0 FAR, and the Bremen Street EDA, which allows a maximum of five stories and 2.0 FAR.

Additionally, zoning amendments will expand coastal flood resilience overlay district regulations. “These updates prohibit the erection or extension of residential uses below the sea level rise design flood elevation,” said Miceli.

Moreover, these updated regulations will apply to all projects but not to uses such as parking, commercial space, and more.

It should also be noted that Miceli said, “Our analysis shows us that there are no parcels within East Boston’s residential fabric, where we’re most concerned about height, that sit at an elevation deep enough to enable additional floors of height.”

“Meaning that the height thresholds established by underlying zoning for these neighborhood residential areas will be able to hold as they are written,” he added.

Finally, other zoning updates discussed by Miceli included parking, where minimums will be removed in mixed-use areas near transit hubs and more.

Following the presentation of the zoning amendments, the floor was opened for public testimony. Ellie Sanchez, Chief of Staff for City Councilor Gabriela Coletta, read a letter the councilor had penned into the record. 

In her letter, Coletta thanked members of the BPDA and the community for their work in developing PLAN: East Boston and wrote, “East Boston now has the framework necessary to preserve, enhance, and grow in a responsible manner, which will ultimately serve the community well now and in the future.”

She also stressed the importance of the ZBA keeping its end of the bargain by not approving projects that do not comply with the new plan.

Specifically, she wrote about concerns that folks in the community have after a project at 141 Addison Street, which did not fully comply with the zoning recommendations put forth in PLAN: East Boston, was approved in March.

Moreover, Coletta wrote that she has requested that the BPDA’s Director Arthur Jemison write a letter to the ZBA setting expectations that it “will not continue to grant variances based on undefined hardships.”

“I believe that holding the ZBA accountable to new zoning regulations will require specific and transparent parameters to ensure we do not repeat egregious variance approvals that led to the need for the creation of this plan,” wrote Coletta.

Following the reading of Coletta’s letter, other attendees provided testimony. For example, Attorney Richard Lynds spoke in favor of the zoning amendments, and another attendee, Meg Grady, talked about how the amendments benefit developers and do not protect single-family housing.

After the public testimony portion of the hearing, a few Commissioners gave their thoughts on the amendments.

While acknowledging Grady’s comments, Commissioner Jill Hatton indicated that the zoning could always be enhanced and expressed her support.

Hatton also commented on Coletta’s letter, saying, “We really as a Zoning Commission can only adopt these changes, which reflect what we think.”

“Issues like ZBA practices are really not part of our purview. We really can only do what we think we can do to adopt the best zoning amendments and code enhancements that preserve the form and components of the neighborhood,” she added.

Commissioner Michael DiMella called the work impressive but expressed concerns that it needed to provide more opportunities for housing.

Commissioner Drew Leff also commended the work and echoed DiMella’s point about providing more housing opportunities. 

Ultimately, the zoning amendments were approved unanimously by a vote of 8-0. To view a recording of the meeting, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQp_Hzf8j8A.

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