Residents Air Concerns About Galen St., Traffic & Watertown’s Planning Process

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Town Councilor Lisa Feltner holds a computer showing drawings of a proposed development on Galen Street. She hosted a meeting at the Watertown Library to hear residents’ concerns about the proposed zoning change and related issues.

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.

The proposal for properties on Galen Street if requested zoning changes go through. The grey parts are biotech buildings, and the green area on the left is a park.

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.

Traffic Concerns

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.

An illustration of what could be built on the site without the zoning changes.

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 msideris@watertown-ma.gov. 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).

4 thoughts on “Residents Air Concerns About Galen St., Traffic & Watertown’s Planning Process

  1. The Citizen Initiative has multiple steps to it. It actually starts with collecting the signatures of 15% of the number of people who voted in the last state election to place a question on a ballot as to whether or not to open up the Charter for review by an elected group of 9 people. If that passed, residents who wanted to be on the commission would have to collect signatures to get their names on a ballot and then those on the ballot would be voted on to be members of the commission. The changes those elected individuals recommended to the Charter would then be placed on a ballot and residents would vote whether or not to accept the proposed changes. Another thing to note is that this can be done at any time; even if we go through the usual 10 year review process, we do not have to wait 10 years for the next review.

    • Thanks Michelle. Where did you see the requirements for a citizens initiative. The part of the Town Charter (Section 7-9) I saw said 10 percent of registered voters as of the last state election. Maybe there is another section, or another document?

      • Good question Charlie. The rules governing the procedure come from MGL Chapter 43B (https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleVII/Chapter43B). Section 3 indicates the 15% requirement, “The adoption of a charter for any city or town under sections two and three of Article LXXXIX of the Amendments to the Constitution and the revision of any charter so adopted shall be initiated by filing with the board of registrars of voters of the city or town a petition signed by at least fifteen per cent of the number of registered voters residing in said city or town at the preceding state election…”

  2. NOTE: the following comment is from Marilyn Pettito Devaney:

    We have seen the quality of life of many of our resident’s neighborhoods destroyed. Residents should have an opportunity to know all the facts before the council votes.
    At the February 4th council meeting, the Council was prepared to vote that night for the Galen street zoning changes.

    Councillor Feltner stated she needed more information and asked the council to send the Galen street zoning change to a committee for further discussion. She didn’t get a second.
    She then used her charter tabling privilege which allows one councillor to table a vote without a second- and shuts off all discussion. The vote is then sent to the next council meeting (February 11th)

    The councilors were set to vote that night on the zoning change but this charter tabling stopped the vote.

    There is another chance to table this vote – that requires 4 councillors (at the February 11th meeting) to table it to the next meeting (February 25th )

    I am respectfully requesting Watertown residents to call – contact all councilors. Phone numbers on Watertown website) or call Council office ((617) 972-6470 to table for more information.

    We are asking support – most especially of the district councillors. – as they represent one square mile and are voted only within that one mile – but vote on everything coming before the council affecting all 4 square miles. This is not about a “DISTRICT”. We care about every area in Watertown. It affects us all.

    Please call president -at large and district councilors to vote their charter privilege at the February 11th meeting to table the vote until the next meeting(February 25 th ) Again – it requires four (4) councilors this time to table.

    With past council zoning votes we lost pleasant street and abutting side streets with bad zoning ordinance. We see other zoning changes at Arsenal Street and other streets. Now we are fighting the proposed building of a 6 story building at 148 Waltham Street. Residents deserve more information before the vote.

    We don’t have much area left in Watertown to preserve.

    Thank you so much for your consideration.

    Marilyn M. Petitto Devaney
    Your Governor’s Councillor
    MarilynPetittodevaney@gmail.com

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