Council Roundup: Councilor Opposes Planning Board Appointee, Tower at Mall, Trees & Green Schools

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Watertown Town Hall

The Town Council approved a new member of the Planning Board at Tuesday’s Council meeting, but the candidate did not receive unanimous support. 

Jason Cohen, who has been an alternate member of the Zoning Board of Appeals, was appointed to the Planning Board to replace John Hawes, who recently stepped down after more than two decades on the board.

Cohen, is an architect, has served on the ZBA since 2015, has lived in town since 2001 and has two children attending Hosmer Elementary School. Professionally, he works primarily on large multi-unit housing projects, but during his interview with the Economic Development & Planning subcommittee he said he is interested in larger urban planning issues that come before the Planning Board, including approving projects on Arsenal Street and Pleasant Street.

Town Councilor Angeline Kounelis said she could not support Cohen because she believed he did not consider all input from residents when considering a case. She pointed to the proposal for the medical marijuana facility at 23 Elm St., and the ZBA meeting in May 2017.

“By Mr. Cohen’s own admission, he did not attend any community meetings or the Planning Board meeting where residents offered their testimony, both pro and con, for the proposal,” Kounelis said. “And yet, Mr. Cohen strongly felt that residents should have shown-up and made their voices heard, since the ZBA is the last stop on the approval process. Mr. Cohen repeated: there are no members of the public appearing or speaking out against the proposal and he takes this at face value.”

Kounelis said many residents showed up to community meetings before the case went to the Zoning Board, and

. She added that she believes residents voices should be heard and considered at any meeting, forum, or even just by contacting their Town Councilor. She noted that some people do not feel comfortable speaking at a public meeting, or signing their name to a public letter for a variety of reasons.

The Council approved Cohen’s appointment to the Planning Board by a vote of 8-1, with Kounelis opposing it.

Green Schools and Trees

Residents spoke in support of building “green” schools and adding more trees to Watertown during the Public Forum at the Council meeting.

The group Watertown Faces Climate Change, part of Watertown Citizens for Peace, Justice & the Environment, presented the Town Council with a petition signed by 581 residents asking for Watertown’s three elementary schools to be rebuilt, or renovated, to be energy efficient and environmentally

“All of us believe that the upcoming renovation to our elementary schools represent an important opportunity for our town to provide healthier, cleaner, more forward thinking learning environments for our youngest residents,” said Amelia Young, who spoke on behalf of the group.

The petition asks Town Councilors to consider including onsite energy generation (including solar panels), building material rated highly for safety and health, and the strongest feasible energy efficiency standards when building the schools.

Residents also spoke out in support of a proposal to plant more street trees and make sure trees, old and new, thrive. The Public Works and Rules & Ordinances committees held a joint meeting where they discussed possible regulations to strengthen the protection of trees.

According to report on the meeting, read by Councilor Anthony Donato, the joint subcommittees and the members of the public attending the meeting agreed on the following points:

1. Watertown residents want to live on pretty tree-lined streets, and the Town Council should make this both an operational and a budget priority.

2. Watertown should develop a data-driven plan to determine what neighborhoods and specific streets are underserved by public shade trees, identify specific locations in those areas to plant new trees, and develop budget policies based on this data.

3. As part of street & sidewalk construction projects, Watertown should identify locations for new street trees early in the process so that adequate planting beds can be designed into the project, and also institute policies so that existing street trees are both properly cared for and have their planting beds improved during such projects.

4. For planting new public shade trees in locations where no construction projects are planned, policies should be developed to insure such trees thrive in the long-term, by providing appropriate sized planting beds, by providing automobile barriers in locations where there are no curbs, and by planning the planting locations so that they will not be disturbed by future construction projects.

As part of the effort to improve Watertown’s urban forest, group of high school interns for Trees for Watertown will be conducting a survey of all street trees in Town over the summer. Those interested in joining can visit tfwteensfortrees.org

Request by Mall for Taller Building

The Town Council had a first reading of a request from Boylston Properties, the developers renovating the former Arsenal Mall, to allow a building to be 67 feet higher that currently allowed by Watertown’s Zoning Ordinance.

Arsenal Yards is located in the Regional Mixed Use District (RMUD), which allows for buildings to be 79 feet high by right, and up to 130 feet if granted a special permit by the Planning Board. The proposed amendment would increase the height limit to 197 feet, said Assistant Town Manager Steve Magoon.

The amendment was referred to the Planning Board, which will hold a hearing and make a recommendation for the Town Council.

6 thoughts on “Council Roundup: Councilor Opposes Planning Board Appointee, Tower at Mall, Trees & Green Schools

  1. Didn’t the town vote to allow the limit to go from 79ft to 130ft(special cases) for this building over much controversy to start with? Now AY is asking for an even taller building at this location(or more)? I believe 130ft was quite a generous increase. There will be an even longer shadow on Arsenal Park if taller even if the building is narrower. I’m for improvement but the huge buildings will change the dynamics of this space. I would not want the park to have an even larger, towering building looming over it and already think 130ft too much.

  2. How can the town add trees when road projects eliminate the green space between the sidewalks and curbs? This has happened on highland ave between Gilbert st and Lexington st just last year and on Chapman st between Highland st and Warren st also just last year. Seems like the right hand doesn’t know what left hand is doing.

  3. Just this week, Scientific American published an article warning its readers about the massive loss of urban trees in US cities – on the order of 37 million trees are lost PER YEAR – and about the serious effects of all that urban canopy loss.

    The articles’ final paragraph could have been written explicitly for Watertown:

    “Adding tree cover will, however, require a shift to long-term thinking—especially to plan ways to make room for nature while also accommodating new growth. ‘We’re urbanizing like crazy,’ says Sullivan, the landscape architect. ‘And it takes a lot more than a few cities with million tree programs to replace the trees that get chewed up by office buildings and big box stores and parking lots.’ Living well in an increasingly urbanized world, he adds, will require ‘nature at every doorstep. It’s not enough to have a phenomenal world-class park three miles from your home. It’s not enough to have these incredible national parks five states away.’ A tree needs to grow, he says, outside every window and doorway.”

  4. Having watched (on television) Councillor Kounelis express her opposition to my nomination at yesterday’s T.C. meeting, and reading it again here, I feel compelled to respond and set the record straight. I was quite surprised to watch her tirade against me, and frankly did not realize my statements at that ZBA meeting last May had been so offensive to her. I did, at that same hearing, explicitly follow up my initial comment by saying that I meant no disrespect to her personally. However, in hindsight I probably could have chosen my words more carefully so as not to give the impression that I was dismissing anyone’s previous comments on the matter of the proposed medical marijuana dispensary.

    That said, I want to express my disappointment at her follow-up comments last night regarding my commitment to Watertown over my 17 years living here. Though I still struggle to understand the relevance of those comments, the insinuation was that I had not adequately given back to my community, since the earliest record she could find of my “involvement” in civic life here was in 2010, 9 years after I first moved to Watertown. I would like to point out, for the record, that my children have been in the WPS system since 2009, I was a T-ball coach in the WYBB organization for two years, my family has participated in “Watertown Helps Out” for the last 2 years, I was an alternate member of the ZBA for almost 3 years, I at one time submitted my candidacy for the School Building Committee, and finally I was confirmed yesterday for a 3-year term on the Planning Board. And the reason that I only registered to vote last September (as Councillor Kounelis mentioned, again not sure why this is even relevant) is because I only became a U.S. citizen 3 weeks prior to that (having been born in Canada). I think this adequately demonstrates my commitment to this town.

    That said, I know that Councillor Kounelis and I share the desire to improve the quality of life in our wonderful community. And although we may sometimes “agree to disagree” on certain issues, I believe it is critical that we treat each other with respect along the way.

    Jason Cohen

  5. Hi, I’ve lived in this town almost all of my life. It is a great place to live. An essential part of that is it has small town neighborhood ambiance snd not a city croweed with apartment buildings and high rises. Over the last 10 years we are certainly trending away from what Watertown was. If we continue to move in the direction that some in this town want us to go on the name “progress” we move farther and farther away from Watertown’s forever appealing hometown character. Let’s stop this never ending development in the name of profits and more money and realize how good our town is now.

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