More than 40 residents concerned about a proposed biotech project on Galen Street crammed into a meeting room at the Watertown Library Wednesday evening. They worried about what would be built there, and the traffic impact on one of the most congested roadways in town, and how projects are approved in Watertown.
Those at the meeting said they would like to find a way to put a temporary halt to development, at least in the Galen Street area, so that a plan can be formed to improve the whole area.
District B Councilor Lisa Feltner organized the meeting after using her Charter Privilege to delay the vote that would rezone a section of the property proposed to be redeveloped. She will host another one at the library on Saturday, Feb. 8, at 3 p.m. (See the documents presented to the Town Council by developers by clicking here).
The land is on the east side of Galen Street, just south of the MBTA bus yard. The Boston Development Group requested that the Town Council change four parcels along Galen Street, representing 17 percent of the parcel, from Limited Business District to Industrial 2 (I-2) zone. This would allow biotech lab/office space to be built on the entire parcel, and developers also said they plan to build a park on the land.
If the property is zoned I-2, Watertown’s Zoning Ordinance would allow buildings up to five stories, instead of four in Limited Business. The setbacks (distance a building must be from the property line), would be larger for the I-2 (10 front, 25 side, 30 rear) vs. Limited Business (0 front, 15 side, 20 rear).
Many of the residents said they had just heard about the proposal when it got to the Town Council for approval, and wanted to know why they hadn’t been alerted about it. They wanted to know more about it before it gets the go ahead.
Feltner explained that the Council is being asked for the zoning change, and that the project would still have to go through the approval process, with a community meeting and having public hearings in front of the Planning and Zoning boards. When that happens, more information (such as parking and traffic) would be provided, because the project is still in the preliminary planning stages.
Feltner also noted that They developers can build a similar project without getting the zoning change. A drawing presented to the Council by developers showed biotech buildings on the I-2 area, while the Limited Business District would have retail or commercial space, and there would be no park.
Some residents were concerned about what types of biohazards would be allowed at the proposed labs. Feltner said that would be decided during the Planning and Zoning board hearings. She added that Town’s Health Department is also creating regulations for biotech labs, but they have not been completed yet.
One of the biggest concerns for people at the meeting was how many cars the project would add to Galen Street, which is already a problem. They wanted to know if and when a traffic study would be conducted.
Feltner said that would be part of the project proposal when it goes in front of the Planning and Zoning boards.
Paula Pollis, one of the owners of Farina’s, said she favors the redevelopment of the property across the street from the bicycle, snowblower and lawnmower store. However, she is concerned about what will happen with Galen Street.
“I hear from people that they don’t stop at our store because of the traffic in Watertown Square,” said Pollis, who added a major traffic plan is needed for Galen Street and she would like to see Galen Street and the bridge over the Charles River widened.
One part of the proposal by Boston Development Group was to realign Water Street so that it hits Galen directly across from Aldridge Street. Developers have approached the MBTA about having buses going to Watertown Yard use that road in and out rather than the current entry and exit next to Nonantum Road.
Resident Dennis Duff said he believes this would make Aldridge cut through street.
“The only way you could do that is if you made Aldridge one way to Galen Street, and no entry (from Galen),” Duff said.
Planning for Galen Street & Beyond
Resident Marcia Ciro thanked Feltner for “putting the brakes” on the process, and said she would like to see more resident input before anything is approved. Ciro lives near the Arsenal on the Charles and said people need to make sure that developers do what they say.
“At community meetings developers promise a lot, but nobody follows up (from the Town) to make sure they did it,” Ciro said.
Leo Martin, who is chair of the Conservation Commission, said that he would like to see some planning not just for Galen Street, but how it interacts with the Watertown Square area, just over the bridge.
“On Main Street from Church Street to Mt. Auburn Street there are two story buildings that aren’t going to be there in 10 years,” Martin said. “We have to have a vision for what Watertown Square could be — it could have green space, set backs. We need to think outside the box.”
How to Influence the Process
Another common question at the meeting was how could residents get involved, and influence how this and other developments are planned.
In terms of the current rezoning proposal, Feltner encouraged the residents to contact the Town Councilors to share their views. She noted that the Town Councilos’ phone numbers and emails are on the Town’s website.
The vote is due to be held on Feb. 11 at the Town Council meeting (7:15 p.m. in Town Hall). Feltner cannot use the Charter Privilege again, but if other councilors joined her they could vote to have the issue referred to a subcommittee to be discussed. She proposed that at the last meeting, but did not get a second on her motion.
Also, a zoning change requires a two-thirds majority to mass, or six of nine councilors. The public hearing on the rezoning has been closed, but residents could talk about it during the public forum period at the beginning of the meeting.
In terms of the longterm, and for future projects, Feltner said that this is the current process for how projects are presented and approved by Town boards. Other towns have different methods, and the Town’s rules and ordinances could be changed.
One opportunity for making such changes, or at least who makes those changes, is the Town Charter review, which is taking place in 2020. Town Council President Mark Sideris is seeking six residents to sit on the Charter Review Committee. Those interested can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline to apply of Jan. 31 has been extended.
Watertown’s Town Charter defines how the Town government works, including what powers are given to the Town Council, the Town Manager, and others in town. It could even change the form of government. Other communities in Massachusetts have elected mayors. Some smaller communities have Town Meetings, which give final approvals. Changes proposed by the Charter Review Committee have to be put on the ballot by the Town Council and then must be approved by voters at a Townwide election.
Some noted, however, that other members of the Charter Review Committee are the nine Town Councilors, and doubt that the Councilors would vote to reduce their power.
Resident Michelle Cokonougher said that another way to have a citizen committee review the Town Charter would be to pass a Citizen Initiative. That requires the applicants to collect signatures in support of the proposal from one-tenth of the registered voters as of the last Town Election, which would be nearly 2,400 people (the town had 23,857 registered voters during the November 2019 election).