To the Editor:
The Town Council meeting on Dec. 1 about rezoning the malls should start with singing Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Here’s why.
The proposal to rezone a large part of the Arsenal St. corridor, including both malls, to a Regional Mixed Use District (RMUD) is big, complex, hard to understand and will have a huge impact on Watertown. It would allow the Planning Board to give permits at the Arsenal Mall (let alone the rest of the new zone) for almost 3 million square feet, with buildings as tall as the Board will allow. It is likely to allow a huge increase in traffic. The differences between the current Industrial zoning and the RMUD are many, and to list them all would take pages.
A rezoning isn’t like a permit for a building. It changes the rules about what can be built and what special exceptions the Town can give. With a big zoning change, if you make a mistake, you’re stuck with the resulting buildings that last decades. To decide if a zoning change is a good thing, you need to figure out not only whether it would allow something you’d like, but whether it could allow something awful too. I’ve been working hard to understand what’s the worst case under the RMUD, and I still think I’m only scratching the surface.
One example: the RMUD would allow a developer to ask the Planning Board for a “Master Plan” permit to build buildings of any height. The developer who wrote the first draft of the RMUD proposal said he’d like to see 20 stories. Another example: as proposed, the RMUD would require a setback along some of the river at Greenough Boulevard, but would not prevent high-rises up against some other places along the river and Arsenal Park. There are some guidelines for the Planning Board to consider, but not much in the way of real limits on the Board to protect us from the worst case. This all requires careful study.
For reasons that haven’t been explained to my satisfaction, the Town Council is rushing to take up the RMUD Dec. 1. This is odd, because there’s no limit on when the Council must act, and the membership of the Council is about to change in January. The Council took over a year to consider previous big zoning changes like the Pleasant Street Corridor and the Arsenal Overlay (athenahealth). Even then, many people wonder if the Council got those right. This huge RMUD rezoning should also take at least several months for the Council and the community to study its meaning and alternatives. So why rush into hearings now?
This brings me back to “Respect.” I hope the Council will have enough respect for the residents of Watertown to dispel any impression that the scheduling of the hearing Dec. 1 is politically motivated, based on the desire of some to act on RMUD before Council membership changes in January. The way to show that respect is to put off the hearings and let the new Council begin and complete the RMUD review, starting in January.