Cambridge-based developer Oaktree’s proposed Chapter 40B project in Arlington began as 219 apartments but has shrunk to 124 senior apartments and six duplexes. Image courtesy of Bruce Ronayne Hamilton Architects

Arlington’s median home price is headed towards the $1 million, while the average rent in town now tops $2,400 for a one-bedroom apartment, up nearly 40 percent over the past year, Zumper finds. 

The inner suburb desperately needs more housing of all types, including affordable rentals, with a town survey showing just 1,121 affordable apartments compared with nearly 5,200 eligible residents, many of them elderly.  

But while officials in the deep-blue town in the shadow of Cambridge are adept at spouting platitudes about the need for affordable housing, their actions show otherwise. 

A case in point is the years-long battle over Thorndike Place, a proposed senior housing development that has pitted a Cambridge developer and the Mugar family and its Star Market fortune against ornery neighbors and none-to-receptive town officials. 

Oaktree Development first began pitching plans for the Mugar-owned 17-acre site off Route 2 in 2015. Going on seven years later, company officials are still battling through the development review process, despite an ostensible approval by the town’s Zoning Board. 

In the meantime, in the middle of a housing crisis, Oaktree has been forced to significantly downsized its plans for what amounts to Arlington’s last large-scale development site. 

Opponents’ Claims Don’t Hold Water 

Cambridge-based Oaktree has proposed building 124 apartments for seniors, plus a few townhomes, on a part of 17-acre site off Route 2. 

That’s down from its original proposal for 219 apartments. 

The developer has also agreed to preserve most of the site – home to a few wetlands and the occasional homeless encampment – as publicly-accessible open space. 

Looking over the many local news stories and regulatory documents the development spat has produced, two things stand out. 

First, residents of the neighborhood next to the proposed project, long frustrated by flooding issues, have spent years arguing the project will make it worse. 

However, despite reputable engineering studies that would seem to put the issue to rest, town officials feel obliged to bend over backwards to placate them.  

Second, town officials have done their best to stop or slow the project with all sorts of bureaucratic stratagems, even as they proclaim their concern about the dearth of affordable housing in Arlington. 

BETA Group – hired by the town’s own Zoning Board of Approval – reviewed documents submitted by the project’s engineers and found that amount of water flowing into neighborhood catch basins “will be reduced essentially to zero after the project is built.” 

Oaktree has also proposed sufficient mitigation measures to prevent “stream flooding” on the site that would spill over into the adjacent neighborhood. 

But if the neighbors have been tough for Oaktree to deal with, town officials have been anything but a cake walk. 

120 Conditions on ZBA’s Approval 

While Arlington’s ZBA recently gave the project a green light of sorts, it attached more than 120 conditions. 

Oaktree has since fired off an appeal to state housing officials, arguing the conditions threaten to scuttle the project’s economic viability. 

Among other things, the conditions state town officials can order up any new engineering or other studies they please and charge it to the developers. 

The developers are also on the hook for extensive and expensive landscaping plan that includes intensive monitoring and the provision that “all plantings shall consist of native, non-cultivar, non-invasive, drought tolerant species.” 

It is a condition that no other residential project in Arlington has had to comply with, the developers contend. 

Oaktree is also required to post a $173,900 bond to secure corrections of flooding issues the ZBA’s engineering consultant has already said won’t be an issue. 

Town Doesn’t Meet 40B Threshold 

The ZBA’s non-approval approval is one thing, but when it comes to affordable housing, Arlington officials’ double-talk is positively galling. 

Arlington doesn’t meet the state’s 10 percent affordable housing requirement, enabling Oaktree and the Mugars to take advantage of the far more advantageous Chapter 40B housing review process.  

Scott Van Voorhis

Undeterred, Arlington officials have tried – and so far, failed – to meet an alternative requirement that would free it from 40B if it can show that 1.5 percent of developable land in town is covered by affordable housing. 

At a time when very new affordable apartment is desperately needed, it is a meaningless, bureaucratic dodge. 

Basically, if the town were to have been granted immunity from 40B, the developers would have faced an even tougher review, with no guarantee of the outcome. 

Given it has taken six years for the project to get this far, even with the help of 40B, one can only imagine. 

“The shortage of affordable units in Town is an area of continuing local concern, as is the escalating cost of housing in general,” the Arlington ZBA noted in its recent, 120-plus condition approval of Thorndike Place. 

Well, strange way of showing it. 

Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at   

Arlington Has a Funny Way of Caring About Affordable Housing

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 3 min