Faced with a state deadline, Brookline approves major rezoning plan to allow more multifamily housing

Local News

Brookline had to come into compliance with the MBTA Communities Act by approving a new rezoning plan. What passed was major for the town.

Several people stand outside of Brookline High School with signs promoting the passage of a rezoning proposal.
Pro-housing advocates hold a rally outside of the Brookline High School auditorium Tuesday ahead of the Brookline Town Meeting where members would vote on a rezoning proposal to allow multifamily housing on Harvard Street. Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

All eyes were on Brookline Tuesday evening, when a majority of Town Meeting’s 255 members voted for a rezoning plan that will allow for multifamily housing development in a town facing an affordable housing crisis.

But the plan that passed — 207 to 33, with seven abstentions — doesn’t just mean new development could finally sprout up along the Harvard Street corridor. Brookline’s Town Meeting members had to come up with a rezoning plan in order to come into compliance with the state’s MBTA Communities Act, a law that requires communities near transit lines to change zoning to allow for more multifamily builds.

Since the law passed in 2021, Brookline and other towns have been on a quickly approaching deadline of Dec. 31 of this year.

In those two years, Brookline News reports that some residents had tried to pitch a plan that would have allowed Brookline to legally abide by the law without actually building more housing — that’s because the MBTA Communities Act doesn’t require that towns actually build more housing. 

But that potential idea was rejected, and the plan that moved through — after two years of community engagement, “hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on consultants,” and community organizations needing to come to an agreement — was an actual way forward to add multifamily housing. 

It could result in 800 new units along Harvard Street, which runs through major commercial sections of Brookline like Coolidge Corner and Brookline Village. The plan also allows for four-story buildings to be developed. Other areas that were rezoned were current multifamily housing districts, a Brookline Housing Authority site on Walnut Street, and a zoning district on Longwood Avenue called Emerald Island.

In total, it could result in 1,540 new units, though it should be noted that the rezoned multifamily districts are not expected to produce much new housing “because those districts are already largely built out,” Brookline News reports. 

Also along Harvard Street, the plan said that 15% of new housing must be affordable. 

During the meeting, Select Board member Paul Warren said that Brookline “wrote history.”

“There will be folks that look back at this Town Meeting and say this was when Brookline began the process of change that was needed to grow and support our community in a way that makes it more vital, more livable, and more diverse,” Warren said.

The vote was particularly a huge win for housing advocates, like the group Yes! In Brookline, who have stressed that Brookline’s current zoning laws are a reason for the town’s out-of-reach housing and rent prices. 

But the plan initially had its opponents, including Brookline by Design, a group that worried about what housing development might do to the bustling commercial corridors along Harvard Street. The Boston Globe reports the plan to rezone current multifamily districts came out of negotiations between the opposing groups.

The news of Brookline’s approved proposal comes after the Globe’s Spotlight team published a story about Brookline’s long history of restrictive zoning that has prohibited multifamily housing, and therefore added to a housing shortage that drives up prices. A dozen other cities surrounding Boston, including Newton, Malden, and Milton, face the same deadline.