Ray Mariano: MBTA Communities Act, Holden and Cookson Park

Raymond V. Mariano
Raymond V. Mariano

Massachusetts is among the states with the highest, fastest-growing home prices and rents in the country. If you’re selling your home or looking to rent one of the apartments in your three-decker, that’s good news. But if you’re looking for an affordable place to live, that means tough luck for you and your family.

About 20,000 people are homeless in Massachusetts. The bulk of those are families with children. Beyond that, the homeless number doesn’t include the tens of thousands who can’t afford where they live. As evidence, the Worcester Housing Authority has more than 30,000 applicants on its various waiting lists and some of those waiting lists have been closed for years.

All of this is to say that Massachusetts needs thousands of additional apartments, especially those that would be considered affordable. That leaves out most of the new apartments that have been built in Worcester over the last decade that carry rents so high that they can cause nosebleeds.

MBTA Communities Act

In an effort to encourage the building of more apartments, the state issued guidelines in 2022 mandating that communities that host or are near MBTA service or contiguous to communities that host MBTA service be required to have at least one zoning district of reasonable size (typically 50 acres) that allows a minimum density of 15 units per acre. Almost immediately, a couple of communities told the state to take a hike.

Recently, Milton voted to reject a land-use plan that would have put it in compliance with the law. The state then moved to strip the town of access to more than a dozen discretionary state grant programs and withheld a $140,800 state grant for sea wall improvements. Now the Attorney General is taking the town to court.

Closer to home, Holden seems determined to follow in Milton’s footprints. Holden Town Manager Peter Lukes said that “local zoning and planning should be left to local officials and local voters, not surrendered to Beacon Hill political agendas.” In other words, keep your huddled masses in Worcester.

Lukes is quick to point out that the town supports multifamily housing but he has problems with the density requirement in the law that would result in building heights taller than what is allowed in town.

I understand why Milton and Holden want to maintain their upper-crust image and protect the values of their very expensive real estate. But since those communities benefit from all of the services in the city — hospitals, colleges, restaurants, entertainment venues — they should at least make some minimum attempt at serving the needs of the region.

But there are problems with the MBTA law.

The problem with the MBTA Communities Act

The MBTA Communities Act applies to 177 of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts. It also leaves out 174 communities who don’t have to comply with the law. So, Holden, which is contiguous to Worcester, is required to comply with the law. But nearby Boylston, which abuts Shrewsbury and West Boylston but not Worcester, is exempt.

I understand why the law was enacted. But its application is flawed. Tying the new rules to the MBTA exempts half of the state. If the rule applies to Holden it should apply to Boylston and every other community.

Second, the law does absolutely nothing to provide affordable housing for those desperately in need. Think about it. If a developer comes into Holden and builds 30 apartments, how many of those will be affordable? Zero! So what is the real benefit of a $2,000 studio or one-bedroom apartment?

Communities like Holden and Milton need to get over themselves and allow for a small portion of their community to be zoned for multifamily housing. There may never be a developer who wants to take advantage of that zoning but, at least on paper, they need to provide that opportunity.

For its part, the state needs to draft a law that treats every community equally and while they’re at it require a percentage of those units to be affordable (inclusionary zoning).

Cookson Park

There is a natural tension when the city or some group wants to take a neighborhood park and change its primary purpose from that of a quiet spot for neighborhood children and families to a location that will attract people from all across the city.

Now, there is a proposal to renovate Cookson Park on College Hill. The 26-acre wooded park with hilly trails has been neglected by the city for years. About 10 years ago, longtime area resident Mary Leovich founded a grassroots group of neighbors, the Friends of Cookson Park, to help maintain the park — to clean up litter and maintain the walking trails.

A local foundation wants to use up about 20 acres of the park to build a disc golf course. The foundation intends to raise funds and in-kind contributions to cover the $100,000 cost for the renovations of the park.

Knowing that the course would undoubtedly attract people from outside the area, neighbors have questions. What will happen to walking trails and wildlife? Will the course attract students from the nearby Holy Cross campus who have a history of problems with area residents?

However, instead of a major confrontation, the Worcester Sports Foundation says that it will only submit a formal proposal if Leovich and the Friends of Cookson Park don’t oppose their plan. For her part, Leovich says that she’s keeping an open mind. In other words, they are going to work together to see how this idea fits.

This is exactly how it should work.

Email Raymond V. Mariano at rmariano.telegram@gmail.com. He served four terms as mayor of Worcester and previously served on the City Council and School Committee. He grew up in Great Brook Valley and holds degrees from Worcester State College and Clark University. He was most recently executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority. His column appears weekly in the Sunday Telegram. His endorsements do not necessarily reflect the position of the Telegram & Gazette.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Ray Mariano on MBTA Communities Act, Holden and Cookson Park