A subcommittee of the Town Council met Saturday and debated whether to split up the proposed Regional Mixed Use District (RMUD) on the east end of Arsenal Street, but it decided to hold off on a recommendation on whether to increase the affordable housing requirement for the area.
The Economic Development and Planning subcommittee went through the proposed amendments to the RMUD, which is currently under consideration by the full Town Council. The zoning change would turn the area where the Arsenal and Watertown malls are located (and other nearby properties) from industrial zoned to one where a mix of residential, retail and office would be allowed.
Some residents who have followed the process wanted to split the RMUD in two. Currently, Boylston Properties, which owns the Arsenal Project and other parcels south of Arsenal Street, is working on plans to redevelop the mall.
Resident Elodia Thomas said people still have questions on how the zoning would work in the entire district, but have seen a lot already about what Boylston Properties wants to do.
“The Arsenal Project needs to get going,” Thomas said. “And they are two very different neighborhoods, for me. (South of Arsenal Street) has the river and the other area does not.”
Property owners on the north side of Arsenal Street said they would like to be included in the RMUD right away.
“The Watertown Mall would like o be included it in,” said Patricia Stenson, general manager of the mall. “We are in an (Industrial) zone and I don’t think anyone wants another car dealership. We have no plans at present, but it opens the door for further development 5-10 years down the road.”
She added that the signage rules in the RMUD would be beneficial, and would allow more stores to have larger signs.
Bill Crowley, whose group owns the Mount Auburn Club, said he is interested in redeveloping his site, but would not be able to do so without being in the RMUD.
“We would like to improve what we are doing, with some residential included and lifestyle things,” Crowley said. “Being able to be part of the RMUD allows us to take advantage of some of the features of the RMUD.”
One of the things he would like to explore is find a way to filter the water from Sawins Pond, a polluted body of water which flows down Sawins Brook. He hopes to clean the water before it goes into the Charles River.
Resident Barbara Ruskin said the suggestion for splitting the zone would not keep others out.
“We want to push forward Mr. McQuillan’s (of Boylton Properties) project now and phase in, not eliminate, other portions of zone,” Ruskin said.
Councilor Vincent Piccirilli, who is vice chairman of the subcommittee, said he was first intrigued by the idea of phasing in the zoning, but now he does not think that is the right way to do it.
“No body’s proposing any projects north of Arsenal Street. The only one is Boylston Properties,” Piccirilli said. “We have plenty of time to submit a master plan, go through the process. And plenty of time to see what works and what needs fixing. We can go back and tweak it like we did with Pleasant Street.”
Councilor Ken Woodland said he agreed with Piccirilli’s reasoning, and Councilor Susan Falkoff said the RMUD would do things she wants to see.
“It allows residential and it allows a master plan process. I support both things,” Falkoff said. “The worst case scenario (if the RMUD is split) is someone buys the Watertown Mall and builds and auto dealership.”
The Councilors voted 3-0 not to recommend to the full Council to split the zone.
Another proposed amendment was to increase the required affordable housing to be 15 percent of units, instead of the 12.5 percent required in the rest of the town.
The town must meet the state’s requirement to have 10 percent of the units in town be affordable. The town is only at 6.5 percent, said Town Planner Gideon Schreiber. If it does not meet that mark, developers can come in to do a Chapter 40B project, which is approved by the state instead of the town and is not required to meet the town’s zoning rules, Woodland said. The project, however, would have 25 percent affordable housing.
David Leon, a member of the Watertown Housing Partnership board, said his board would like to see a 15 percent requirement.
“The board does support if you are building housing, some should be affordable to those who live and work in Watertown,” Leon said.
Falkoff said the original recommendation was not to change the the affordable housing requirement because it would create a different situation in the RMUD and would create an uneven playing field.
Leon said that is an inherent part of zoning – creating uneven playing fields.
Councilor Aaron Dushku, who is not on the subcommittee, said he would also like to have the Council consider a requirement for housing that is affordable to middle income residents.
Schreiber said there is no mechanism set up by the state to enforce or incentives to build the middle income housing, but the town could look into that.
Falkoff recommended the Council hold off on changing the affordable housing requirement to 15 percent in the RMUD and have it discuss whether to do it townwide.
Ruskin worried that the Arsenal Project’s plans could be approved before the 15 percent is approved and the opportunity would be lost, and added that it is a double standard compared to the previous vote on splitting the zoning.
The subcommittee voted 3-0 to delay the discussion so the full council can tackle the issue.
The subcommittee will continue discussing amendments to the RMUD on Thursday, Jan. 28 at 6:30 p.m. at the Watertown Free Public Library.