Wielding the Double-Edged Zoning Sword

The Gateway Cities Journal

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance released a new study linking the state’s housing crisis to zoning at a well-attended State House event last week. Amy Dain, lead author of the report, pointed to four ways zoning inhibits the housing market: height and density limits, ad hoc approval processes, mixed-use commercial requirements, and “edge city” land use policies. If zoning regulations like these keep preventing the market from functioning, many believe the state won’t be able to house the 600,000 to 800,000 new residents projected for 2030.

But maybe that’s not necessarily the case.

The worst zoning practices are indisputably in the suburbs. In this sense, zoning actually acts as a de facto urban growth boundary, placing pressure on the market to build upward and back into existing urban areas, as opposed to outward on to greenfield sites. To be sure, urban core communities like Brookline and Newton haven’t been willing to allow tall buildings that the market could easily support, but in some ways, these communities are actually sharing the love. Their choices force the market to go elsewhere. Communities like Brockton, Revere, and Lynn are finally seeing much-needed residential investment.

Many raise valid concerns that this growth isn’t in “high opportunity” communities. However, new development in these locations creates taxable value in cities that need additional fiscal resources the most. Rather than sequestering growth in the few locales that developers feel are safe bets, zoning is moving growth from those communities that have had enough to those that are most in need of more.

MassINC estimates suggest the 13 Gateway Cities with current or planned commuter rail stations could accommodate 140,000 residents just in the areas within a short walk of their train stations. And this conservative estimate is at existing densities. For the most part, these downtowns are zoned to allow significantly higher buildings as of right. Adjacent neighborhoods connected to the stations by bike lanes and feeder bus service could house tens of thousands more. And these figures don’t include infill capacity in the region’s inner Gateway Cities (Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Revere, and Quincy), which also have ample capacity for infill development.

Building on these urban sites is expensive and complex. If Gateway Cities want to take advantage of the strength of the market to unlock development, they can’t afford regulatory mistakes. While pro-growth, these communities are not immune to two of the four concerns Dain identifies. Elements of an ad hoc approval process are not unheard of in Gateway Cities, especially with officials under increasing pressure to extract concessions from developers. Often cities lose more than they gain from this cumbersome give and take.

Dain’s argument about mixed-use projects is also worth pondering. Our estimates suggest most Gateway City downtowns are in far more need of residents than additional commercial space.

More residents will increase the value of the commercial stock. In general, cities would do well to hold off for a period before asking developers to shoulder the cost of ground floor retail that may underperform in the near term.

We all need to acknowledge zoning’s pernicious legacy as a tool for housing discrimination. Without question, there are some who continue to wield the sword in this loathsome manner today and we need to root them out. At the same time, we must think creatively about how we wield the sword to rebalance growth in the region. Undoing zoning now will not fix the past. We must think carefully about how we nurture the market so that our historic urban centers have the fiscal resources needed to serve their residents and provide opportunity for all.

 Housing and Economic Development

For more perspective on this week’s lede, take a look at Bill Frey’s latest work. He predicts a suburban comeback.

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Mayor James Fiorentini kicks off Haverhill’s master plan public outreach campaign.

Holyoke city councilors seek a moratorium on group homes.

A developer in Lynn is using concrete block mats to protect the shoreline from wave erosion.

White Lion Brewing goes before the Springfield City Council for the special permit it needs to build a brewery, commercial kitchen, and tap room in the Tower Square shopping mall.

The Worcester City Council Economic Development Committee unanimously endorsed a resolution to create a “Certified Vacant Storefront District” where business owners occupying a storefront that has been vacant for at least one year can apply to the state for investment tax credits. 44 vacant storefronts fall within the proposed district.

The Baker administration decides to double the amount of offshore wind procurements, a decision that appears to have strong benefits along with some risks

MDRC releases a major study examining the efficacy of the family self-sufficiency program.


Holyoke city council approves a Proposition 2 ½ override to fund school building.

Twenty-nine high school seniors graduate from the two-year La Vida program, which began in 2007 as a program to assist lower-income Lynn students prepare for and apply to high education.

MassINC releases a new report on Early College high schools.

Tom Birmingham urges state policymakers to help career and technical vocational high schools clear their long waitlists.


The MBTA lures Richard Henderson from MassDevelopment to head up real estate efforts at the transit authority.

Joe Bellil reports on how to become more involved in the Worcester transportation planning process.

MBTA ridership is up nearly 4 percent.

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and the Berkshire Metropolitan Planning Organization hold a public meeting in Pittsfield to review their recently completed draft of the 2020 Regional Transportation plan.

CityLab shows how you can eliminate 10,000 parking spaces without anyone complaining.

Creative Placemaking

Fall River holds its first-ever Pride Festival. Five years in, Creative Arts Network founders Sandy and Dave Dennis are getting ready for another busy summer of events and projects in the city. And Herald News digital producer Dan Medeiros showcases some of the city’s many beautiful doors.

Dr. Ellen Rovner guides a tour of Chelsea’s rich Jewish history.

More than 7,000 MetroWest residents attend Framingham’s eighth annual Brazilian festival.

Next City looks at three examples of how creative placemaking lifts all boats.

Communities & People

Sanshara Sylvestre, Maliah Darosa, and Keara Searcy — three fifth-graders at Brockton’s Arnone School — put out their last monthly school newsletter.

Worcester unveils the Mayor Murray portrait.

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