The first of the major Arsenal Street Project is built (Gables Arsenal Street). An analysis might be of value as we discuss the future projects. As a local architect I offer these comments since no one else has stepped up.
From a town planning stand point a number of items stand out. The addition of 200+/- new units, none of which are studios with 15 percent dedicated to affordable units. This will increase the population, the traffic, the affordable housing units, with what should be a net increase of revenue to the town through real estate taxes. The population increase should provide more consumers for Watertown stores and restaurants. The impact on the school population, of one and two bedroom apartments should be analyzed by the town authorities. The traffic will increase on Arsenal Street as well as diverting the increase to North Beacon and Mt Auburn. The population increase may encouraging more bus routes from the MBTA, but probably not enough to offset the gain in car traffic.
The impact of the design guidelines can be examined, even though they were not part of the process. It would be interesting to have David Gamble (the creator of the design guidelines) do an analysis for a comparison to his other Design Guidelines reports which are required for many of the other projects coming on line. The layout creates a courtyard entry break between a long 4 story building to the west and the current 1story stores to the East. This long building is larger than the three story single family houses across Arsenal Street but not over-powering. The impact of the remainder of the four-plus story buildings is experienced from the single family neighborhoods to the south and north of the complex. It is there that one can understand the impact of the size on the character of this neighborhood. There appears to have been little consideration of the northern neighborhood.
No effort to scale down the complex at the northern location or create any transition zone. The southern neighborhood fares better, because of the separation of the street, but it is still impacted as one views the new buildings over and between the existing houses to the south from the street the architecture seems acceptable. The forms do not overpower the street. The retail adds some visual interest and hopefully transparency. The use of brick adds familiarity to these new and unfamiliar forms. The forms are of the current vocabulary of flat roofs, with modest projections of balconies and portions of the building. These forms, although not familiar now, will soon be the norm along the street. The nighttime
retail lights should add vitality and some safety to the street. The car entry through a courtyard softens considerably the impact of the entry of many cars. The landscaping, as it grows, will soften the buildings, and add some rhythm and interest to the street. The pedestrian quality will be enhanced through the plantings, the transparency of the retail and the increase in population and the integrated bike path, unfortunately the street trees occur on the building set back and not separating the street from the bike lane where they narrow the feel of
the street, the way street trees work best.
That the retail will add some pedestrian continuity from Watertown Square to the Arsenal Project/Yard and Watertown Mall or just provide more staccato like vehicular retail which Arsenal Street has always provided is hopeful but unlikely. The distance from the square will require a much greater population along Arsenal Street which may never happen.
The road development is another matter. The street has been narrowed to accommodate a considerable bike lane. I question the value of this decision. The bike path should have been to the north of the complex and somehow found it way through the office complex to the east and through the new housing complex to the west.
These are the type of accommodations the new development should make in exchange for the economic benefits of the special permit the town gives to the developer. I realize this is now water over the dam but it is indicative of the lack of comprehensive thinking to date. This narrowing of the road to two lanes from four will create a bottle neck diverting traffic to North Beacon Street and Mt Auburn Street.
Generally speaking, I believe this first step is a good one. If the other projects do as well it could be more than just tax revenue. It will be up to the town authorities and its citizens to learn from this development and process to encourage the quality to increase so it does more than just provide housing for those who can’t afford
Boston. This project should be a minimum standard that we use to judge the other developments.