Is “Smart Growth” the future for Malden?

Should Malden stop regarding growth as a problem and instead see it as an opportunity?

A woman walks past the building being transformed by Berkeley Investments on the corner of Exchange and Commercial Streets in Malden. Known as “Exchange 200,” the four-story building is slated to be a mixed use “innovation hub,” catering to a wide assortment of companies ranging from R&D and office tenants to ground floor restaurant and retail uses. (All photos by Ron Cox)

By the staff of Neighborhood View, the first in a series exploring the future of  development in Malden .

In its 350-year-plus history, Malden has transformed itself over and over again. Today, the city  is in the midst of another transformation that may chart its history for decades to come.

Let’s start with a little  history.  In the 18th and 19th century,  Malden was mostly farmland and dairy farms, amid hills and woodlands north of the Mystic River. By the early 1900s, it was a bustling urban area with five movie theaters, a popular Jordan Marsh department store, and a growing population of both immigrants and those who had settled here centuries before. Much of the city’s housing stock dates to the 1920s and the city steadily grew and prospered until the 1950s.

The population started to decline in the 1960s and by the 1970s, Malden was mired in an economic malaise that affected much of New England. In the 1980s, the city rolled out the welcome mat for developers, anxious for investment, leading to a spurt of apartment high rises in the 1980s and early 1990s.

In recent years, the Greater Boston area has been experiencing a housing shortage and Malden is necessarily affected as a result of its geographic location.

As a result, today Malden is awash in development, with a new city hall under construction, new six-story apartments, and a growing population. According to the 2010 census, the population density is 11,788.6 people per square mile — which puts it among the top 100 densely populated cities in the United States.

The view from South Washington and Exchange Street. The corner building is being constructed by The Brennan Group and will house 68 residential units. (The facade to this building on Pleasant Street was left historically intact). Downtown Malden is currently awash in new construction.

Is all this growth good for Malden? It depends on whom you ask.

For many the answer is no. “In spring of 2015  we were really starting to hear a groundswell from our constituency about density and over building and overcrowding in the city of Malden,” as Councilor Barbara Murphy noted in a March 6, 2018, Malden City Council meeting.

In November 2015,  voters approved a ballot question,  originally proposed by Councilor Neil Kinnon, that would impose a one-year moratorium on multi-family development of  more than 5 units outside the Central Business District (downtown). The moratorium went into effect December 2015. In  January  2017, the city council extended the moratorium through the end of June to allow for additional study and expanded it to include the Central Business District. In March 2017, the City of Malden Growth Management Study was released and a Moratorium Survey Presentation was prepared. The moratorium survey found that 73% of those polled said they were opposed to more apartment developments outside of downtown and 67% said no to more apartment developments in the downtown. 

From the Moratorium Survey Presentation

Councilors, such as Murphy, say the message from Malden citizens has been clear. “Our citizens are extremely concerned about height and density and overcrowding.” In particular, she contends they don’t want buildings more than 6 stories outside the CBD, and generally they don’t want building more than 12 stories anywhere in the city. “We owe it to ourselves and our constituents on how we move forward,” she told the council during a  contentious March 6 meeting in which city councilors considered amending the zoning ordinance to prohibit construction more than six stories in the Central Business District. “The biggest thing for me is to get our maximum to 6 stories. That’s what our citizens want.”

Others, including some of Murphy’s fellow city councilors, say that ordinances limiting construction height and other variations  are “shooting from the hip,” as councilor Ryan O’Malley put it, without careful consideration of future impact.  Malden needs more planning and “less shooting things,” he said. He noted that “With the city hall project, if we had allowed that building to go 1 or 2 stories up instead of going out, we could have potentially preserved a historic structure,” a reference to the recently demolished First Church of Malden which was adjacent to City Hall. 

Indeed, the March 6 Council meeting represented a microcosm of the overall debate over Malden’s growth and what to do about it; with councilors airing a number of viewpoints on how or if to control residential construction. 

Councilor David Camell says overly restrictive building codes “handcuffs us in perpetuity,” although he stressed,  “I just want to strongly reject the idea that a vote against these particular  stipulations is a vote for overdevelopment. There is more than one way to handle the situation.” Councilor Steve  Winslow called ordinances “a meat cleaver approach” and said he worried about the effect of restrictions on building needed senior citizen housing. “I’m open  to a more surgical response,” Winslow said, “There’s a crisis out there,” referring to the high cost of housing in the city.

Traffic flows down Florence Street between the Malden Center T stop and the spate of development in the Central Business District — the new City Hall under construction and new construction further down on Florence Street. The Heritage Apartments, a 10-story building for elderly residents built in 1971, stands in the center between the two.

Clearly, all members of the council were worried about uncontrollable development and its impact on traffic and the school population. “Residents are saying it takes half an hour to get out of their driveway,” said Councilor Craig Spadafora. ” We are kidding ourselves if we think this will go away magically …  People want to work here. People want to live here. We need to bring a place for people to come for jobs.” Certainly Malden needs senior housing but, Spadafora said, developers are not stepping up to build these kind of units. Murphy, however, warned that without the council taking action, taller and denser construction may result, noting that if a developer of 480 Main Street had not reconsidered the project “we would have a 12 story there.”

Ultimately on March 6,  the paper to prohibit construction taller than six stories did not pass. A simple majority of the council did support a  proposed zoning ordinance that would have restricted new buildings in the downtown area to a height of six stories down from the current max of 12 allowed under special permit. However, the ordinance required a 75% majority to pass and thus the measure failed. This means that under current zoning rules,  construction of up to twelve stories will be allowed with a special permit granted by the City Council.

But this hardly puts the issue to rest.

In a statement to Neighborhood View, Council President Debbie DeMaria noted, “Unfortunately, the current council is living with past decisions—or non-decisions.  There could have been a lot more thought put into what was demanded of developers before the downtown grew in the way that it has.  Staying the same is essentially standing still. Meeting the needs of our community while balancing our traditional Malden is certainly the mission. The question is “Can we move forward together to build a better Malden?  That’s the goal!”

160 Pleasant St. is the last 12-story building to have been approved in the downtown area. The decision was made by the 2010 City Council. The building is all apartment rental units and provides no commercial or retail space.

What is clear from the March 6 discussions  is that the vast majority of the councilors believe that Malden need to control development, not necessarily halt it.  What is needed is the “right” kind development. For many, this  means fewer (or no) luxury apartment complexes and more buildings with mixed used, such as offices and substantial and attractive spaces for retail on the lower floors. Malden, councilors said, needs hotels and office buildings or businesses that create jobs, such as the Idle Hands Craft Ale brewery which opened on Commercial Street in 2016. (More breweries are planned nearby.) Camell said Malden’s development of resident housing has produced a “lopsided” effect, saying the city must focus on commercial and industrial projects and “bring jobs here.” 

But how can this be achieved?

There’s difficulty, Matheson noted, in attracting mixed use development. “We have to twist developers’ arms to put in any commercial at all,” he said. “The developers don’t want the commercial space.”  It is more lucrative, Matheson said, for developers to build luxury apartments — not even condos — and that is a real challenge for the city which, he believes, would be better off with owner-occupied housing. O’Malley argues that development trade offs should be considered when they provide a “substantial community benefit,” such as commerce, retail, and vibrant additions to the downtown, like a theater. O’Malley concurs, however, that owner-occupied units are preferred over more rental units.

The Combined Properties apartment complex viewed from Exchange Street and Jackson Street. The building provides only one retail space on Route 60, which is difficult to access. Many feel that the ground level is also not pedestrian friendly.

In a recent interview, Malden Police Chief Kevin Molis outlined a middle ground for development: “I do have a very real Malden perspective on the ways things were, on the way things are and the way things are trending.  I am cautious and careful many times to use the word ‘growth’ in a negative way. Some people are looking at growth for the negatives and some people only look at the positives.  I think we have to strike a delicate balance between the two. The only way any city is able to grow is because the growth is compatible with what is going on there.  Something good has to be happening in a place for people to commit financial resources to growing in that area.”

More planning might help. In a recent interview with Neighborhood View, O’Malley said Malden lacks the resources for planning. “We used to have multiple planners. Now, we have only one city planner (Michelle Romero) and it’s an overwhelming job. She can only push papers. Mayor Howard (previous administration) cut the planning department way back. I think it is time our city considers growing our planning department.”

But this may prove to be expensive. At a recent meeting of a community group now engaged in making Malden develop as a livable community,  guest speaker Councilor Steve Winslow posed this question. “Can we ask for more? How do we make sure growth favors the community and not just developers?”

How, indeed? A small but growing cadre of Malden residents believe this can be done. They are basing this on a concept that emerged in the 1990s as an alternative to explosion of highway and suburban development and neglect of urban downtown area. It’s a movement called “Smart Growth.”

In a series of articles through the spring, Neighborhood View will examine the issue of Smart Growth and how it can be applied to Malden in areas such as traffic, housing, the arts and quality of life. The Smart Growth in Malden reporting team includes  Karen Buck, Robin Inman, Liz Kelley, Jennifer McClain, Stephanie Schorow, and Anne D’Urso-Rose.

1 Comment

6 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Could “Smart Growth” guide Malden’s development? – Neighborhood View
  2. Can Malden’s Transit Woes Be Eased with Smart Planning? – Neighborhood View
  3. Bike, Zip and More: How Malden can share the road for smarter transportation  – Neighborhood View
  4. Arts can create “a sense of place” in Malden – Neighborhood View
  5. 2019 – David Camell for Ward 6 City Councillor | Malden Votes
  6. 2019 – John Matheson for Mayor | Malden Votes

Leave a Reply