Monday, May 15, 2006

Override Campaign Begins

As you probably know by now, Town Meeting voted in favor of the entire contingent budget as presented by the Warrant Committee, and supported unanimously by the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee. The $2.41 million override election which results from this vote has been scheduled by the Selectmen to be held on June 13th.

A citizen volunteer group has formed to inform the residents of Milton of the importance of passing this override. The organization has adopted the name “Yes4Milton” and dozens of residents have already joined the effort. In the short span of little more than a week, they have created a website which already contains a great deal of information on the need for this override. I’ve added the website to my links list.

If you visit the site I think you’ll find substantial data explaining our fiscal situation and the impacts on our level of services if we don’t obtain revenue above what Proposition 2 ½ permits. Check out the “How to Help” section and find out what you can do if you wish to help. Money, of course, is always welcome. An ambitious campaign of communication is needed to place a large amount of information before the voters. You can visit the website (be sure to bookmark it!) at:

During the next four weeks I will be writing about this very important issue for our Town.

Full Disclosure: I am a member of “Yes4Milton”.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Central Ave.Planned Unit Development Article 51

The Town Meeting began to discuss this important article near the end of last Tuesday’s meeting. Town Planner Aaron Henry gave a comprehensive presentation on all aspects of the Planned Unit Development.

The need for zoning relief in the Central Avenue business district is clear. The Hendries plant has been vacant for 12 years, its plywood windows testimony to the lost value to the property owner, the neighborhood, and the Milton taxpayer. The Fallon Ambulance building, long the home of a respected Milton business, now lies empty. And the Central Avenue parking lot has an owner who has the right to develop his property in some fashion.

As Aaron Henry explained, the current zoning is not conducive to development. The Zoning change suggested under this article would encourage a type of development, mixed-use, that is economically viable and is being employed with increasing frequency all over the country. It is compatible with Smart Growth principles and with Transit Oriented Development as practiced by the MBTA on property it owns. It features:

--a mix of residential and retail
--a higher density of development
--the creation of what is both a mini-community and a town center
--housing opportunities for singles, empty nesters, and the sons, daughters, and employees of Milton

There seems to be little disagreement with the basic features of the Planned Unit Development. Concerns that have been raised seem to focus on scale. Long time Town Administrator John Cronin spoke at length about his belief that four story structures would be too large for the area. How does one argue with what is at base a subjective opinion? Many people do not think four stories would have to be overpowering. There are two buildings of 3 1/2 to 4 stories at the intersection of School Street and Central Avenue, just out of the square. The visual impact of these new structures will have much to do with their design and the proposed PUD gives the town the tools it needs to effect positive results. Contrary to the statement made by a Town Meeting Member, no building could rise 45 feet straight up from the sidewalk. Set backs of floors above 2 stories are required.

The concerns expressed by John Cronin have been codified into an Amendment to Article 51 which will be considered tomorrow night. The primary change is a significant reduction in the density permitted under the PUD. The base number of housing units is reduced from 1 unit per 1000 sq. feet to 1 unit per 2000 square feet. Under the most generous bonus provision (1 unit per 1500 sq. feet), this would seem to reduce the number of units allowable at the Hendries building from an upper limit of 47 units to approximately 23. The question is whether such a significant reduction eliminates the economic viability of the project.

The issue of economic viability was a key factor in soliciting the help of the Urban Land Institute. It makes no sense to pass zoning which places demands on developers making it impossible for them to raise the money necessary to undertake a project. The ULI’s recommendations considered this key factor. Their recommendation on unit counts has been challenged on two rather flimsy grounds. The first holds that since the word “urban” appears in their name, they are trying to impose urban standards on Milton. This is really silly. The members of the ULI are well versed in development in suburbs as well as in cities. They’ve also been described as part of the development industry because of the nature of the work they do, and therefore would be prone to suggest a scale favorable to the developer and to the detriment of the town. I think this unfairly maligns the professional integrity of this group of volunteers. At the very least it is just as likely that their understanding of development financing is providing us with an important wake up call.

In the final analysis it will be up to the developers to convince the Town Meeting tomorrow night of the need for the density proposed in Article 51. As with any decision of this kind there is an element of risk. Town Meeting Members need to keep in mind that there is just as much risk, perhaps more, in turning down this article as in accepting it.

The owners of the Fallon site have been clear in letting the town know that it cannot wait much longer before deciding what to do with its property. A quick sale to a Church is a strong alternative to a protracted development process which might not even offer an equivalent profit. This would remove the property from the tax rolls, and lose the opportunity to provide housing and retail development we need.

The Hendries owners have indicated they might have to consider a 40B development. Whether we have “faced down” such threats before, or have merely managed to dodge a bullet, the fact remains that should such a development be pursued, densities on the order being proposed under this article are almost guaranteed. What would not at all be guaranteed is the kind of rigorous approval process we are used to, and you could forget about relying on anything like the design standards included in this PUD. Chapter 40B limits the profitability for the developer. But 20% profit, a streamlined Comprehensive Permit process, and the ability to appeal to the state Housing Appeals Committee for “uneconomic” conditions set by the town sounds like an appealing alternative if what the developers and ULI have told us about economic viability is true.

Whatever happens to the individual pieces of property, the failure of this article to pass likely means we will lose the opportunity to plan in a coordinated fashion three significant parcels in the Central Avenue business district. We will likely lose the mixed-use component and the commercial taxes that would have resulted. Let’s just remember that there are risks to saying yes, and risks to saying no. I think the latter outweigh the former.