After months of debate and revisions, the Town Council and Planning Board approved new zoning on Wednesday that will vastly change the east end of Arsenal Street, near the two malls.
The Regional Mixed Use District, or RMUD, will change the area from one zoned for heavy industry to a place where a mix of retail, residential and office will be allowed. This opens the way for a major overhaul of the former Arsenal Mall.
The plan was approved unanimously by the Planning Board, but the Town Council split 7-2, with Angeline Kounelis and Michael Dattoli voting against the plan.
Kounelis said she could support the zoning changes for the Arsenal Project, having seen proposal made by Boylston Properties, the owner of the mall. She said she could not support the zoning changes for the rest of the area, not knowing what is coming.
Dattoli said he heard from many residents who are concerned with the traffic problems in town, and he said the new zoning does not address that sufficiently.
Many residents who spoke at the hearing supported the new vision for the area, which includes the two malls, other properties along Arsenal Street as well as parts of Elm Street and Coolidge Avenue.
Resident Elodia Thomas said there has been a lot of thought and discussion on the RMUD, and she believes it is time to approve it.
“We are not going to get 100 percent of what we want, but if we get to 75 percent, and we remain friends, that would be a good job,” Thomas said.
Paul Airasian, executive director of the Watertown Belmont Chamber of Commerce, wrote a letter saying he grew up in the East End and ran a business there. He supports the idea of a live-work-play model of development as proposed to go on the Arsenal Project.
One of the more controversial aspects of the new zoning is allowance of building taller than the current limit of 55 feet. With a special permit, developers could create a building up to 135 feet.
Boylston Properties Principal Bill McQuillan said he wants to build at least one building of 7-10 stories on the Arsenal Project land. He also is considering building one that might go even higher than that on the building where Miller’s Ale House is located.
Resident Dennis Duff said he worries that there will not just be one tower on the Arsenal Mall property, but many.
“They can build a tower anywhere there is two acres,” Duff said. “Across the street from the Arsenal Mall they can build eight towers, where the Mt. Auburn Club is they could build several, and where the Aegean Restaurant was might be sold. I believe if the money is there they will build it.”
Others brought up the desire to require solar on new projects, housing for middle income residents and control traffic. Councilor Susan Falkoff said she wishes more could be included on those and other subjects, but that could be dealt with later.
“This has been picked over,” Falkoff said. “It is time to move on so we can work on these other things.”
The zoning will be something the owners of the Arsenal Mall can work with, said Tom Wilder, principal of the Wilder Companies, which is working with Boylston Properties to redevelop the mall.
“Overall we are pleased,” Wilder said after the vote. “It is a workable document that allows us to bring forward a plan.”
Wilder said work will now begin on the Arsenal Project’s renovation, but he did not know when they would be filing plans with the town.
Amendments Come and Amendments Go
Before the RMUD was approved, both boards considered some amendments, including adding more affordable housing, making projects more sustainable and environmentally friendly, and giving residents the option to not have a car and remove the cost of parking from their rent.
David Leon of the Watertown Housing Partnership brought forward a request to increase the portion of affordable housing from 12.5 percent to 15 percent in the RMUD. He said the increase burden on property owners is offset by the fact that the new zoning makes the land more valuable because residential projects are now allowed.
The Planning Board approved the proposal. A number of councilors said they heard from residents who said the cost of housing in Watertown is getting too expensive.
“They are putting up luxury apartments for people from other towns to move into, what are we doing for Watertown?” said Councilor Vincent Piccirilli. “A lot of our neighbors are already at 15 percent. We are behind the curve.”
The council unanimously approved it, and said they will look into changing the requirement for the rest of town.
The proposal to increase the requirement for sustainable and environmental friendly buildings was voted down by the Planning Board, but the Council voted 5-4 to add the amendment.
The new language requires projects to reach LEED Silver certifiable level, which is 10 points higher on the scale than currently required. Planning Board member Jeffrey Brown said the additional points do not necessarily make a project more sustainable, and may not be steps the town wants to see taken. He added that the Planning Board can’t judge whether a project meets the standard until after it is built.
Councilor Tony Palomba said he did not understand why an incremental increase in the points is a big deal, and if it is not measurable, why does the town use the LEED standards at all. He urged his colleagues to support the new standard.
The amendment passed by a one vote margin with Palomba, Aaron Dushku, Falkoff, Lisa Feltner and Dattoli supporting it and Kounelis, Ken Woodland, Sideris and Piccirilli voting against it.
A third amendment lost by that same small margin. A proposal to “decouple” parking spaces so that residents can choose whether to have a car, and if they do not want one, the cost will be taken out of the rent.
The Planning Board voted to change the section of the RMUD from “requiring” decoupling, to “should to the greatest extent applicable.”
Dushku pushed for the document to keep the requirement, saying that it would help reduce traffic, and allow help people save money.
“People in America spend a lot of income on cars,” Dushku said. “This would give them the option to spend more money on rent and the rest of their lives.”
Kounelis said she worries that people will choose not to buy or lease a parking space and instead will park on town streets.
Feltner, Palomba, Piccirilli and Dushku voted yes, and Kounelis, Woodland, Dattoli, Falkoff and Sideris voted against it.