Recently, I sat down with Board of Selectmen Chair Neil Wishinsky to discuss the current state of Brookline. He began the conversation by summing up the situation as follows, “Currently, Brookline is a victim of its own success.”

Influx of 40B Applications

Looking back at 2016, this sentiment has shown itself in a variety of ways, most notably at the moment with a tremendous influx of 40B applications being submitted to the Brookline Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). The 40B law states that a developer can circumnavigate local zoning regulations (usually building projects that are larger than would normally be approved) if it proposes a development containing typically between 20-25 percent affordable housing units in an area where less than 10 percent of housing is deemed affordable. This is the case with Brookline, a community that has just under 9 percent of subsidized housing inventory. Ten current 40B applications are being reviewed by the ZBA at this time. Each application requires countless hours to process and review and must be approved within a strict time frame, adding additional stress and demands to the workload of the ZBA. The applications are processed on a first come, first serve basis.

“40B is a law with great intentions, but a delicate balance must be struck, “said Wishinsky. “Brookline is increasingly becoming more unaffordable for families, and there is a need for lower cost housing to ensure that our community is a diverse and inclusive place. However, overbuilding is not necessarily the answer.”

While each 40B application goes through a lengthy approval process, it is very tough to reject one. Projects can be denied on certain grounds, and there are avenues to appeal, but typically the ZBA works with developers to come up with final solutions that work for all parties involved.

Why now in 2016 is there such an influx of 40B applications in town? According to Wishinsky, several factors are at play. “The economy is strong, and Brookline is a highly desirable community in which to live,” said Wishinsky. “Also, the window for the 40B law is nearly closing here given that the town is almost at 10 percent of affordable housing. Developers are trying to get in before this point is reached knowing that chances for their projects being approved are high.”

In the long run, it appears that the town will soon hit the 10 percent mark just with the existing applications currently being reviewed. Once this number is reached, the ZBA will be able to take a degree of control back and continue with other town planning issues and proposals.

November Town Hall Meeting

From a town and fiscal planning standpoint, the Brookline Town Hall Meeting back in November was a productive one which voted on a variety of articles which will impact the community in the short and long term. Various budget adjustments that were needed were approved, and the town approved rezoning a parcel of land on Brookline Avenue so that a hotel can be constructed. This construction will bring in real tax money to the town which can go, in part, towards funding a new 9th elementary school. Also, authorization was given for the town to sign a contract with the Hubway Regional Bicycle Share Program, providing more options for residents to bike instead of drive.

“Among other things, the Town Meeting showed Brookline’s ongoing commitment to the environment and building a community that values clean air and green space for our children and all our members,” stated Wishinsky.

New 9th Elementary School: Baldwin Site

One of the most controversial decisions in Brookline this year was the decision to build a new 9th elementary school on the current site of the Baldwin School on Heath Street. Wishinsky addressed what the current next steps are in this process which will lead, hopefully, to a new school opening its doors to students in the fall of 2020.

“We recently just formed a committee to guide the 9th school at Baldwin,” reported Wishinsky. “This committee is made up of a Selectman, various school committee members, parents, as well as local school administrators. Their job is to work closely with the architect of the project and neighbors, as well as to continue to study feasibility at the site.”

While a fair portion of the town is onboard with the decision according to Wishinsky, there are still many concerns about the site from people living in the precinct. Further opposition and discussions are expected to continue over the coming months, and more compromise regarding the site may be in the works. As Wishinsky noted, “The Baldwin decision came out of an exhaustive process in which no site which was put forth was perfect. It was a process that yielded compromise, and it will naturally take some time for it to be embraced by the entirety of the community.”

Looking Back at 2016

With 2016 drawing to a close, Wishinsky believes the town of Brookline is in a good place. Many of the issues that the town has grappled with over the course of these last twelve months reiterate the fact that Brookline remains a highly desirable community in which to live and work. One sees this through the need for the building of a 9th elementary school, as well as through the recent uptick in 40B applications to the ZBA. He acknowledged that necessary steps were taken this year to help ensure the financial stability of the town going forward.

When asked what was the most gratifying for him from a work perspective, Wishinsky reflected, “I believe that coming to a resolution in the Hancock Village litigation has given me the most personal satisfaction. A lot needs to happen moving forward, but we now have a path towards resolution of longstanding litigation which, I believe, is better for the neighborhood, the town, and the developer.”

While national politics may have taken center stage this year, locally the Town of Brookline and its leaders have worked hard to ensure the fate of the town remains bright. Education, housing, and the environment remain focal issues in 2016, and they will continue to be so moving forward as more and more individuals and families choose to move into and stay in the community.

By Casey Hassenstein