Subcommittee Recommends Building Heights up to 130 Feet in RMUD

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Watertown Free Public Library

The tower at the Howe Building at Perkins School for the Blind is the tallest building in Watertown.

The tower at the Howe Building at Perkins School for the Blind is the tallest building in Watertown.

Watertown Free Public Library

The tower at the Howe Building at Perkins School for the Blind is the tallest building in Watertown.

There are only two buildings in Watertown 13o feet or taller, but there may be another if the Council subcommittee’s recommendation becomes part of the new zoning for the area around the town’s two malls.

Maximum height was one of the amendments to the Regional Mixed Use District zoning discussed Tuesday night at the Community Development and Planning subcommittee meeting at the Watertown Free Public Library.

Height has been a contentious issue for many residents who don’t want to see large buildings going up in Watertown, especially near the Charles River.

“Are you people crazy? These buildings are too tall!” said resident Dennis Duff.

The maximum height in most of town is 55 feet, and is up to 79 feet in the proposed RMUD. The 130-foot height would only be allowed by special permit and if the project went through the master plan approval process. It could be 11 stories tall.

Right now, only the tower at Perkins School and the Tufts Health Plan building on Mt. Auburn Street are taller than 130 feet, said Councilor Vincent Piccirilli.

Some people wanted to know where the number 130 feet came from, and resident Jonathan Bokian said he suggested it.

“It is extremely arbitrary,” Bokian said. “It is more than other numbers – 79 feet – but less that (owner of the Arsenal Project) Bill McQuillan suggested at the Planning Board when he referenced 1010 Memorial Drive (in Cambridge) which is 19 or 20 stories.”

McQuillan, principal of Boylston Properties, made it clear that he would like to explore even taller than 130 feet.

“A 130 foot building is not very interesting to us. What interests us is a 145, 153 foot building,” McQuillan said. “We will have to show you a great building and the only way to have it approved is to have the zoning changed again to allow it … We will have to sell it to you.”

Resident Russ Arico said he worries about whether the Fire Department can handle fires in a 130-foot building. If the town had to buy a truck with a longer ladder, Arico said he wants to see the developer pay for that.

Piccirilli said that the longest ladder the Fire Department has is 100 feet long. He also noted that in very tall buildings the firefighting equipment is built into the buildings. Also, the fire officials will have a say in these buildings.

“The project will have to go through site plan review, and it will have to be approved by the Fire Department before it moves out of the site plan review,” Piccirilli said.

Not all residents opposed a tall building going up in the east end of Arsenal Street.

“I want to hear from the developer and the only way is to pass the zoning,” said resident Mary Chiochios. “A tall building can be stunning, but I want to see it first.”

The subcommittee voted 3-0 to approve the height recommendation to go to the full council.

Resident Concerns

Some residents at the hearing said they thought it was too quick to be talking about the specifics for a RMUD. Resident Deb Peterson tried to speak about her concerns about wanting to take a step back to allow residents to agree on a vision for the area.

Subcommittee Chairman and Councilor Steve Corbett cut Peterson off and said she could not because it did not fit in the purview of the discussion. He said the subcommittee was only given the task of reviewing the recommended changes and he did not want to venture away from that.

Open Space

Another major concern about the RMUD zoning is the amount of open space and what that would included.

Part of the proposal includes having a 100-foot buffer from the edge of Greenough Boulevard in which no building would be allowed, unless the building is there already. The only building in that zone now is the one containing Miller’s Ale House, which Assistant Town Manager Steve Magoon said is built to handle a taller structure.

Some residents worried that developers could expand that toward the river, but Magoon said that cannot happen.

“The language allows for a building to go up, but not toward the river,” Magoon said.

One proposed change that the subcommittee voted to recommend for full council approval was to allow exchange of parts of the 100-foot buffer if the open space is replaced in a 2-for-1 basis in an area adjacent to the 100-foot buffer area and is accessible by the public. It must be within the first 25 feet of the open space. The vote was 2-1, with Corbett opposing because he said he believes the 100 foot buffer is arbitrary, noting that the next door property – the Arsenal on the Charles – has only a 50-foot buffer along Greenough Boulevard.

The subcommittee also voted recommend a requirement for developers to submit an open space plan as part of the project application. Requiring a plan was not contentious, but some residents worried what could be included because the description refers to pervious vs. impervious, uses and public accessibility.

Some residents pushed for more green space be included in the open space. Others said they were fine with an outdoor cafe on a paved area, but not on the entire open space. The public vs. private areas also concerned some.

“It talks about 50 percent public access. I’d like to see more,” said resident Barbara Ruskin. “I am hoping there will be streets and it becomes a real part of Watertown, not an island with a moat.”

Step Backs

Another proposal from the Planning Department to protect open space areas would be requiring a 15-foot step back on facades facing open space if a building is within 50 feet of Open Space Conservancy land. The step back comes with buildings taller than 55 feet in an effort to reduce the amount that buildings loom over an area.

That includes not only the river, but also Arsenal Park and the Community Path, also known as the Watertown Cambridge Greenway. Therefore, most properties in the proposed RMUD would be impacted.

Bokian said he has concerns about tall buildings going up next to the river and beside Arsenal Park, and he hoped there would be no new buildings be allowed near those areas.

Boylston Property’s architect, Eric Brown of Prellwitz Chilinski Associates, said they plan to keep the two old Arsenal buildings – the long ones with orange roofs including the building with the food court and the one with Home Depot and Golfsmith. The newer additions, however, would likely come down and Brown said he would like to put in new buildings, but with pathways to connect the area to Arsenal Park.

Another recommendation is to encourage smart growth and low impact development to encourage energy efficiency. Some residents wanted to see the language strengthened to say developers are required to follow those practices.

Many other proposals were not covered in this meeting, and will be taken up at another Community Development and Planning subcommittee meeting which will happen in the New Year.

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