Needham is in the early stages of a process that could mean significant change along the town’s rail corridor, with the possibility of many more multifamily housing units being built in the areas around the town’s commuter rail stations.
Under a sweeping state housing plan, Needham and other communities with significant MBTA service are required to modify their zoning near MBTA stations, as the state tries to encourage developers to build more housing and ease the statewide housing crunch.
In Needham’s case, this means the town must zone for at least 1,784 new housing units near its commuter rail stations, with specific plans requiring state approval by the end of 2024.
If Needham does not comply, it stands to face penalties — state officials have said they could sue non-compliant towns — and possibly lose millions in state funding. Communities that do not comply are ineligible for funding from certain state programs that support infrastructure projects.
Zoning changes on that scale will mean real transition in town, with business districts along the rail line expected to become more residential over time. Many think that would be a good thing for a town starved for more housing options.
“It is a state law that we have to work quite hard to meet,” said Assistant Town Manager Katie King. “But in our native housing plan, it has been borne out that Needham itself has a severe housing need. So yes, it is a state law. But first and foremost, the housing is not meeting the need of existing Needham residents now.”
Others, most likely, will not see it that way, said Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley.
“I listen all the time to people who say ‘Oh, I don’t want the character of the town to change,’” she said. “I need to be clear: This town was founded in 1711. It has never stopped changing. We do not look like we looked in 1711.”
Zoning for these new units does not mean 1,800 new units will instantly — or ever — be created in Needham. Any construction will take time, and it is unlikely that all the new zoning proposals will be adopted. But some almost certainly will, meaning more multifamily units potentially above or around existing businesses, and greater density along the town’s rail and commercial spine.
“I think we’re going to end up with neighborhoods in some areas, at least close to these MBTA lines, that will be more mixed in what they have for housing types,” Cooley said. “And people have different feelings about that. It seems scary, because it’s something that’s new.”
She cautioned residents not to see this as a sudden change, and stressed that there will be opportunities over the next year-plus for residents to both learn more about what’s coming and to influence it.
“This will happen over a long period of time,” Cooley said. “So I think what’s scary now will certainly be less so over time.”
The MBTA Communities law — frequently described as the state’s most ambitious housing project in decades — isn’t really an MBTA proposal, at least not in its origins. It’s a broad change in how housing is implemented, pushed by then-Gov. Charlie Baker, and continued under current Gov. Maura Healey. The MBTA is involved in that the law places new multifamily housing requirements on the 177 communities that either have MBTA rapid transit, bus or commuter rail service, or abut communities that host such services. It’s essentially a housing law overseen by the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities (formerly the Department of Housing and Community Development).
The law, passed in January 2021, mandates zoning for new housing units at a minimum density of 15 units per acre within a half-mile of stations, with some exceptions. Key to the law is that the zoning must be allowed by right, meaning that developers should be able to come in and build housing without special permitting, as long as they meet the standards the town and state have already put in place.
Where Needham stands
“This is a very comprehensive, significant change to our zoning,” said Planning Board Chair Adam Block, “because it would enable the production of a large amount of housing units by right — and that’s the whole kicker. And there’s mixed, mixed opinion about that in the community.”
To meet the December 2024 state deadline, the town plans to bring its new zoning proposal to voters at the October 2024 Town Meeting. There’s a long public process that will need to be followed before that crucial vote, however, including hammering out exactly how and where the town wants to introduce the zoning changes.
Needham already has developed a draft framework to meet the new standards, completed in December 2022 as part of a broader housing review. The 201-page Needham Housing Plan reflects 15 months of work and multiple public meetings and is expected to serve as a starting point.
To explore more deeply, the town is putting together a committee, Housing Needham (HoNe), to consider the possibilities and oversee the process. There will be a series of public meetings to garner feedback from residents, likely beginning this fall
The HoNe committee will consist of nine members, according to Block: two members from the Planning Board; two from the Select Board; a member from the Finance Committee; two Select Board-appointed members of the public; and two Planning Board-appointed members of the public.
The key, Block said, is that the committee truly represent a varied group of interests and viewpoints.
“It’s really important — for the community that we have and for the public policy — that we have a broad representation and a broad mix on this committee,” he said. “We don’t want it to be stacked with a bunch of opponents, and we don’t want it to be stacked with a bunch of housing activists.”
The Select Board chose three of its four HoNe appointments on Tuesday, naming Heidi Frail and Kevin Keane as the board’s own representatives and 25-year Town Meeting member Michael Diener as the resident-at-large. The board still needs to appoint a resident who is also a renter.
Some outside groups are already preparing for the process. One such group, the Needham Housing Coalition, was formed recently to push for more attainable housing options in Needham. It is focusing on the MBTA Communities law as one of its priorities. Other entities are sure to follow as the discussion proceeds, and existing town issues are likely to become a part of this process. The push for a train whistle Quiet Zone, for instance, might make these new housing options more attractive to developers considering building along the rail spine and ultimately to residents considering living there, Cooley said.
All involved expect this will be a protracted debate and that strong opinions will be felt and heard on all sides, with plenty of room for changes. But town officials stress that they see this as a positive overall, and that instituting these changes will allow people to live in Needham who are currently boxed out, said King.
“It’s seniors who have grown up and spent their lives in Needham, and that want to downsize and have nowhere to downsize to. It’s kids that grew up in Needham and want to start a family and are having a hard time coming back into the community. And it’s people who have never lived in Needham but would love to be here,” she said.
Needham resident Daniel Barbarisi is a senior editor at The Athletic and a non-fiction author.