LETTER: Resident Supports Residential Design Standards

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To the Editor:

Mr DiMascio’s letter that posits Residential Design Standards as a property rights issue and a function of big, bad government is a Red Herring. What is a Red Herring?

It is a distraction, a false lead. I’d guess that the rest of us are happy that drivers, doctors, and restaurants are licensed; that zoning won’t allow a drive-through eatery on a row of two family houses; that dogs have to get rabies shots; that day care centers are inspected. It’s a trade-off when we choose to live in community, on streets with neighbors, and share civic space with others.

We also know how a single brick box on a street of Victorian houses depresses the values of the homes around it and cuts off neighborly interaction when there are no porches and green spaces. Expedience can build a house, but not a neighborhood.

Residential Design Standards are created to aid home owners and developers make improvements and changes to their properties while maintaining the variety, character, and social and green spaces, etc, through excellence of design.

Watertown’s Planning Department and architect-planning consultant have spent the last months listening to residents, some of whom are builders, real estate people, and even small developers in meetings in three parts of town. Tonight, November 12, is a forum to discuss the design standards that they’ve created (6:30, Middle School).

Watertown has its Comprehensive Plan and commercial Design Standards. How much more important is it to create a residential version when Watertown is faced with so many tear-downs on large lots in two-family zones. It is also important to offer homeowners opportunities to create curb-appeal and add value to their home improvements for themselves and the neighborhood.

I was at a listening session last week. When we divided into small groups for discussion, I ended up with four small developers. What an interesting discussion, and so unexpected. They all said that they would like residential design standards, but only if they come early in the process. Spending money on design before going through a gauntlet of commissions and boards and being denied hurts their businesses. Meeting with a town architect-planner would be a life-saver. They want the neighborhood to like their designs—they think they’ll profit from purposeful design. They each said a brochure of styles that explains town goals will help. Clarifying what tradeoffs there might be to achieve those goals is key—like a tradeoff of setbacks to gain a front porch. But only if the information came before their initial design costs and was part of a process that helped the small multifamily developments achieve the character of the street while being economically viable. Wouldn’t that also save homeowners time and possible expense for additions?

We have all seen that designing strictly to the budget leads to ugly and unfriendly additions and buildings. But integrating costs and community goals can make a real difference. We might get developments and improvements that are functional, yet beautiful; fit in and improve the character of a street and neighborhood; help achieve a walkable, friendly, green street; and might possibly add some housing here that locals can afford. Development is coming. Homeowners update their homes so that they can stay in Watertown. Let’s try to make it fit.

Let’s support a design-based zoning code and work to improve the process by which we can encourage excellence in building in Watertown. We will still need vigilant commissions and boards. We will still need talented architects and planners at the Planning office. We will always need neighborhood groups and community participation. But lets work together to support Residential Design Standards that encourage community by improving and putting our values into our zoning code.

Barbara Ruskin
Spring Street

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