LETTER: Resident Urges Others to Speak Out Against Increasing Height of Tower at Arsenal Yards

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Boylston Propertties

A rendering of what a taller residential tower could look like at Arsenal Yards. It would be 197 feet tall, 67 taller than currently allowed, so developers seek an amendment to the zoning to allow the increased height. The red lines show the outline of the 129-foot tower currently approved.

Dear Friends & Neighbors,

Boylston Properties (BP) is seeking a zoning change at Arsenal Yards. What the published agenda IV. 485 Arsenal Street (click here) amendment fails to disclose is that while BP is again pushing for a height increase to 197 feet at Building G, they are also asking for 80 percent of that height for any additional buildings on their site on the south side of Arsenal Street. They want to create their own separate zone within the RMUD. If approved, those buildings could go to 157.6 feet.

Miller’s Ale House could have a tower of almost 160 feet. Where else might they need some taller buildings? And what happens if they eventually buy the Home Depot site? They have tried.

Here is the closing paragraph of the new BP proposal:

The Proposed Amendment to increase the maximum building height for the first building to 197 feet by Master Plan Special Permit for parcels larger than ten (10) acres located on the south of Arsenal Street, with a maximum cap on height for any additional building therein to 80 percent of the previously approved height for the first building will further the intent and purpose of the RMUD and is not spot zoning or in violation of the uniformity requirement under M.G.L. c.40A, § 4. The Proposed Amendment will continue future development of parcels south of Arsenal Street, a Gateway Location that is a main attraction in the Town for businesses and the community. As a whole, granting the Proposed Amendment will allow greater mixed use development of retail and multi-family residential opportunities for this area. What has changed to warrant this new zoning proposal? Absolutely nothing except the desire to maximize profit. Please don’t be fooled by the words more “open space.”

Some history: In 2015 numerous meetings were held by Sustainable Watertown, the Town Council Economic Development and Planning Subcommittee, Boylston Properties, the Planning Board, and the Town Council to discuss the proposed Regional Mixed Use District (RMUD). Most of this discussion revolved around meeting BP’s needs. Citizens came out in force and issues were hotly contested.
Relationships were strained socially and politically.

A “north and south district” regarding Arsenal Street was proposed. This idea was rejected as it was deemed to be spot zoning by our town government. Questions were raised about kinds of mitigation but were never clearly answered by the town. The final mitigation was $2.059 million for traffic and $810,000 water/sewer. The affordable housing percentage was increased to 15 percent. The toughest discussions revolved BP’s push for height increases. Allowing a height up to 130 feet in this zone, instead of the 79 feet maximum height limit by Master Plan Special Permit, was negotiated after much heated discussion.

Many residents voiced their disapproval of the town’s compromise. Simply put, folks did not want Watertown to evolve into some imitation of Somerville, Cambridge, Allston or Brighton. Residents were rightfully demanding a voice in Watertown’s future identity.

What is the “public” benefit to our town? These changes only benefit Boylston Properties. A taller building will give allow for more floors of expensive condos with better views looming over Arsenal Park and the Charles River. There will be 122 condos whether the building is short or tall. The design sketches are just concepts. BP’s “problem” with the footprint of the building is their own doing given their chosen buildout of the property. They, or another developer, can change the “G” footprint. But this could reduce profits.

Also, this zoning change will allow them additional buildings at almost 160’. Again, these changes will make this part of the project more lucrative should they broker out these building sites to condo developers. Sure, there may be some incremental extra property tax dollars but at what cost to the physical environment, soul, and community of Watertown? When is a decision by the Town Council a decision?

BP is a smart, aggressive outfit. They buy, build, adjust to market changes, and eventually sell. The LINX building sold $157.6 million, the Residence Inn by Marriot $71 million. Arsenal Yards is their biggest project to date. BP said “they’d be back for more height.” So what? That’s what for profit businesses do. But why should we allow a developer to make such drastic and permanent changes to this area of our town? A standard was established, and a deal was struck. We live here; they’ll be moving on. Enough is enough.

How can BP’s proposal not be considered spot zoning? Let’s look at rules regarding our town’s zoning variances below. BP’s request does not appear to meet the any of the conditions listed as 1, 2, 3, or 4.

Town of Watertown, Zoning Ordinance SECTION 9.14 VARIANCES

(a) Where a building or occupancy permit is not applied for or is refused because of nonconformance to the terms of this Ordinance, the applicant may apply or appeal to the Board of Appeals for the authorization of a variance, subject to the provisions of §9.15 of this Zoning Ordinance.

(b) Each application or appeal for a variance from the specific terms of this Zoning Ordinance shall include a written statement justifying the appeal on the basis that all of the following conditions are met, as required by Chapter 40A, Section 10 of the General Laws of Massachusetts.

(1) The variance is sought because of circumstances relating to the soil conditions, shape, or topography of such land or structures, and especially affecting such land or structures but not affecting generally the zoning district in which it is located. NO

(2) Literal enforcement of the Zoning Ordinance would involve a substantial hardship, financial or other, to the appellant. NO

(3) Desirable relief may be granted without substantial detriment to the public good. NO

(4) Desirable relief may be granted without nullifying or substantially derogating from the intent of this Zoning Ordinance. NO

I urge folks to attend this Planning Board meeting on Wednesday, October 10 at 7 p.m. in the Town Council Chamber as well as the future Town Council meeting (TBD). Read the attached materials. Make your thoughts and opinions known. Complaining on FB or grumbling to your friends won’t cut it. Our community is stressed by development. Let’s not let all the work of 2015 be overturned because a developer refuses to understand that the height issue was closed in March 2016 by a Town Council vote on the RMUD amendment. Realize that after the Planning Board vote, the final vote will rest with our Town Council. The vote should be a definitive NO in both cases.

Watertown is at a crossroads. Either we can speak loudly and keep future development at a human scale, or we can remain silent while we are being robbed of the very identity that makes Watertown the place where we all chose to live.

Elodia Thomas
We Are All Watertown

Comments and back up materials: https://mawatertown3.civicplus.com/DocumentCenter/Index/1513

Boylston Properties Proposed Zoning Amendment:

https://ma-watertown3.civicplus.com/DocumentCenter/View/25986/RMUD-Height-Change_PB-Packet_10-Oct-2018

11 thoughts on “LETTER: Resident Urges Others to Speak Out Against Increasing Height of Tower at Arsenal Yards

  1. Hi Elodia
    Yes, we are all Watertown, but we are not all united in our dislike of a taller, thinner building here in East Watertown. I remember attending a Watertown Chamber of Commerce meeting thirty years ago about our changing demographics which were projected to follow the trends of Cambridge and Somerville. Unfortunately, this younger cohort is noticably absent at public meetings. I would invite those who live in Watertown and like the taller design better to also speak up at Town Hall on Wednesday night.
    Regards, Thomas Gorman DC

  2. That’s right, Thomas, demographics are changing, but you don’t hear a lot of support for this money grab by Boylston Properties by anyone, at any age. Maybe that’s because it’s a bad idea? And people are sick of being lied to (you know, how this taller building will SO benefit Watertown, when really it will only benefit Boylston Properties). Also, our town government is weak, especially the Planning Department, which has consistently failed to get meaningful mitigation from developers. Mitigation that would really benefit Watertown. They have just given away the store again and again. This building is WRONG.

    • You are quite right Marcia, the reservoir of trust has been depleted by developers who stretch the truth (to put it kindly) and then do bad things to the town. (For example all the traffic studies which forecast no major increase in traffic!) And then there is bad outcome after bad outcome brought upon us by the town government.

      Yes, this building is wrong for the town.

  3. Elodia’s comments on Spot Zoning are right on the mark. How would a variance not be considered spot zoning given the RMUD already has a zoning in the books for larger buildings? Regardless of personal preferences..this ask doesn’t fit the bill.

  4. Thank you Elodia Thomas.
    You have made me aware of just how self interests are not just destroying this country on the national level but on the local as well.
    I am not against taller building in general but this is not the way to do it.
    It is spot zoning. Even people at Perkin’s can see that.

  5. I am against the taller building. Not only is it not appropriate for this area, it is just allowing greedy developers to max out Watertown. We don’t need more density by increasing the number of occupants, either business or residential, and thus increasing traffic even more. I applaud Elodia for taking such an interest in trying to preserve the little space available in this town from overdevelopment. These developers just make a mess and move on.

  6. I really like the idea of a taller building and the hopes that it will bring in a number of younger, upwardly mobile folks to East Watertown, as well as increase the overall tax base. My wife and I have lived in North Cambridge for over a decade and were unfortunately priced out of our neighborhood when we finally looked to buy. We moved to East Watertown with the expectation that it too would eventually become an extension of Cambridge and Somerville – with similar types of businesses and demographics to match. Don’t get me wrong – I love Stella’s Pizza, Arax and Sevan and all the cool things that make the neighborhood unique, but I definitely wouldn’t be opposed to having another coffee shop or two like Intelligentsia, restaurants like La Bodega and Country Mile, and unique small retail businesses in the neighborhood as well. Currently, there are large swaths of unused/underutilized property throughout the neighborhood that frankly look “dumpy.” On that note, let’s get a craft brewery in town for God’s sake! Oh, and with all due respect, folks complaining about traffic really need to get out more.

    • I really hope this was meant as sarcasm, as the last thing we need in this community is for it to become an extension of Cambridge or Somerville.

      You say you and your wife were priced out of North Cambridge. What do you expect will happen if this pipe dream becomes a reality and brings in a number of younger, upwardly mobile folks?

      Where are you two (along with many other longtime Watertown residents), going to move when you’re priced out of here in another 10 years or less?

      Quite honestly, I believe the current situation regarding development in our community is a travesty… increased tax base be damned.

      It’s desires like yours, Boylston Properties and AthenaHealth’s vision for the future of Watertown that makes me wish we had welcomed Wal-Mart here when we had the opportunity a number of years ago.

      • My tone may sound sarcastic, but I assure you it isn’t. My wife and I didn’t have our eye on Watertown when we first looked to buy, but when we saw the Intelligentsia coffee shop go in on Mt. Auburn Street a few years ago, we knew it was only a matter of time before the entire neighborhood went through some serious transitions. Arsenal Yards was merely the icing on the cake.

        Luckily, we own now and hope to see our property value escalate in the coming years. As for folks who are worried about being priced out – sadly, yes, this may happen to folks who rent in East Watertown. Let’s be honest though – East Watertown could use some love. There are numerous vacant lots, neglected industrial buildings and cracked sidewalks throughout the area. As noted in the town zoning map, it is indeed an “industrial zone.” As I noted above, some parts frankly look “dumpy.” It’s hard to argue against this point.

        As for the rest of Watertown – I don’t think residents have too much to “worry” about. With most of the homes being single family and/or small owner occupied units with somewhat difficult access to public transportation into Boston/Cambridge, you can rest assured you won’t be seeing too many handlebar mustache wearing, latte drinking hipsters in these parts.

    • Damian,
      I completely agree with everything you said. My husband and I bought a few years ago after renting on the Newton/Watertown line and we love what’s coming into East Watertown. I hope we get more coffee shops like Intelligentsia as well!
      -S

  7. Regardless of the wants for more coffee shops vs costing out folks, the height change in the zoning would be akin to spot zoning, which is against the law and for good reason. This is something our town and government should all agree should not happen . The change to the RMUD was already made after long process to allow some height 130ft (compared to 79).

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