LETTER: Development on Arsenal Street is Changing the East End

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To the editor, and the Watertown community,

I think the thing that bothers me most about this, and many other developments going on around the Boston area, is the fact that none of what I see takes into account the existing residents. There is no thought about who already lives here, and how what they develop will affect the area. There is no thought of including any of the character, the history of the location, buildings, etc., which is very important to the knowledge of how our county was formed.

No thought of the people who have made this area what it is … no thought of all of the cultures, especially in East Watertown, that already reside here. The food, the shops, the life blood of a community. All of these developments, Assembly Square, Fenway, Seaport, Natick Collection, Burlington, etc., are all cookie cutter designs that, in the long run, destroy the best things of the areas they are supposedly trying to make better.

This has already happened along Pleasant Street, here in Watertown, and now Arsenal Street with probably some of the ugliest buildings that I have ever seen. Whoever is the architect should hang their head. And a huge missed opportunity to connect the people back to the Charles River. Yes there is a path along the river, and a new park downstream from the square which is wonderful, but then there is a wall of condos and apartments along Pleasant Street.

Just look at the plans for the Arsenal Yard project, which I thought was The Arsenal Project. Same comment as above for the architecture they are planning there. Quick and dirty. Make your money, and leave to ruin another neighborhood somewhere else. Another thing, who is going to pay for the larger fire equipment, and where we will put those new pieces of equipment that will be required for the much taller buildings that are being proposed. Many of the buildings that are being built are being made out of pine and particle board, then covered in vinyl. Is that a good combination for a tall building? From my calculations, some of these proposed buildings will be around 20 stories, based on 196 feet.

I realize that the taller buildings could not be made out of wood, but the lower buildings, like the new Marriott, made out of wood and already here, could be. Do you think that the folks that own the mall across the street aren’t watching what’s going on. It would be very easy for the same thing to happen across the street, tuning East Watertown into a small city in its own right. Do we really want another Seaport, or Kendell Square, or Fenway, which is a homogenized mess, here in Watertown. Traffic, no character, no local culture … just generic America, or what I call Gemerica. Tall chrome and glass buildings with condos, restaurants, apartments, offices, stores, that most people in this area will not be able to afford.

I am not against change over at the mall, it was getting a little long in the tooth, but is this really what we want in East Watertown? Do we really want to be another Kendall Square, or Cambridge West? We are Watertown, not Cambridge. The West End of Boston use to be a wonderful smelting pot of culture, now it is gone. Only one triple decker, near the Garden, left as represents what use to be there.

Maybe my comments are coming too late. Just one more opinion, in the sea of opinions.

Mark C. Helton
East Watertown

15 thoughts on “LETTER: Development on Arsenal Street is Changing the East End

  1. Complain about development or complain about traffic. You can’t have it both ways. People need to live and people need to work. If they can’t live close to their jobs, they live further and have to drive through the closer towns, making everybody’s lives worse (they have bad commutes and we have traffic and gridlock). The honest truth is that area of arsenal is a wasteland. They’re tearing down a shopping mall that can at best be generously described as a deserted wasteland and replacing it with housing that sits on a major bus line, shops, restaurants, and a movie theater. What character about the area are you looking to preserve? The superfund site?

    • I think the writer was trying to say that the aesthetic of the new construction is unappealing. It looks cheap and in a few years will look shoddy and not an improvement to Watertown.

    • There is an entire neighborhood, in and around the mall area, whose lives are already being affected by this development. Do they think that the area that they are living in is a wasteland? Is the Arsenal Park behind the mall a wasteland? Is the Commanders Mansion area a wasteland? Some of this area has been the consequence of poor development choices over many years, but it is certainly not a wasteland. Improvements were needed, but a new mini city? Developments like these are pushing what’s left of the ‘Middle Class”, even further, and further out of the Boston area. Incomes are not keeping up with the high rents, home prices, and entertainment venues, that are proposed in all of these projects. Could a young couple looking to move up, afford to live there, or go out to eat, or bowl? No. They will move further and further away from the area, and their commutes will be terrible. I did that commute for 22 years, and it is no fun. Yeah, some of it is going to be nice, but who can afford to go out on a regular basis to dinner at these places, or pay the lane prices to bowl. I went to the movies with some friends at Assembly Square a few weeks ago. Got out, and said let’s get some dinner. We looked for an affordable place to eat, and gave up. Maybe the developers could provide lower rents, or square footage prices, so a local pizza parlor, or hair salon, gift shop, jewelry store, etc. can relocate into the development? Listen…it’s already happening, so my comments are moot. It’s life in the big city. I am just very saddened by the fact that no one seems to care about the future of this area. The Boston area relies on it’s history for tourism, which brings in a lot of outside money, and that history is quickly being erased. I am not anti progress, or anti improvements. I would like to see something more than a vast parking lot, that has been there for a long time. However, I have to believe, that there were better ways to improve a “wasteland” than this.

      • A neighborhood implies houses or an area where people live. They’re redeveloping land that currently houses an under-used shopping mall and parking lot. Developments like this are not what’s pushing the middle class out of Boston. Developments like this are what allows the middle class to remain in or near Boston. The solution to skyrocketing housing and rent costs isn’t to block the building of new housing. All that does is cause prices of existing housing to skyrocket even more rapidly and push the middle class whose loss you lament to live further out. The solution is to build smart housing, and smart housing is dense, near shops and activities, and close to transit lines.

        If incomes are not keeping up with the costs for housing, then housing prices will fall. If you decide that the bowling alley or restaurant there is too expensive, you’re free to not go there. If everybody decides it’s too expensive, they’ll have to lower their prices. Just because it’s built near you doesn’t mean you’re forced to eat or play there. You might benefit from having something nearby that you can enjoy, but you (and I and the rest of the town) will benefit from the additional tax revenue that the no-longer-wasted space will generate.

        There’s no history to the arsenal mall. The mall dates to 1983. The “history” in the old buildings (like the original arsenal and the commander’s mansion) are being preserved. It’s not that the whole city is 1700s history, but the mix of history and new that’s attractive in Boston.

        I feel like I’m sounding like a shill for the development company but short of living in east Watertown, I have no skin in this game. I’ve just seen what grossly restricted development has done elsewhere and want to prevent that from happening here.

      • Should also point out regarding lower rents that part of the agreement with the town requires them to set aside 15% for affordable housing. Of course, (not saying we shouldn’t) in a round-about way that means that everything else will be a bit more expensive to subsidize that, but that’s a different discussion…

  2. When the Four Horsemen of development, led by the pale horse, greed, ride into a place, those who care about what they consider of value about that place and why are helpless in the face of venal municipal bureaucrats, planners, and other supposed experts who engage in what Lewis Mumford called destructive “unbuilding.”

  3. There are positives and negatives to the change swirling around us, but change happens and time rolls on whether we like it or not. I agree with the Mr. Helton’s letter that taking the character of Watertown into consideration should occur with new development. Residents should feel a part of it, not bystanders. I think that may happen with Arsenal Yards, which will have a cinema, bowling. Those of us who are lucky enough to own homes have seen the value of our property increase which is good, but the taxes and water bills are killing us. Many are left in a position that they have no choice but to sell their homes and move away. The town will need to build or rebuild schools, acquire more police and fire personnel and equipment and it will cost tax dollars. The burden should at least be shared by the developers, not shouldered by the residents that have no choice or say in the development of our community.

  4. You know “what bothers me the most”? When people misrepresent false statements as the truth, when they either don’t have the expertise to make in the first place or haven’t taken the time to learn before placing pen to paper.

    Let’s fact check a few comments in this original post:

    1. According to the writer, the Fire Dept will need (presumably) a new ladder truck to reach 20 Floors or 197 feet. Really? So, for example, do you think that the City of Boston has a ladder as tall as the Hancock Tower? (They do not). As such, I’m not sure that the issue is about Fire Dept equipment, or the space to store it as suggested.

    2. Apparently the writer knows the MA Building Code so well that he is able to advise the community regarding the use of appropriate construction materials. Wood, or as you refer to it as “particle board”, is inappropriate for these new buildings including the recently
    constructed Marriot Hotel. That’s another false statement. This isn’t particle board from 1970 as you have suggested. Then you add that “tall glass and chrome buildings are distasteful, too”. The fact is that materials are a matter of aesthetic choice in addition to cost and utility. I’m comfortable that the architects, engineers and inspectors have this under control.

    3. You claim that there is “no thought about the character or history of the buildings” but neglect to state that the historic buildings which we once knew as “The Arsenal” are being preserved. How many of the “endless public meetings” did you attend on this subject? In addition, I sn’t calling the project “Arsenal Yards” paying tribute to the past use of this property?

    Clearly, everyone’s entitled to an opinion. Obviously, Mark doesn’t like the project which is his right to state. That said, let’s try to use “real facts” next time.
    In fairnes, I agree with the statement that “We are Watertown, not Cambridge!” However, I disagree that this project which while indeed changing the East End is in any way a generic cookie-cutter project. To the contrary, it represents the change we were promised when the Arsenal was first sold 40 years ago and became the “wasteland” known as the Arsenal Mall.
    Why not embrace the second chance Watertown is getting to see this area developed as a first class destination? As we know, you don’t always get a second chance to get it right.

    Finally, someone should state publicly what the projected increased tax revenue the Towh of Watertown will get from this project. I’ll bet it’s enough to pay for a new Watertown High School over the term of a bond floated to pay for it. That definitely works for me.

    • You must be one of the people who live in a neighborhood that has not been affected by the rape of the town. I “LIVED” on one of the streets along the Pleasant St corridor that was destroyed by the modernization. I asked for President “D’s” help on a specific matter but got no help. Lifelong resident who was squeezed out.

    • Found your letter tide and condescending. No one has listened to citizens. Where is the money from all the other hideous development. Why was there no moratorium until there was a plan for the entire town. Money and developers running the show.

  5. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Old Navy and Chipotle defended as “local culture” before. Particularly against, for example, the Seaport—which certainly has its problems (hello, rising sea levels)—but which houses one of the region’s best contemporary art museum as well as many locally-owned restaurants and the Harpoon brewery. Unless we’re nostalgic for fistfights outside The Rat, I’m not convinced that Kenmore has exactly changed for the worse either. To my view, more housing is good (nb: Watertown has roughly the same population it did in 1950). New restaurants and a movie theater are great. A bowling alley—as long as it’s candlepin—would be icing on the cake. I do genuinely hope that the East End remains a vibrant Armenian enclave. But I’m not particularly attached to Forever 21.

  6. I totally agree with you Mark, and you have expressed your concerns eloquently. It’s not change that is the problem, it’s the nature and quality of the changes, how it affects existing neighborhoods and who really benefits. Jason’s knee-jerk reaction to your letter is typical criticism that anyone who asks for more thoughtful development gets. We who have been advocating better planning are not against development; we are against letting developers make a quick buck and leave Watertown with a mess. Good planning would get more mitigation for traffic, town improvements than we are getting from these developments. Increased taxes from developments can cancel out costs if those costs are not considered. Many of us don’t believe they have been.

  7. I only wish people paid more attention to the building that went on in Watertown decades before. So many historical buildings were replaced by banks and other non-descript contemporary buildings. The new builds could have brought back the look of what was here before be it the early American or Victorian buildings that lined the streets. Watertown has an important part in Boston history and an opportunity to bring some of that back has been lost.

  8. I totally agree with the first writer. They lied about issues – like the hideous parking garage, the buildings are cookie cutter and also ugly. I have gone to many meetings only to feel that the town was handed to developers to do with what they wish and we got hideous development, horrible traffic, and essentially been shit out of the process. Tired of false arguments about change.

    Last weekend I visited my old colonial town where I grew up. A lot of development but it was attractive, fit well with the existing structures. Why are we giving the reigns to development that already looks dated and unattractive. Yes, the architects should be ashamed. I was dismissed every time I talked to one. We deserve better from town government than, for example, allowing a CVS when the whole neighborhood fought against it.

  9. To LTH

    Your right some one should state publicly what the tax revenues the town is receiving for this project. After multiple meetings this is never identified.

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