Zoning in Charlestown

Zoning is a regulatory tool that most cities use to govern “uses” of buildings (e.g., residential, commercial, or industrial), the size of buildings, and how buildings relate to their surroundings, including other buildings, open spaces, and the street. Zoning was established in the early 20th century, it began as a method for maintaining the character of an area, protecting it against inappropriate siting of industrial uses, and eliminating substandard housing conditions in many densely developed areas.[1] In cities already developed, zoning was created to protect and maintain what was existing. Changes to zoning have been made over time for various reasons. 

Key Points

  • The first comprehensive zoning code was adopted by New York City in 1916 amid concerns that new skyscrapers were blocking light and air from the streets.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Euclid v. Ambler (1926) established the constitutionality of local zoning ordinances and helped set the pattern for what is known as “Euclidean” zoning.[2]
  •  U.S. cities such as Boston are increasingly looking to change or flex existing zoning regulations, through the use of variances, PDA Master Plans[3] and Urban Renewal “U-Districts” in order to increase the supply of housing.

Charlestown is regulated by Section 62 of the City of Boston’s Zoning Code[4] “The objectives of this Article are to provide adequate density controls that protect established residential areas and direct growth to areas where it can be accommodated; to retain and develop affordable housing compatible with adjacent areas, particularly for elderly residents; to promote the viable neighborhood economy; to preserve, maintain and create open space; to protect the environment and improve the quality of life; to promote the most appropriate use of land; and to promote the public safety, health, and welfare of the people of Boston.”

In addition to Charlestown’s Zoning Code, much of the Peninsula is regulated by an “overlay,” either a Historic Neighborhood overlay or an Urban Renewal overlay. It “lies on top” of the existing zoning in areas that require additional protections for sensitive resources (historic), or more flexibility (Urban Renewal for shopping and affordable housing).

The PLAN: Charlestown process will determine whether or not changes to zoning are needed to accomplish the goals we set as a community for Charlestown’s future.

In a nutshell, each piece of land has a single, specifically allowed use. Typical uses in Charlestown include residential, commercial, industrial, open space, local convenience, neighborhood shopping, and mixed-use. Each use comes with its own list of “allowed,” “conditional,” and “forbidden” uses for things like Banking and Postal Uses, Community Uses, Cultural Uses, Educational Uses, Entertainment and Recreational Uses, Restaurant and Retail Uses, Service Uses, and Transportation Uses. Uses are stipulated for each level of a building, so the ground and first floors of a building may be used for something different than the second stories and above.

For example: portions of Bunker Hill Street are zoned for “Local Convenience” use. Table B in Article 62 stipulates that the basement and first story may be used for a multi-family dwelling, rowhouse or a bakery (Allowed,) a building cannot be used for an adult bookstore, a drive-in restaurant or an animal hospital (Forbidden.) There are conditional uses that need to be approved by the Zoning Board, such as a restaurant, a parking garage or machine shops.

Each “Use” district has dimensional regulations that stipulate the size of buildings, and how buildings relate to their surroundings, including other buildings, open spaces, and the street.

For example: In Charlestown, residential uses have specified minimum lot areas (3,000 sq ft for 1 or 2 units), minimum lot widths (35 feet), maximum Floor Area Ratios (FAR)[4] (1.5), and maximum building heights of 35 feet.  Local Industrial Subdistricts in Charlestown have maximum building heights of 75’, 115’[6]  and 275’[7]. The Harborpark District along the Mystic River has maximum building heights of 55′ and the General Industrial Areas 65′.

Each district has off-street parking requirements that vary by use. For example, a banking or post office use must provide 1.0 parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of floor area in the building. So a 10,000 square foot post office requires 10 parking spaces. A daycare center in the same building must provide 0.7 parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of floor area, so a 10,000 square foot daycare center requires 7 parking spaces, 3 less than a post office. Parking requirements for residential buildings is determined by the number of units.

What happens when the owner of land or a building wants to build something that does not conform to zoning?

  • They seek a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), which requires a public process and an opinion from the BPDA. “Boston Zoning Code and Enabling Act” of 1956 c. 665. Article 7 talks about the requirements for seeking variances.
  • They seek to establish a PDA Master Plan which requires a public (Article 80) process and approval by the BPDA.
  • If the parcel is an urban renewal parcel, they seek to use an Urban Renewal Tool called a “U-District,” (AKA Overlay) which requires approval by the BPDA.

For more information on zoning: a glossary of terms, and more can be found at: Citylab – Understanding Zoning Codes. 




[1] https://www.mass.gov/service-details/smart-growth-smart-energy-toolkit-modules-zoning-decisions 


[3]  Planned Development Areas (PDAs) are permitted within Local Industrial Subdistricts (Hood Park) and are not permitted elsewhere in the Charlestown Neighborhood District. The purpose of a PDA is to have more flexibility in zoning laws, to provide public benefits to the Charlestown community, including the creation of new job opportunities; to allow for the diversification and expansion of Boston’s and Charlestown’s economy through manufacturing, commercial, and scientific research and development uses; and to ensure quality urban design by providing planning and design controls.

[4] https://library.municode.com/ma/boston/codes/redevelopment_authority?nodeId=ART62CHNEDI_REGULATIONS_APPLICABLE_PLANNED_DEVELOPMENT_AREAS

[5]  Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is the ratio of floor area to lot area. It is a metric for regulating the number of square feet that can be developed on a parcel of land. For example, a FAR of 2.0 means a builder can develop 2 times as much square footage as exists on a lot. A 4,000 square foot building could be built on a 2,000 square foot lot (as long as it conforms to the dimensional requirements for the use). FAR is determined by use, and use also determines the overall dimensional requirements separately.  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-06/how-to-understand-municipal-zoning-codes#F

[6]  Applies only in that area to the west of a line drawn parallel to and 300 feet west of the westerly sideline of Rutherford Avenue and to the south of a line drawn parallel to and 400 feet south of the southerly sideline of Cambridge Street.  [7]  Applies only in that area to the west of a line drawn parallel to and 300 feet west of the westerly sideline of Rutherford Avenue and to the south of a line drawn parallel to and 400 feet south of the southerly sideline of Cambridge Street and only in those PDA areas that contain two or more buildings as more particularly described in the approved PDA Master Plan and/or Development Plan, as applicable. Notwithstanding the height limit of 275 feet, the last habitable floor shall not exceed a Building Height of 250 feet.

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