By Eliza Rosenberry
This is Part 2 in a series of Planned Residential Developments. For Part 1, click here.
It’s unclear what led to the long dormancy and recent revival of the Planned Residential Development (PRD) bylaw in Bedford. Three such developments have been approved over the past two years in Bedford after a 15-year lull.
“Some developers may have seen the main market interest as being in more conventional developments,” Assistant Planner Catherine Perry said in an email. “The current interest in cottage-style and smaller houses may be a factor in encouraging PRDs.”
In 2013, according to the town’s Comprehensive Plan, just 2.3% of Bedford land was potentially developable. Realtor Suzanne Koller, who is representing a PRD known as Cottages at Depot Crossing, thinks the lack of undeveloped land in Bedford coupled with market dynamics haspushed PRDs to the forefront.
“We’ve been on a trend for a couple years where there’s just a severe lack of inventory,” Koller explains. “So many people want to either stay in Bedford or move to Bedford, and everything’s just kind of stuck. There’s not a lot of people selling.”
Koller suggests the “void” created by this lack of inventory has made PRDs viable options for developers and buyers alike. Lifestyle preferences among two major demographics — downsizing baby boomers and millennial first-time buyers — could play a role, too. Those groups are more likely to value walkability over having a big yard that requires lots of maintenance. Koller says about two-thirds of interested Cottage buyers fall into the downsizing category, most from Bedford and surrounding towns, and says she has also seen interest from couples and young families, some of whom are currently renters in Bedford. Housing options like PRDs attract buyers from a range of backgrounds, she said, contributing to Bedford’s diversity.
In recent PRD projects, developers are applying the bylaw to smaller or less conventional developments, squeezing more units and square footage out of trickier properties.
At Cottages at Depot Crossing, for example, a 3.5 acre lot will be home to nine cottage-style homes, and will not offer significant preserved open space. The developer agreed to include one affordable unit and will make a payment to the town in lieu of a second, which would have been required. Situated along South Road, the proposed development irked some neighbors, but ultimately the developer promised buffers to preserve privacy and the development was approved.
It’s clear the cottages themselves — two bedroom units close to 2,000 square feet and listed for more than $700,000 — are providing a meaningful housing alternative in Bedford despite the price tag, as most new constructions in town are nearly twice as large and listed for well over a million dollars. The location is also big selling point, realtor Koller points out, as the property backs up to the Minuteman Bike Path and is within walking distance of an MBTA bus stop and shopping on Great Road.
A more conventional PRD on Evergreen Avenue, previously home to an old Bedford farmhouse, was approved earlier this year. Seventeen cottages are under construction on a 10-acre property there which includes conserved land, Minuteman Bike Path access, and three affordable units. The development sits alongside already dense neighborhoods on Neillian Way and Evergreen Avenue, where many duplexes are home to renters.
On December 20, Bedford’s Planning Board approved a controversial PRD on Fox Run and Buehler Roads, which had been under consideration since August over the course of many public hearings. At times, tensions were high. Planning Board members even mentioned being lobbied in off-hours about the proposal. Neighbors organized and put up a fight, claiming the disruption of their neighborhood’s character, and successfully negotiated down the number of new homes from 12 to seven.
But as the number of homes in the development was reduced, the number of affordable units decreased, and the square footage of each house increased. In apparent violation of the bylaw, all units will be single family homes. (The bylaw requires a 20percent housing type variance in PRDs.) One existing house on the property will be retained as the sole affordable unit.
Throughout public hearings for the Fox Run development, the PRD bylaw’s purpose and intent have been carefully considered and challenged by residents and some Board members.
Early in the process, neighbors seeking grounds for halting development had claimed the Fox Run design, which includes two separate neighborhood areas on different roads, does not meet the true intent of a single PRD. This objection did not seem to gain traction, but was an example of the community’s efforts to closely reexamine the bylaw.
On final plans for Fox Run, proposed homes are no longer cottages but instead are 3,000 square foot single-family homes — not exactly an alternative housing type in Bedford, as Planning Board members Amy Lloyd and Sandra Hackman pointed out at public hearings, which is one of the purposes of PRDs.
“I was interested in having [Fox Run] be more affordable to more people, including downsizing residents of Bedford,” Hackman said at an October hearing. “I was never that unhappy with the [original] density.”
They also struggled to come to terms with the development’s violation of required housing type variance.
“The intent wasn’t architectural variation,” argued Board member Amy Lloyd at a November hearing. “The intent was cost variation.”
“I really wish that there were going to be some lower priced houses,” added Hackman. “So that’s a cost that we have for lower density, which I’m a little uncomfortable with.”
Other Planning Board members indicated these issues were notobjectionable, resulting as they had from compromises between neighbors and the developer. But deference to a private negotiation process seemed to concern Lloyd, who commented – before voting in favor of the PRD – that perhaps the vocal and organized neighborhood group had played an outsized role in producing the final proposal.
When it was published in 2013, Bedford’s Comprehensive Plan called for a replacement of PRD and cluster bylaws with “a modern Open Space Residential Development” bylaw that would “foster better open space and natural resources preservation and enhance community character.” Nearly four years later, the two bylaws have not been replaced or significantly altered. But given the spike in public interest and development of PRDs in the years following the Plan’s publication, there may soon be a timely opportunity to do so.