BPDA updates Squares + Streets draft zoning text amendment

By Michael Coughlin Jr.

During a public meeting hosted by the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) on Tuesday, members of the agency’s Zoning Reform Team revealed updates to the final draft zoning text amendment associated with the Squares + Streets initiative.

According to the BPDA’s website, Squares + Streets is “a new planning and zoning initiative that will focus on housing, public space, small businesses, arts and culture, and transportation in neighborhood centers and along main streets.”

Further, the crafting of the aforementioned zoning text amendment would introduce Squares + Streets zoning districts, which are meant to “support the ongoing work of the broader Squares + Streets planning and zoning initiative,” per a description of Tuesday’s meeting on the BPDA’s website.

Specifically, six new zoning districts would be added, ranging from S-0 to the newly reintroduced S-5, according to Adam Johnson, an Urban Designer with the BPDA.

“These (the new zoning districts) range from the smaller, more residential transition areas you might find at the edge of a commercial area… to the taller, more dense buildings that you might find at the heart of a square or the heart of a neighborhood,” said Johnson.

Furthermore, six to nine-month small area plans conducted by the BPDA would help determine which areas could be placed in the abovementioned districts.

After the BPDA released a draft for the zoning text amendment, revisions were presented to the public during meetings on January 10th and this past Tuesday.

Johnson walked through some of the general changes to the zoning text amendment, including the aforementioned return of the S-5 district.

Some other general changes include refining dimensional regulations, related definitions and use tables, updating use definitions, parking design and regulations, and more.

In speaking about S-5 being brought back, Johnson explained that the return came from feedback for another district with opportunities for increased density.

This district has plans for more height, larger building width, and lower building lot coverage. However, developments in this district would require more outdoor amenity space.

“This district would allow for taller mixed-use buildings in areas that can support higher density,” said Johnson.

Specifically, the lot standards in this district are as follows: a building lot coverage of 80% or 70% on large parcels, a front yard minimum of two feet, a rear yard minimum of five feet or 15 feet if the lot abuts a residential zone, a side yard minimum of five feet or zero if the lot abuts a party wall, and a 15% permeable area of the lot.

Additionally, the building form standards in the S-5 district include a maximum floor plate of 25,000 square feet, a maximum building width of 250 feet, a maximum height of 145 feet, and 30% outdoor amenity space.

It should be noted that this district also differs in that the maximum height will be governed solely in feet rather than feet and stories. The reasons cited for this differentiation include an opportunity for floor-to-floor height variance, which can increase the mix of uses in the district, according to Johnson.

In other updates, there were changes to the definition of outdoor amenity space. These changes include allowing space for events, performances, and outdoor retail to count towards the outdoor amenity space requirement.

Additionally, Johnson said, “We’ve added language to clarify that space that can meet this requirement does indeed need to be outdoors as well as language that does not discount spaces that might have something like a pergola, a canopy, et cetera.”

Johnson also walked through changes to dimensional definitions. The upper story stepback requirement has been updated to only apply to the tallest story; the party wall definition was changed to more closely match the building code definition, and the maximum building height definition was updated to ensure that both the maximum feet and story requirements must be met.

In addition to the abovementioned changes, Maya Kattler-Gold, a Planner with the BPDA, outlined other updates to the zoning text amendment.

First, more thresholds have been added to the hotel use to include under 50 rooms for small hotels and 50+ for large hotels. Kattler-Gold explained that initially, the threshold dealt solely with square footage but has been changed based on feedback.

“We received a comment that more hotels nowadays have smaller rooms and less amenity space, so measuring the size by just square feet could give us a lot of variability in terms of number of rooms,” said Kattler-Gold.

“In addition, number of rooms is a better measure of the most significant impacts of hotels in terms of things like traffic,” she added. It should also be noted that the large hotel use is now conditional in the S-3 district instead of forbidden.

Further, the lodging house use has not only gone from forbidden to conditional in S-1 and S-2, but its definition was changed to associate more with state licensing.

Another definitional change came for the office use to include coworking, insurance brokers, and real estate.

Moreover, ground floor restrictions for grocery stores, maker spaces, museums, large restaurants, large retail stores, and art studios have been removed in all districts, along with the removal of a ground floor restriction on medium retail stores in S-3.

In the S-0 district use table, small retail stores have gone from forbidden to conditional in basements or on ground floors. Also, parking garages are now conditional in S-3, while parking lots are now conditional in S-2.

Some other clarifications to the text amendment involve including food pantries in the grocery store definition, changing the term group living to supportive housing, and changing accessory ATM to standalone ATM.

Also, the zoning text amendment saw updates in response to conversations and a letter from the

Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, according to Kattler-Gold.

Notably, District 1 City Councilor Gabriela Coletta recently wrote a letter to the BPDA requesting that the agency, “include language in this text amendment that requires redevelopments to reprovision any existing arts or cultural space onsite or provide an equal financial contribution for the development of new arts and cultural space,” per her letter.

These updates include making art galleries a type of retail store, allowing incidental sales in art studios, adding an extra small entertainment/events category for up to 250 people, and not including art exhibits with nudity in the adult entertainment category.

Finally, Jack Halverson, a Planner at the BPDA, went over the remaining updates. These updates include differentiating curb cut maximums for residential and non-residential uses, adding dimensional requirements for parking spaces, and restricting parking within the front yard in Squares + Streets districts.

As for what is next with the zoning text amendment, there are plans for it to go before the BPDA Board for a vote in March. Moreover, if approved, it is slated to go before the Zoning Commission in April.

In the meantime, the BPDA has scheduled additional office hours to “help provide further opportunities, to explain the proposed zoning, including responding to some of the detailed questions and requests for meetings that folks have submitted,” per Kathleen Onufer, Deputy Director of Zoning at the BPDA.

However, it should be noted that Onufer said, “This will be a pencil-down moment. We are not planning on making major revisions or creating an additional comment period and cycle during this time.”

To get more information about the zoning text amendment, the Squares + Streets initiative, office hour dates, and to view Tuesday’s meeting recording and its material, visit https://www.bostonplans.org/zoning/zoning-initiatives/squares-streets-zoning-districts.

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