LETTER: Neighbors Respond to Athenahealth’s Proposal for Arsenal Complex

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An open letter from the North Beacon Street Neighbors to Athenahealth and the Town Council:

Thank you for the meeting last Tuesday night. The attendees have had further discussions and we have reached a consensus on what we’d like to see happen next. We appreciate your hard work on reducing the footprint and height of the garage. However, the only way to seriously gauge the effects of this garage on our neighborhood and town is to see how it fits in with an official Master Plan for the whole property. In detail:


We are in total agreement with the architect, Larry Beals, when he bemoaned that no one wants to hear about the Master Plan. But in fact, we have been demanding to see a Master Plan for months and we have a certified petition from September to this effect sitting with the Town Clerk, the text of which is below:

We, the undersigned, petition the Watertown Town Council in their consideration of Athena Arsenal LLC’s proposed zoning text amendments to the Arsenal Overlay Development District (AODD), to do the following:

  1. Maintain the existing 50’ height limit in the AODD.
  2. Maintain consistent setbacks for any new construction in the west end parking lot of the AODD to match the existing setbacks for Building 311 on Arsenal St. and Building 39 on North Beacon St.
  3. Require that Arsenal Athena LLC provide a Master Plan (which shall include detailed design plans) for the AODD prior to any proposed zoning text amendments to the AODD.
  4. Require the town to do a comprehensive traffic study and plan (which shall include traffic flow impacts to abutting areas) prior to approval of any proposed zoning text amendments to existing parking in the AODD.
  5. Hold at least three two-hour Public Forums in a public building where each resident can speak for no less than five minutes each and all Watertown Town Councilors attend as well as two representatives from Athena Arsenal LLC and at least one executive representative from Athena Health.

What We Propose:

  • We think that the height limit should be maintained at 50’ throughout the AODD; we think any additional height should be handled as an exception, depending on the design and placement of the any new buildings. The proposed “no taller than 5 feet” around existing buildings leaves too much room for interpretation.
  • We want Athena to present a well-considered Master Plan to the Town Council, in concert with the proposed text amendments and earlier in the proposed approval process. No special permit petitions should be heard before the Planning Board until a Master Plan has been approved by the Town Council with input from citizens. We feel that reaching out to David Gamble to consult on bringing a Master Plan in line with our new Design Guidelines is a good idea, but he should be working under the auspices of, and for, the Town, not Athena.
  • We are concerned about the amount of retail planned for this site. We feel that the amount of retail allowed should be clarified in the master plan approval process and should not be increased from the present allowance of 10% of the site. The tentative (as usual) master plan drawing is showing offices tacked onto the back of the existing garage and two new restaurants built on the bluff behind Building 60 (smokestack). We don’t feel those buildings are realistic given the actual amount of space in that area. We also question having commercial enterprises like these looming over the bluff—great view from the restaurant, not so great from the river.
  • There is also retail planned for the east side of the existing garage and the north side of the new garage. A reference to Quincy Market was made in talking about a glass cover to Buildings 312/313/37—would this eventually be retail too? All this begs the question: for a company that complained about not having enough office space, why all this retail? Mixed use is a good thing, but the Arsenal was renovated without providing for a lot of retail. This changes the mix a lot, and leaves the purpose of the property vulnerable to ownership changes.
  • Finally, we are against an approval process that leaves only the Planning Board, an unelected group, in charge of all the details of this development, with only simple site plan reviews as a requirement. We insist that all height, size, setbacks of buildings, allowable parking, traffic flow, retail uses, pedestrian and bicycle provisions, runoff provisions, landscaping and adherence to design guidelines should be approved by the Town Council in any revision of the AODD early in the process, allowing for more than one review and citizen input.


What We Like:

  • The design of the garage in two parts, with the Arsenal side being taller seems good, although pending elevations, we have no idea how this will really work with our sight-lines. However, it seems like it could allow for an interesting design.
  • The setback to Building 39 is much better; the overall reduction in the footprint of the building is better.
  • We like that some of the parking is underground.
  • Plans for a green roof and other green amenities.

What We Don’t Like:

While you listened well to our concerns about height and size of the garage, you did not take into account other important concerns we expressed, that is, the number of cars parking, arriving and leaving on the west end of the property; the pursuit of alternative parking ideas; traffic flow. Let’s look at how the number of parking spaces has changed since spring of last year:

In meetings with the Planning Board and Town Council starting 5/14/14 through 8/12/14:

Athena presents their plans for removing the surface parking, but insists that in building the new garage, they are not adding to any of the existing parking spaces.

However, the numbers don’t add up:

Existing Parking Spaces: 2,120 (1,300 in existing garage; 820 surface)

New Parking Garage: 1,800 (remove 820 on surface; 1,800 + 1,300 = 3,100 parking spaces.

An increase of 1,000 parking spaces.

Then we find out that Athena wants to remove the top three floors of the garage to turn those into office space (at first they want to add on top, but find out this is not possible). Each floor of the garage has about 200+ parking spaces, so that would be a net loss of a little more than 600 parking spaces in the old garage.

Then Athena presents their AODD text amendments which remove the specified number of parking spaces per use (specified as Research & Development, Manufacturing, Office—from 2–3 per 1,000 sf), and replaces that to “require [the] development to comply with the parking section of the WZO with allowance for reductions with transportation demand management.” This is complicated; the zoning ordinance has far more division by usage in their parking requirements; only a Master Plan designating usage including their “transportation demand management” plans can clarify how much parking they will really need.

Now Athena is presenting a parking garage that is reduced in size, but still has pretty much the same number of parking spaces (1,750), while the existing garage just loses the top floor (–213). So we still have a net gain in spaces of @800.

The numbers are all over the place and that is why we want to see a Master Plan. We feel the size of the garage should reflect the true needs of the site and take into consideration traffic flow. We have also asked repeatedly for alternative ideas for parking, but none have been presented other than this garage. We have asked for a traffic study of the impacts of this large a structure, but have not received this. It is not acceptable to give us this information after the garage size has been approved. We hope you can see how inconsistencies in planning and presentation engender suspicions from neighbors and make us nervous about the end results.

What We Propose:

  • We’d like to see a Master Plan that shows planned office/retail/restaurant/other commercial usage and how the population of the site (employees, visitors, other users) will use the parking. Will it really be convenient for so much parking to be on the west end?
  • We’d like to see elevations that include the grade of the new garage from north to south and in comparison to surrounding buildings.
  • We’d like to propose that you consider maximizing the number of parking spaces in the existing garage; for instance, could re-striping add spaces and reduce the number of spaces further in the new garage?
  • We’d like to see other areas explored for parking, like the east end, so that the need is less in the west end.
  • We’d like to hear about traffic flow and how improvements to N. Beacon St, would aid in the flow of traffic. The Arsenal St. exit only allows for turning in one direction, meaning that the N. Beacon St. exit/entrance will be the preferred one. Rush hour traffic is horrendous on all these streets. The Town Council should take an interest in this, since it will affect a large area of Watertown, not just around Athena.

We thank Athena for their work with Watertown and their efforts to build a quality site. Please note that our interest in Athena’s plans for this property are long term. We worry that concessions made to Athena may have good immediate results, but if they sell this property, we don’t want any unintended consequences from a new owner without the higher standards of Athena. We also feel that Watertown should carefully consider all development as part of the whole, and keep as much oversight as we can without making it impossible for business owners. We advocate long-term thinking; a strong tax base is great, but if the character of the Town is ruined in the process, it will come back to bite us in many ways and for many years to come.

North Beacon Neighbors
Contact: Marcia Ciro

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