NEW BEDFORD — It was Ben Marshall against the Zoning Board of Appeals and dozens of disapproving neighbors.
Marshall, a housing developer from Boston, plans to redevelop a former office building site at 1061 Pleasant Street into modern one-bedroom apartments for young professionals. His challenge: convincing the zoning board to let him do the project with only 27 off-street parking spaces for 35 apartments.
“People will fight for parking spots left and right,” said zoning board member Leo Choquette at the September meeting.
“We really think, with one-bedrooms and young professionals, in general this is not a demography that’s out there buying cars or owning cars,” Marshall said. “These are people … ”
He trailed off as others in the room started to laugh.
“Really? Really?” board Chair Laura Parrish said.
“We’re not Boston,” Vice Chair Celeste Paleologos said with a chuckle. “It’s New Bedford.”
“I’d like to think I’m still a young professional, and I own two cars,” Choquette said.
“Congratulations,” Marshall said.
To Marshall, the board’s reaction was a startling contradiction. New Bedford is nearing the end of a yearslong process to create zoning districts that foster more walkable development near the new MBTA commuter rail stations — right where Marshall’s project is located. Now, the same city government that had signaled it wanted housing developments like this one was telling him his project didn’t belong.
“You can’t live in New Bedford without a car — at all,” city resident James Clark said at the meeting.
But city planners hope to change that with the proposed “transit-oriented development” zoning districts. The districts aim to create neighborhoods with a dense mix of housing and businesses within a short walk, so residents don’t need to depend on cars. They would surround the city’s two new commuter rail stations, nearing completion at Church Street in the North End and the Whale’s Tooth parking lot near downtown.
Boston-bound trains are expected to start running next summer. Planners aim to get City Council’s approval to implement the new zoning districts by the end of next year.
“We want to plan for these corridors differently, because we don’t want them to be car-centric,” said Jennifer Carloni, the city’s planning director. “It shouldn’t be these deserts of parking lots along the street.”
The city’s current zoning requires two off-street parking spaces per apartment, but the proposed districts would allow for just 0.75 parking spaces per apartment, making Marshall’s 27-spot plan legal. Officials and experts are optimistic about the plan’s feasibility. They say there is an appetite for less car-dependent lifestyles in New Bedford.
“It’s almost an invisible population,” said Andre LeRoux, who has studied development in mid-sized Massachusetts cities as director of the Gateway Hubs Project at the think tank MassInc. In New Bedford, almost a quarter of renter households don’t have a car, 2022 census data shows.
For people whose primary commute will be on the new MBTA route, it might make sense to not own a car, advocates say. They may prefer to walk, bike, take the bus, or a rideshare to their local destinations. Transit-oriented development is about making those options more feasible by bringing amenities closer to where people live.
Advocates for transit-oriented development envision neighborhoods with a wide range of amenities nearby. Parents could drop off their children at day care on their way to the train station and get a cup of coffee while they wait for the train. On their walk home, commuters could stop at a grocery store and return a library book. In the ideal transit-oriented district, advocates say all of those trips could be short walks.
The proposed zoning districts are a vital part of addressing the city’s severe housing crisis, officials say. Housing costs are rising because of increasing demand for a stagnant supply of apartments. The solution, they say, is to build more housing. But in a centuries-old city with little developable land left, the only way to add units is by increasing density.
The city’s current zoning is part of the problem, said Josh Amaral, who directs the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development.
“We can’t say rents are too high, and then say every unit has to have two parking spaces,” he said.
Parking requirements can stand in the way of creating more housing, said Carloni, the planning director. Off-street parking spots are expensive to build, take up room that could otherwise be put towards living space, and aren’t always necessary, she said.
“From a planning perspective, are we prioritizing people or are we prioritizing cars?” she said.
Carloni encouraged skeptics of transit-oriented development to think about the parts of New Bedford that they love, like downtown or parts of the North End — they might notice that there’s not much parking. She said current zoning standards don’t allow that kind of dense, historic development anymore.
Chris Dempsey, a transit advocate who served as the state’s assistant secretary of transportation under Gov. Deval Patrick, rejects the view that transit-oriented development is a concept reserved for big cities like Boston or San Francisco.
The “historic feel” that the New Bedford prides itself on comes from old patterns of urban growth, Dempsey said. For most of the city’s history, people walked to most places they needed to go, and the local infrastructure reflected that.
“I think transit-oriented development will make New Bedford more like New Bedford,” he said. “TOD isn’t just consistent with that heritage, it’s really complementary to that.”
Denser neighborhoods could be a vital part of the city’s economic development, said LeRoux, the MassInc researcher. These districts will take up a small portion of the city’s land, but they could generate significant economic productivity and tax revenue because they will have concentrated clusters of businesses.
That’s good for businesses that depend on foot traffic, but it’s also good for people, LeRoux said. Denser, mixed-use development makes it easier for people to connect with their neighbors, and he pointed to research that shows social connectivity translates to better health.
“It’s really important to have active streetscapes, and parking lots are not active streetscapes — for humans, anyway,” LeRoux said.
Transportation and housing are the highest costs for most American households. Advocates say transit-oriented development saves people money — it reduces housing costs by increasing supply and reduces transportation costs by decreasing car ownership.
Officials admit there will be growing pains. For businesses and bus routes to locate in these neighborhoods, there has to be demand, which means people have to move there first. The closest grocery store to the 1061 Pleasant Street development is Market Basket, a mile-and-a-half away.
“If you need to bike two miles to wherever you buy your groceries, that’s probably not the most convenient lifestyle,” Amaral said.
The city has paused its planning process for the proposed zoning districts because the state recently created new zoning rules for MBTA communities. The new regulations require cities in the MBTA network to create multifamily housing districts in response to the state’s housing crisis.
Carloni said the transit-oriented development districts will likely bring the city into compliance with the housing law’s complex formula, but the officials are analyzing property data to make sure. She expects the City Council to approve the proposed districts by the end of next year.
In the meantime, the zoning board can only consider projects under current zoning law, its chair said at the September meeting.
More than three-dozen neighbors signed a petition against the 1061 Pleasant Street project, which sits just across Route 18 from the Whale’s Tooth MBTA station, near the site of a planned pedestrian bridge. It would convert the existing four-story office building into 11 apartments and add another four-story residential building with 24 apartments to the lot. The existing building is a nearly 200-year-old Greek Revival mansion that until recently served as the offices of Child and Family Services.
Several neighbors spoke against it at the meeting. Parking was their main concern — few could imagine anyone living in New Bedford without a car — but some also complained that the size of the project didn’t match their neighborhood. Most other properties in the area are two- to three-story homes, some with no off-street parking, and residents said parking on the narrow streets is already tight.
“If we have more apartments built in, it’s really going to increase the traffic in our neighborhood,” said Gayle Dayton, who lives nearby. “In the search for solutions to housing shortages, let’s not create more problems by building something in this neighborhood that it physically can’t support.”
Another resident joked that the developer might need to include a disclaimer on their rental applications that “only people with bicycles need apply.”
“What I heard tonight was, first, that New Bedford — our neighbors — didn’t want the density that’s planned on the maps,” Marshall, the developer, said near the end of the meeting.
The body granted Marshall permission to delay his case so he could do a traffic study. He declined to comment further on the project in an interview with The Light, citing the pending zoning board proceedings.
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