Planning Board Gets Look at New Rules for Developments in Watertown

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After several months work, the Planning Board got to look at the new rules that could shape how future building projects will look in Watertown.

The design standards will not just determine what is built inside the box that makes up a building, said Assistant Town Manager Steve Magoon, it will also impact how it influences surrounding areas and environments.

The proposed design standards were presented to the Planning Board Tuesday by the consultant hired to come up with the alterations to the town’s zoning, David Gamble of Gamble Associates.

“Planning works and this is what should be doing,” Gamble said. “You are ahead of the game compared to other towns not under development pressure.”

The Town Council requested the design standards after the town went through development booms on Pleasant and Arsenal streets. If approved by the Planning Board and adopted by the Town Council, would apply to commercial and mixed use projects 10,000 square feet in size or larger and residential projects with 4 or more units.

Highlights of the Standards

The heigh limitation is one area that will change. Gamble suggested having four exceptions:

  1. if a building is at an important civic intersection or square,
  2. when defining of terminating an important “view corridor,”
  3. when height of adjacent buildings exceed those allowed as-of-right, and
  4. when additional approved public amenities have been incorporated

This did not sit well with everyone at the meetings. Some said they do not want to see any change to allow taller buildings in town. Town Councilor Susan Falkoff worried about the consequences of the exceptions.

“It could creep up and up and up as we keep building,” Falkoff said. “It seems like a back way around changing the height limit.”

Another bone of contention for some is the maximum length of buildings. The standards would allow buildings to be 150 feet long, but they could stretch to 400 feet if the wall is interrupted by a space at least 50 feet long and 25 feet deep.

Gamble said he has heard from both sides.

“Some developers feel this is too restrictive, and some people think it is not restrictive enough,” Gamble said.

The standards seek to make retail and districts more pedestrian friendly by moving buildings closer to the street and removing front parking lots.

Gamble said he added an exception in order to encourage a popular feature – outdoor seating.

“It’s sad to me that one of the few places to sit outside in town is at Starbucks, and it is face the parking lot,” Gamble said.

Parking requirements will be reduced for residential and commercial projects under the standards. Some recent projects have significantly more parking that needed, Gamble said,

This pleased Town Councilor Aaron Dushku who said he would like to see the parking changes go farther. He suggested decoupling parking for apartment buildings. If that is done residents would not be required to have a parking space and their rents would be reduced if they do not use a space.

The level of environmental friendliness and energy efficiency that should be required for projects also saw some vigorous debate. Gamble recommends the projects be LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certifiable. This is a lower standard than being LEED certified, which requires projects to undergo evaluation and approval.

Town Councilor Steve Corbett said this was the way to go.

“When we were building the Police Station we considered whether to go for LEED certification, but in the end we didn’t,” Corbett said. “There are still a lot of green building designs in the building.”

The standards in energy efficiency change quickly, said Brian Hebeisen, a member of the Watertown Environment & Energy Efficiency Committee, who said he would like to see a standard of LEED certified.

“What is common place now was unheard of five years ago,” Hebeisen said, who added that the energy efficiency will pay for itself over time.

One set of changes was dubbed “50-50-50” by Gamble. That refers to requirements to have at least 50 percent of the ground floor be composed of transparent material, entrances need can be no more than 50 feet apart and 50 percent of ground floors in mixed-use projects must be commercial space.

The Town of Watertown website has an entire page for the design standards and guidelines. See the entire proposed changes to the design standards can be seen here, and read the comments submitted by Watertown residents and other groups including the Concerned Citizens Group and Boylston Properties (owners of the Arsenal Project) by clicking here.

The Planning Board will continue the discussion of the proposed design standards and guidelines at a future meeting. The date has not been set.

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