Developers of Morse Street Project Go Back to Drawing Board Again

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A view of the proposed conversion of the building at 101-103 Morse Street into an apartment building shown from the sidewalk on Morse Street.

A view of the proposed conversion of the building at 101-103 Morse Street into an apartment building shown from the sidewalk on Morse Street.

The developers seeking to turn the commercial building that used to be home to a massage school into an apartment complex will go back to the drawing board for a second time in hopes of getting approval from the Watertown Zoning Board of Appeals.

The 101-103 Morse Street project shown to the ZBA on June 28 changed from the initial proposal submitted to the ZBA in April. The number of units was reduced from 44 to 40. Three pairs of one-bedroom units were combined to make three two-bedroom units, while two more one-bedrooms were combined to make a three-bedroom unit, said owner and developer Kamran Shahbazi. 

Other changes include: adding four feet to the width driveway to make it 22 feet in total, moving the garbage dumpster from next to an abutting property to against the building, and moving air conditioner condensers from ground level to the roof of the building, said architect Gary Hendren.

Board members said that they have concerns about the quality of the proposed apartments. ZBA member David Ferris said he worries about light and ventilation for some of the units.

“There are some units where I feel there is really an absence of daylight, to a point that I do not think it would meet the building code. It requires light and ventilation for every habitable room,” Ferris said. “I think that in a building like this it may be able to be supplemented by artificial light and artificial ventilation.”

Ferris also did not like ground-level units where windows would look out at car bumpers in the parking lot and have headlights shining in. He suggested adding some screening.

The pure size of the complex – even reduced from the original 49 to 44 and now to 40 – is too big, said ZBA member Christopher Heep.

“Forty units in a two-family neighborhood is, to me, a lot and I can very much see a residential project of this kind would have a detrimental impact on the neighborhood,” Heep said.

ZBA member Jason Cohen said he has worked on projects that changed the use of an existing building into a residential project, and he said the number of units seems too high.

“When I first looked at this project if I you asked me how many units are appropriate, or are right for this, I would say in the mid 30s,” Cohen said.

ZBA Chairwoman Melissa SantucciRozzi said that she is concerned the apartments would not be in line with the quality of other apartments being built in town.

“The introduction of this style and quality of unit on this site is substantially more detrimental,” SantucciRozzi said. “Would I rent a unit, would I want my kid to rent an apartment – a dark unit? We have seen a lot of multifamily projects, there are a lot of products in this town. There are so many choices here, why is somebody going to choose this building?”

Shahbazi said that he does not believe he can reduce the number of units any further and have it make it financially viable. He added that he would be renting for more lower rates than other new projects. He said a one-bedroom would go for about $1,600.

The board also asked for more detailed landscaping plans and details of how it would work financially. In terms of taxes paid to the Town, Shahbazi said that he estimates the building would generate $100,000 after it is renovated, which is more than the $80,000 paid now as a commercial building.

Shahbazi expressed frustration with the process, saying he had already made changes acceptable to other boards, including the Commission on Disability, Historic Commission and the Watertown Housing Partnership, and got unanimous approval from the Planning Board.

He is not sure he would be able to make major changes to the building or tearing it down to use the property differently because parts of it are very old.

“Given what the Historic Commission reported back, they said this is the third oldest building in Watertown,” Shahbazi said. “I felt like that would not be a possibility, that they would fight that.”

Zoning Enforcement Officer Michael Mena said that tearing down the building would require going before the Historical Commission, and that board could put a one-year demolition delay on the building.

After about three hours of testimony and discussion, the Zoning Board and Shahbazi agreed to continue the hearing until August, rather than taking a vote.

There is an easement on the property that allows part of the parking lot to be used by the town, but Senior Planner Andrea Adams said that would need to be renegotiated if the new project is approved. She said all residents are allowed to park there overnight, not just people who work at the building, but that has not been widely publicized. The Town would make efforts to let people know that is an alternative any evening.

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