'All trees, and no forest': Why Boston's zoning code is slated for a big overhaul

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu during a recent press conference in Roxbury. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu during a recent press conference in Roxbury. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

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You can take a big sigh of relief that we don’t have to worry about seeing Tom Brady in a New York Jets jersey. So, what are we worrying about today? Boston’s zoning code and Hurricane Lee.

Let’s get to it:

Bloated. Outdated. Inconsistent. Inequitable. Those are four of the words most commonly used in a new report to describe Boston’s zoning code. And it’s not just any report. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced plans yesterday to overhaul the city’s enormously complex zoning code for the first time in nearly 60 years, based on a city-commissioned report by Cornell University professor Sarah Bronin. The zoning code contains the rules for nearly everything that gets built within Boston’s city limits. But our current code is, well, a little unwieldy. For starters, it’s long — 3,791 pages, to be exact. That’s five times longer than the average for similarly sized cities, and over 1,000 pages longer than New York City’s code. Put another way, Boston has 79 pages for each square mile of land, 27 times the average of its peers.

  • Why is it a problem? According to Bronin, “the Boston Zoning Code is all trees, and no forest.” Rather than one coherent strategy, the code’s length is due to “hundreds of piecemeal revisions” made over the last few decades. It divides Boston up into 429 different zoning districts; the overlapping and often inconsistent rules are “nearly impossible” to follow, Bronin said. Even small projects have to go through multiple rounds of reviews and hearings to get “variances” (i.e. permission to deviate from the rules). They’re usually approved, but the length of the process drives up the cost of construction at a time when there’s already a shortage of housing in the region.
  • What is the report recommending? Ditch the neighborhood-specific zoning approach and start with broadly applicable rules that promote the city’s affordable housing, climate resilience and quality of life goals. Bronin believes this “whole city approach” can make the process more equitable and streamlined.
  • What’s next? Bronin and Wu agree a “complete overhaul” is in order, which will likely take several years. While that gets off the ground, the city is launching a narrower “Squares & Streets” rezoning initiative to show what citywide zoning reform could look like in the short term. The initiative will develop “Small Area Plans” for neighborhood squares and main streets with the hopes of promoting small businesses and creating denser housing near public transit. Have thoughts? The Boston Planning and Development Agency is hosting pop-up chats to get public input starting this weekend.

Bring a raincoat to those pop-up chats. The entirety of the Massachusetts coast is under a Tropical Storm Watch because of Hurricane Lee. The storm is still south of Bermuda, but it’s expected to pass hundreds of miles off the coast of New England. While it’s not expected to directly hit the region, forecasters are still warning about storm surge flooding for the South Shore, Cape and Nantucket.

  • Lee’s path: Click here for the National Hurricane Center’s latest forecast for the storm, its timeline and the “cone of uncertainty.”
  • PSA: Harbormasters from Ipswich to Fall River are warning local residents to pull their boats from the water ahead of Lee’s arrival.

The latest COVID vaccines are on the way to Massachusetts. WBUR’s Priyanka Dayal McCluskey reports Bay Staters will be able to start getting the shots — designed to offer better protection against the latest variants of the virus — in a matter of days, after federal officials gave the new formula the green light this week. In some cases, the updated COVID vaccine may be available at local clinics and pharmacies “as early as the end of this week,” Dr. Robbie Goldstein, the state’s public health commissioner, said at a meeting yesterday.

  • The details: When it comes to booking an appointment, check with your local pharmacy first. CVS says the new vaccine will be at all of its locations by early next week. Walgreens is also scheduling appointments for next week. Everyone who is 6 months and older is eligible.

Heads up, Springfield residents: You can stop boiling your water. The city lifted its precautionary boil water notice for all residents this morning, after additional testing for bacteria came up negative in the aftermath of a massive water main break Tuesday.

P.S.— Don’t miss tonight’s exclusive sneak peek of WBUR and The Trace’s new podcast The Gun Machine at CitySpace. The special preview will be shown ahead of our CitySpace live discussion with Jason Moon, the host of NHPR’s hit podcast “Bear Brook,” about the science of false confessions. You can still get tickets here.


Nik DeCosta-Klipa Newsletter Editor
Nik DeCosta-Klipa is the newsletter editor for WBUR.



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