BOS stood by its vote on Downtown zoning; Advisory warns voters wary of multi-family housing

by beth on October 8, 2021

This week, the Economic Development Committee failed to convince the Board of Selectmen to walk back changes to the proposed Downtown District zoning bylaw. Later, Advisory members predicted that part of the bylaw officials haven’t been debating will sink the Special Town Meeting Article.

On Tuesday night, selectmen verbally signed off on a Warrant including the version of the bylaw recommended by the Planning Board. During the discussion at least two members held out hope that further revisions may be made before voters pass it.

That was a theme that continued in the Board’s Thursay night meeting with the Advisory Committee. In that meeting, Advisory members expressed concern that a special permit allowance for multi-family housing could be a lightning rod for controversy.

BOS and EDC Discussion

In their meeting with EDC, selectmen made clear their first priority was getting the ⅔ vote needed to pass at Special Town Meeting. Several references were made to the past failure of the Town to change zoning code through a multi-year effort of the ZAC that never even made it to Town Meeting*.

Selectmen Andrew Dennington, Sam Stivers, and Marty Healey expressed some agreement with the EDC on recent revisions being more restrictive than they would like to see. 

Stivers maintained his position that getting the revised bylaw into the code would be real progress. From there, making any needed revisions in the future should be easier to accomplish.

That reflected what Chair Lisa Braccio painted as significant changes to zoning. The bylaw will add new by right permitting for specific uses and projects, plus mixed commercial and residential uses not allowed anywhere in town. It also reduces the number of required parking spaces for certain uses.

Braccio argued the need for the recently adopted restrictions as guardrails to keep the Town from losing its heritage to aggressive development. Displaying a list of the 22 lots in the proposed district, she noted that half were deemed historic properties. 

Looking at the data, EDC’s Chair Rob Anderson pointed out that nothing had been built downtown since 1978. He highlighted the need for zoning change to encourage developers to revitalize downtown.

Anderson argued that passing a new bylaw shouldn’t be considered a success. In order to have success, they need zoning that actually encourages developers to step up and build something in Southborough rather than another town.

Dennington said he was happy to see an ambitious effort to improve zoning that is so close to passing. He would hate to see the disagreement over some details derail that. Stressing that no one was getting exactly what they wanted, Dennington hoped that EDC and Planning could compromise at future public hearings. Healey also hoped that the groups could find middle ground between their stances.

Anderson said that EDC had made many compromises throughout the process. On behalf of her committee, EDC’s Julie Connelly argued that the recent revisions were too restrictive. Much of the discussion focused on restrictions that would prevent a building from having 1-2 fully residential floors over ground floor businesses.

Connelly gave an example of current zoning code so outdated that it allows for a night watchman to be housed with your printing press but not for a coffee shop to have an apartment above. She explained the proposed by law was intended to fix that by allowing mixed use projects by right. At issue was the Planning Board’s recommendation to cap the residential portion of a mixed use project at 40%.

BOS Vice Chair Chelsea Malinowski and Planning member Meme Lutrell pointed out that the prior bylaw draft had allowed the project to have his little residential as 10%.

Connelly assured that was an error meant to refer to the ground floor only. Fellow member John Wood affirmed that he had raised the need to fix that error in multiple meetings.

EDC’s official position was that the cap should be taken out. But Connelly said she was willing to consider a different figure. She suggested having ground floors be dedicated completely to commercial projects or allowing only for 10% residential use (for ADA compliant units) under a special permit.

Lutrell expressed Planning’s concern that since residential is easier to develop, that’s what less restrictive zoning would attract. She argued that in other Towns there have been problems with developers making enough money on residential units in a mixed use project, that they are fine with leaving ground floor commercial units vacant.

Malinowski voiced support for carrying Planning’s revised version forward. She agreed with the requirement that any project with four or more residential units would need a special permit. Since that figure triggers an Affordable Housing component, she reasoned it was too much responsibility to put on the Building Commissioner alone.

Healey was the selectmen most critical of Planning’s recommended restrictions. It struck him that the justifications given were the same as long-standing rationale that have blocked housing diversity in suburbs for ages. He said it prevented the housing opportunities the town has claimed to want for years in its Master Plan and other forums.

The selectman suggested that voters could make changes at Town Meeting. The town would either show that it could walk the walk or just talk the talk.

On Tuesday, EDC’s other big objection was addressed, the lowering of the proposed by-right Floor Area Ratio (FAR) from 0.35 to 0.3. (Up to 0.5 would still be allowed if approved by Planning under a special permit.)

Braccio explained that the FAR isn’t the full size of the building. She said that it is defined as based on the area for the uses and excludes stairs, elevators and storage areas.

As an example, she used a project previously proposed for 2 East Main Street’s vacant lot in 2019. [Note: Planning didn’t approve the permit, with two members siding with neighbor concerns about the size of the building given its position at the downtown corner.]

Braccio said that project had started with a 0.35 FAR. After some changes to the internal layout and uses, it went down to a 0.328 FAR while the exterior remained the same.

BOS and Advisory Committee

Last night, selectmen presented the Warrant Article to Advisory. Advisory Chair Kathy Cook questioned the likelihood of the bylaw passing if Planning, BOS, and EDC aren’t on the same page.

Member Tim Martel argued that what will actually kill the Article is the inclusion of multi-family projects that aren’t mixed use. He warned that residents will see this as a back door for high density development. 

Braccio and Lutrell noted that the multi-family houses require a special permit from the Planning Board. Martel countered that board members change with each election and residents are wary of trusting the Town on housing matters due to the controversial Park Central project. Other Advisory members agreed that the multi-family housing was the biggest issue. 

Multiple members spoke in favor of EDC’s position for loosening restrictions on by-right mixed-use projects. Some members opined the Article should wait for a future meeting to hammer out the right fixes.

Healey argued for moving forward with it at Special Town Meeting. He told Advisory that he hoped EDC would make their case for amendments to voters. But if they don’t, he would urge passing the current version.

He noted that “practically” it includes long overdue improvements and “cynically” if it proves too strict to encourage development, the Town could propose adjustments without waiting three years.**

In both meetings, Braccio reminded that the Planning Board intended to keep public hearings open until Town Meeting. That means there is still potential for agreement on an amendment to propose at the meeting. 

Braccio cautioned against confusing voters with amendments, especially presentations can’t be projected on the screens this year. Others argued the importance of presenting an amended version that all Town boards assert support for.

Although an agenda isn’t posted yet, the next hearing is scheduled for the evening of Monday, October 18th. (You can click here for the most recent materials, and here to see if any new documents get posted.)

*The ZAC worked on revamping zoning from 2008-2012. The controversial proposal was then passed to the Planning Board with goals of bringing it to a 2012 Town Meeting. That was delayed, delayed, then indefinitely postponed for the board to take a different approach that never took place.

**Healey appeared to be referring to a Mass General Law about revisiting zoning bylaws rejected by voters:

No proposed zoning ordinance or by-law which has been unfavorably acted upon by a city council or town meeting shall be considered by the city council or town meeting within two years after the date of such unfavorable action unless the adoption of such proposed ordinance or by-law is recommended in the final report of the planning board.

On Thursday, Stivers noted that the Planning Board does have the ability to bring a bylaw back sooner than 3 years.

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

1 AB October 9, 2021 at 12:15 AM

Mixed use (modern mixed use) *includes* residential uses. It is/can be a core component to driving business to the very nearby non-residential uses. Like it or not, Northborough Crossing is a mixed-use development. Residents walk to and peruse those businesses – and those aren’t even ‘local’ businesses.

According to ULI: “The elements of the mixed-use project typically include several of the following property types (but may include others): Office, Residential (both rental and owned), Hotels, Retail and Parking.” (source: https://americas.uli.org/urban-developmentmixed-use-council-udmuc/)

So to say that ‘adding residential doesn’t make this mixed use’ it just patently false.

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2 Kelly Roney October 9, 2021 at 4:25 PM

Could Southborough get a traffic study grant similar to the one Westborough has received? See https://www.communityadvocate.com/2021/10/09/westborough-police-get-20425-grant-to-analyze-traffic-patterns/.

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3 beth October 12, 2021 at 8:52 AM

Who are you quoting as saying/writing, “adding residential doesn’t make this mixed use”?

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4 AB October 12, 2021 at 9:47 AM

Tim Martel (at 2:17:55) – https://youtu.be/M_eh98hjX3o?t=8275 – says that section C7 [multi-family dwelling] “has NOTHING to do with mixed use.” And then “let’s get laser-focus on mixed-use and mixed-use only.” I interpreted this as Mr. Martel thinking that residential is not part of a mixed-use scenario. I respectfully believe the opposite is the case.

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5 beth October 12, 2021 at 11:01 AM

It seems you are referring to the use in an area. I understand your rationale, which I had touched on in prior posts. (Multi-family units were considered not only to add to diversification but to support the retail businesses they hope to attract.)

Tim Martel was talking about the uses for individual properties/buildings. I believe that he and other Advisory members were referring to potential concern by some residents – that was raised in past public hearings and comments. Could allowing multi-family homes with no required commercial/retail on the ground floor lead to each individual project becoming multi-family. Then instead of revitalizing downtown with new businesses to frequent, it would eventually replace a downtown with businesses with a high density housing area.

An argument that the Planning Board, Selectmen, and EDC had against the worry is that multi-family buildings would require a special permit. The concern Advisory raised is that residents might not trust the Town to correctly oversee that. That lack of trust could then derail any zoning changes.

Beyond oversight, having a mixed-use building with upper floor residences that didn’t require a special permit was meant to make a single mixed-use project more attractive to developers so that new zoning wouldn’t only attract multi-family projects.

Planning has been discussing how to prevent the mixed-use option from being used as a loophole to essentially create a multi-family project without a special permit. (The worry that developers would simply have an ATM or a vacant unit on the bottom floor since they’d make enough off of the residential units.)

The debate between Planning, EDC and selectmen is where to draw the lines to create reasonable restrictions to guard against over-development while incentivizing desired development.

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6 Pat D October 12, 2021 at 11:40 AM

Thanks for this explanation–very concise and clears up lots of confusing statements.

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7 JUST VOTE NO October 20, 2021 at 7:52 AM

This misguided EDC plan will ruin downtown. EDC got the pro developer voices on BOS as outlined above to help push through this bad housing plan, that is NOT an economic plan. It is a messy patchwork of a misdirected zoning bypass of YOUR elected officials on a Planning Board. This plan aims to enrich developers at taxpayers expense. Last night, Marty Healey excoriated your elected officials on Planning Board. This is not only misplaced and disrespectful, it is flat out wrong. Voters, just vote no! Wrong plan for wrong location.

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8 R Jackson October 20, 2021 at 1:08 PM

Mr. Healey voted twice (two BOS unanimous votes) to support the very elements he excoriated others for supporting. Ironically, he repeatedly stated in a prior meeting he was supporting the article by voting YES for “cynical reasons” described to be when it produces nothing we will know it was the wrong article for downtown. REALLY? Isn’t it ironic that the Planning Board was portrayed as anti-housing by Mr. Healey while he supported their proposed changes in two votes prior to the EDC demanding their way or the highway. I would expect nothing more from the EDC but we have reached an all new low when a BOS member supports something to prove a cynical point. Mr. Healey, it just so happens your fun with the voting to prove other boards wrong impacts peoples lives and costs the Town tax payer. Planning Board, the other elected board in town, at least takes these matters seriously.

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9 Sewerage treatment? October 20, 2021 at 5:29 PM

As part of this “compromise”, who is left holding the bag for a wastewater treatment facility?

If it’s not the developers, then it’s time to either vote “NO” on the article. Be sure to attend the “special” town meeting. It’ll be special all right.

As for Mr. Healey – just remember his antics when casting your votes for his anticipated reelection.

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10 Julie Connelly October 21, 2021 at 9:04 AM

For clarity, this is a zoning bylaw, there is nothing about wastewater in it. If a property owner wants to put forth a project to the Planning Board, they will need to have a plan for wastewater – that is not the Town’s responsibility. A wastewater feasibility study was done to see if there are options for a wastewater treatment that could support multiple properties as many towns have done to have more efficient wastewater management to support a downtown business community. If the Town wanted to implement one, the Town would have to go to the voters to approve the budget. But there may be other ways of solving for wastewater, including grants or investment from a developer in conjunction with a proposed project. But none of that has anything to do with the bylaw on the warrant at Town Meeting. I’m happy to answer any specific questions you have.

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11 John October 21, 2021 at 10:31 AM

Sewerage treatment?
The feasibility study for wastewater was just that. To see if it is feasible.
Right now I do not believe that many if any, of the septics systems downtown are failing.
As I understand it, the cost to the for wastewater treatment or any septic system if this bylaw passes is nothing to the taxpayer. It will be up to the developer or property owner to figure it out and pay for it. If the town decided to put a sewerage treatment plant downtown and ask the taxpayers to fund it, I would hope the it would require going to Town Meeting for a vote.

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12 beth October 21, 2021 at 10:34 AM

If it was funded by Southborough tax dollars, it certainly would require a TM vote.

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13 Give Me a Break EDC October 21, 2021 at 4:05 PM

EDC might want to consider stand up comedy in Worcester when this fails and their committee is disbanded. The voters need to understand your proposal will eventually cost taxpayers MILLIONS in waste water treatment. Saying a developer will figure it out is absolute nonsense but thanks for trying to pass that off as believable and offer to answer any questions. You’ve answered our questions already with your actions and we are not that gullible to believe you now. Voters will prove shortly what we think of the EDC’s half-baked, pro-developer, cost-the-taxpayer housing plan. VOTE NO!

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14 John October 22, 2021 at 10:26 AM

There is at least one private wastewater treatment facility in operation that serves private homes (~50) located in the Wildwood/Southwood Drive development. As far as I know, the town has not, and does not contribute a penny to operate it.

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15 AB October 20, 2021 at 5:32 PM

The plan isn’t misguided. It’s been vetted by professional, not just those with backyards. EDC didn’t ‘get’ pro-developer voices to help anything. BoS members voiced their opinion. This plan aims to enrich a blighted, untouched-since-1978 downtown area to actually, well, make it a downtown. Right plan for right location.

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16 Downtown Resident October 21, 2021 at 11:01 AM

Is your comment, “not just those with backyards,” yet another put down of the concerns of those whose lives will be most impacted by this bylaw, the very people who actually live in and are most firmilar with the district in question? You know, the residential neighborhood that is about to be blown up.
Should a new bylaw be proposed for your neighborhood, wouldn’t you want to be sure that that proposed bylaw was the right fit for your neighborhood?

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17 Julie Connelly October 21, 2021 at 3:09 PM

DT Resident – I don’t want to speak for AB, but I took their comment to mean that for most of us, our only land use experience is with our own property, and that few of us in town are professional zoning/planning/land use experts. I don’t think the context supports your interpretation, and I also don’t agree that residents’ of Downtown’s concerns have been discounted. There have been multiple public forums and public hearings where many Downtown residents have spoken and several changes were made to the proposed bylaw based on those residents’ feedback.

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18 Gimme a Break October 21, 2021 at 4:16 PM

Julie, people listened but it wasn’t the EDC. That is a fact memorialized in video recorded meetings. We should be clear on that. In fact, EDC members discounted neighbors time and again in various forums. The EDC Coordinator asked the Planning Board “why are you listening to the neighbors?” in a joint meeting. That is but one example of the EDC discounting of Downtown residents and there are many, many others.

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19 Coordinator October 22, 2021 at 10:10 AM

Gimme a Break – The EDC started out by listening to Southborough residents and heard what they wanted in Downtown. The EDC continued to listen and inform residents through multiple Public Forums during the last couple of years.
It’s easy to take things out of context. The EDC Coordinator’s question to the Planning Board was in fact: “Why are you listening to one neighbor and not to the multiple property owners of split lots?”
Interested to hear the many, many other occasions the EDC supposedly discounted Downtown residents.

20 AB (Alan Belniak) October 21, 2021 at 9:14 PM

“Is your comment, “not just those with backyards,” yet another put down of the concerns of those whose lives will be most impacted by this bylaw, the very people who actually live in and are most firmilar [sic] with the district in question? You know, the residential neighborhood that is about to be blown up.”

>> Oh no – not at all. What I meant was the opinions that matter in this *include* those with backyards in the area *but also* other taxpayers who would patronize and drive economic traffic to the downtown, *as well as* zoning and urban professionals, *who are by definition experts in what they do*. It is not ‘yet another put down’ because I have not put down this group previously.

>>> Should a new bylaw be proposed for your neighborhood, wouldn’t you want to be sure that that proposed bylaw was the right fit for your neighborhood?

You bet I would! And I’d come to every meeting, weigh in (in the meeting) with constructive commentary, and try to find an equitable solution. The area is ZONED FOR DEVELOPMENT. The EDC is trying to make the right development happen.

From the videos I’ve watched and the meetings I’ve attended, I think there are three (correct me if I’m wrong) public members in opposition to this. There may be more, but I haven’t seen them (again, tell me if I’m wrong). There *could* be more, and I respect that. There *could also* be those that support this. So to say the three* that oppose this reflect the entire opinion of downtown, or of Southborough, is a bit of a reach. We’ll see – if 1/3 + 1 say ‘No’ on November 1, then it’s clear that Southborough is not ready for change.

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21 Bonnie Phaneuf October 22, 2021 at 8:30 AM

Julie Connelly, It might be of help if you post the following;
1.Weston and Sampson, Memorandum dated, June 18,2021
Southbourough Feasibility Assessment on the Wastewater Treatment
2. Weston and Sampson – Wastewater Treatment Facility and Pump Station
Conceptual Drawings, dated, July 2021
3. Weston and Sampson, Southborough Funding Strategies, dated, July 19.2021
This could answer some questions ahead of Town Meeting,

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22 Julie Connelly October 22, 2021 at 10:12 AM

Bonnie and BM:

The documents you reference are all available on the Town website. Go to Economic Development Committee and look under the Downtown Initiative tab.

But I must clarify that the wastewater feasibility study has absolutely nothing at all to do with the current Warrant Article being. We are proposing zoning changes ONLY, as Beth has done a great job summarizing. There is no proposal on the table for the Town to install sewerage treatment or to spend any money on anything associated with this Warrant Article.

Last year the EDC used grant money for a feasibility study to see what might be possible in the Downtown from an engineering/technology point of view, and what the associated costs would look like. This was totally separate from our work on the zoning bylaw, it just happened to be that we were doing these two things at the same time. If a developer or land owner proposes a project, they will have to have their own plan, with their own money, to handle wastewater, as has been the case in Southborough forever, and will continue to be whether or not we pass the proposed zoning bylaw changes. If a developer doesn’t have a plan for wastewater, they will not be able to get permits for their project.

At some point in the future, IF the Town decided to modernize wastewater management, there are many ways that it could get done, including with grant money assistance or through working with private developers who may want to help invest in conjunction with a proposed project. Like any infrastructure project, it could also get paid through the Town budget, that is, through the taxpayers via bond or other mechanism. However, like all budget items, this could not happen without a vote at Town Meeting, but not the 2021 Town Meeting, because nothing having to do with wastewater is in the Warrant.

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23 EDC Coordinator October 22, 2021 at 10:19 AM

Ms. Phaneuf: I believe I sent you all the documents you mention in your post on September 15, 2021. I also sent you the links to these documents so you would be able to find them easily on the Town website. I also explained – in the same email message – that this is a wastewater FEASIBILITY study to see what would be possible if ever the Town would want to explore a shared system for businesses. I think it is always good to find out the facts so informed decisions can be made. The wastewater feasibility study has nothing to do with the zoning bylaw.

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24 BM October 22, 2021 at 9:17 AM

Julie, also can you explain cost to operate the sewerage treatment plant? Who pays? Thanks

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25 Rules on Comments from Committee Members October 22, 2021 at 9:37 AM

Aren’t there any open meeting rules related to EDC members collectively opining on blogs? Is it a violation of open meeting laws or just possibly bad form? As someone who will support the proposed downtown housing developments, I worry we may be running off track here.

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26 It's Worse Than We Thought October 22, 2021 at 11:21 AM

It sounds like EDC did a wastewater feasibility study *in case* it was ever needed. But we *don’t think* it’s needed (wink-wink). We *hope* a developer will decide to *pay for it*. But if *they don’t* we will probably end up with *NOTHING* downtown (because *let’s be honest* this is why we have *nothing* there now). Got it. Voters, please read the wastewater feasibility study and the proposed way to pay for it before casting your vote. There is a reason why EDC speaks about it but won’t include the recommendations or numbers in their responses on this blog. SOME BIG REASONS.

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27 Fayesther October 22, 2021 at 12:56 PM

Thank you for covering this important news. I showed this to my neighbors and we will be coming out to vote this down. I’ve lived in downtown for a long time and this is the first I am hearing we are at risk of large scale housing. The video link provided by AB with Mr. Martel really helped too.

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28 beth October 22, 2021 at 1:17 PM

A more recent post outlines the updated details on what the zoning does and doesn’t do: http://www.mysouthborough.com/2021/10/21/downtown-district-zoning-a-look-at-the-specifics/

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29 Bonnie Phaneuf October 22, 2021 at 1:35 PM

Julie and the EDC Coordinator,
Yes, I do have the documents, Thank you. These documents would answer funding sources, process and location of the sites reviewed. And yes it is a topic for a future Town Meeting if funding is necessary.

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30 JUST VOTE NO October 22, 2021 at 3:28 PM

Agree with IT’S WORSE THAN WE THOUGHT. And the BIG rea$ons. Also, just now understanding from Ms. Connolly’s comments above that SHE thinks this zoning change is mutually exclusive, unrelated to the SEWERAGE TREATMENT plant need. Well folks, the reason you have been given the bums rush to figure all this out is spelled out by ITS WORSE THAN WE THINK. The area floods as it is and some lots purportedly do not perk, which means they cannot support septic. If true that the do not perk, the sewerage treatment plant is necessary. But still m one already knows this, otherwise why get the “study?” Bottom line? You aren’t going to get to the bottom line from EDC. To BM, yes, it all stinks; you’ll notice your question about who pays the annual operating costs was not answered definitively. The taxpayers will pay. While the developers profit. It’s straight up math. The more infrastructure cost and operating costs that can be laid off on the unwitting taxpayer, the higher the return / profit to the developer. They can pay their own costs. HANG ON TO YOUR WALLET and JUST VOTE NO. Grab your friends and neighbors and support your neighbors who live downtown who are about to have their lives and properties upended.

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