Residents of Coolidge Square left Wednesday’s Zoning Board of Appeals meeting upset and disappointed after the project they had fought so long against – the CVS – gained unanimous approval from the board.
The 13,300-square-foot pharmacy will go at the corner of Mt. Auburn and Arlington streets and replace the gas station at the corner, an office building and the former Elks Club.
Residents made their case that the store would adversely impact their neighborhood and homes. They came out and spoke for hours at the December ZBA meeting, held meetings, went door-to-door and stood on the street rallying support against the development.
The Planning Board voted against supporting the project, pointing to the impact that the project would have on traffic in the area. The main driveway for the will be on Arlington Street, but since cars cannot leave and go left onto Arlington, many cars will leave through the parking lot behind the CVS and exit on Wells Avenue – a one way street that hits Bigelow Avenue a short block from Mt. Auburn Street.
Developers have plans to spend about $250,000 on improvements to traffic signals and pedestrian crossings in the area. They would make ramps ADA handicap compliant, add countdown pedestrian signals with audible push buttons and put in camera controlled traffic signals at the Arlington/Mt. Auburn intersection. Countdown pedestrian signals and audible push buttons will also go at Bigelow and Mt. Auburn.
Also a “Do Not Block” area would be painted on Bigelow Avenue where Wells Avenue intersects to allow traffic to move more freely.
Bill York, the attorney representing developer Robert Korff, said that he believes the CVS will bring in people who will revitalize Coolidge Square. It will also replace the old gas station and empty office building.
The size of the new CVS irked many residents. Templeton Parkway resident Joe Levendusky said it will change the area.
“We feel the proposed CVS would hurt several local business, we feel traffic is the main concern, with the intensity of a high-volume retailer,” Levendusky said. “CVS, like any high-volume retailer, makes money on volume (of customers). It will put stress on our neighborhood to the point that the quality of life will be deteriorated.”
Doug Orifice, who lives on Arlington Street his family is one of many with small children in the area. Many are trying to decide whether to stay in Watertown and he worries the CVS would hurt the walkability of Coolidge Square.
“This would adversely affect the neighborhood,” Orifice said. “It is more of a pedestrian neighborhood but it would be a nightmare with a high-volume retailer. An express drug store, residences and offices would be more appropriate.”
Town Councilors Susan Falkoff, Aaron Dushku and Susan Falkoff asked the ZBA to reject the proposal, and East Watertown Councilor Angeline Kounelis said she is not taking a stand, but agrees with the concerns of the residents.
“It feels to me like this is the poster child for what we don’t want in the Comprehensive Plan,” Falkoff said. “I ask you to turn it down with hopes that something better comes forward.”
Palomba asked for the ZBA to ask the developer to work more on the proposal to come up with something more agreeable for the neighbors.
“I think it would be more appropriate to bring the parties back to the table,” Palomba said. “Clearly there is a lot opposition and clearly the property owner has rights. But, could there be a smaller footprint and room for a pocket park on the site?”
The Zoning Board seemed agreeable to asking for developers to take more time. ZBA member David Ferris asked his fellow board members, “I wonder if there is opposition for continued dialogue?”
Developers said they have made changes requested by the town Planning Department and could not make major changes to the size of the store.
“We have a Catch-22. We have a plans that meets legal criteria, meets scale (requirements), it works on the site and there is mitigation,” York said. “We have 13,000 square feet – that we need to maintain. I can’t change that. It fits the area and its designed for the area.”
The ZBA voted to support the proposal with a few additional conditions, including limiting delivery hours to business hours – 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. – a one hour reduction.
Residents were visibly and at times audibly during and after the meeting. Some wanted to respond to the input of developers as well as the comments by the ZBA, but ZBA Chairwoman Melissa Santucci Rozzi said “no.”
“Seven hours of public input is sufficient. We have closed public comments,” Santucci Rozzi said.
After the meeting, some residents said they felt like Korff was threatening to sue the town if the ZBA rejected the proposal. He commented to the board that he had built 150 projects and never had to go to litigation.
“I don’t remember a developer ever threatening litigation,” resident Barbara Ruskin said. “They say the Zoning Board is the people’s last court of appeal, but it’s not. They are afraid of what happens if they deny it. I think they are afraid of litigation.”
The project was also one of the last ones to go through approval process before Watertown’s new design standards and design guidelines go into effect. Last week, the standards were presented by Gamble Associates, consultants hired by the town to draft the new standards and guidelines.