The Planning Board gave their OK to changes to zoning in the area of the Arsenal Project and Watertown Mall which could lead to a major project with commercial, residential and/or office elements including taller buildings. The issue is now in the hands of the Town Council.
Residents at last week’s Planning Board meeting about the Regional Mixed Use District (RMUD) brought up several concerns about how a new complex at the Arsenal Mall site could impact the town and the nearby Charles River, and said the taller buildings would be too big for Watertown.
The RMUD impacts a much larger area than just the Arsenal Project. It also includes the area on the other side of Arsenal Street where the Watertown Mall and Target are located, most of Elm Street and about half of Coolidge Avenue. It allows mixed-use projects and requires proposals on 2 acres or more to come forward in a master plan proposal.
Planning Board Chairman John Hawes welcomed the zoning for the east end of Arsenal Street.
“I have always thought whatever is good for Pleasant Street is good for the east end of town,” Hawes said. “I have waited 8 years. Boylson Properties came forward with the proposal.”
In an effort to protect the river, the town’s Planning Department included an addition to the proposed zoning that would prevent any new construction within 100 feet of Greenough Boulevard, which runs between the Charles River and the mall property.
The limit worried developer Bill McQuillan, principal of Boylston Properties, which owns the Arsenal Project and other properties in the area (the Residence Inn by Marriott and the Linx office complex on the old Verizon site). He said the state already has restrictions that prevent development within 200 feet of the Charles River.
Paul Street resident Sarah Ryan said she agrees with the limit.
“This is one of our last beautiful open sections of the river. We need to preserve it,” Ryan said. “When we have development we need to be conscious it is everybody’s river.”
People also worry that Arsenal Park, which sits behind the mall, could be negatively impacted – either by encroachment or by having tall buildings tower above it.
McQuillan said he seeks to improve the park.
“Few people know that the green space is behind the mall. It is six, or so, tennis courts, a tennis wall and an orphaned green behind the tennis courts,” McQuillan said. “We look forward to not only preserving, but enhancing that green space.”
While space that can be developed may be limited, the height of buildings in the RMUD could be 79 feet tall or higher. The zoning under consideration allows buildings to be that tall or seven stories, and if developers get a special permit, buildings could go higher than that. To do so, the footprint would have to be smaller, said Town Planner Gideon Schreiber.
McQuillan said he may look to put up a tall building, but he is not sure where. The garage and building that houses Miller’s Ale House could support more stories, but it is within 100 feet of Greenough Boulevard. However, the zoning allows additions to existing buildings within that 100 feet boundary, Schreiber said.
Others worry about Arsenal Street being “canyonized” like Pleasant Street, with tall buildings along both sides of the road. McQuillan disputed that, saying Arsenal Street is much wider than Pleasant Street, about 100 feet from property line to property line of the two malls.
“You are not going to have canyonization, you are going to have life, you’re going to have activity,” McQuillan said.
More Details Wanted
Some residents wanted to have more details about McQuillan’s plans, and worried that by approving the RMUD the town would give developers a blank check. Assistant Town Manager Steve Magoon, who heads Community Development and Planning, said that is not the case.
“Any properties that want to do something have to come back to the town with a very specific proposal,” Magoon said. “What this is doing is allowing a mix of uses that is more consistent with surrounding areas. The area is now zoned industrial.”
Town Councilor Tony Palomba said it concerned him that the RMUD proposal came forward as a proposal from Boylston Properties. He wants to make sure the town vets it closely.
At the first meeting on the RMUD, Magoon said the town proposed to change the zoning for area in the recently passed Comprehensive Plan. Having a developer weigh in actually helped, he said.
“If we had drafted it we wouldn’t have had a chance to see how a developers feels,” Magoon said.
One of the biggest changes is the master plan requirement.
“(The master plan) gives us a chance to look at it more holistically – how it interacts with the surrounding neighborhoods, the transportation,” Magoon said. “More than if we looked at it one parcel at a time.”
The Planning Board voted 4-0 to approve the zoning and pass it to the Town Council. A public hearing will be held at a Special Council Meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 1 at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the changes proposed in the RMUD.
(This story was updated on Nov. 19 at 9 p.m. to correct the fact that is an exception for existing buildings, which can have additions inside the 100 foot no-build area proposed by the town.)