I can understand that a Planning Board or Town Council member might be tempted to say, there’s no harm in approving Boylston Properties’ (BP) proposed zoning amendment which would allow BP and other developers to ask for one or more 197-foot buildings. The officials might say, approving the height amendment doesn’t approve any specific building, we can decide about a specific building at a later time, when we see plans, etc. I disagree there is no good reason to amend the zoning, on the contrary there are good reasons to reject their proposal, and there is harm in changing the ordinance.
At BP’s request, the Town changed its zoning two years ago to meet almost all of BP’s needs at Arsenal Yards except BP’s proposal that there be no limit how tall a building the Planning Board could approve. After lengthy and at times heated debate a compromise was reached to allow 130 feet, taller than is allowed in any other part of town. BP then proposed a specific site plan in which BP chose the footprint it wanted for Building G, the residential tower cheek-to-jowl with Arsenal Park and overlooking the Charles River park, and chose how close together BP wanted to put Building G and the neighboring BP buildings. The Town’s Department of Development and Planning (DCDP) recommended that the plan should be approved and the Planning Board gave the BP plan its blessing.
BP now wants the height amendment so it can change its own plans for Arsenal Yards, specifically to increase the height of Building G. If there are any benefits to the public from the taller building BP wants, they can be achieved entirely without any height increase or zoning change. BP could easily amend its own plans and make the footprint of Building G the same size BP says the footprint would be if the zoning amendment were approved. BP doesn’t want to do that because it would reduce BP’s profits, while a taller building would increase BP’s profits. BP is entitled to want greater profits, but if there is a problem with the footprint of Building G it is totally of BP’s own making. The Town should not now give BP a bonus in order to change something entirely within BP’s control in order to serve BP’s interests to our own detriment.
Changing the RMUD zoning so soon after approving it for BP is bad for the Town’s social and political fabric. The development boom in Watertown has stressed our community, with a great deal of anger and mistrust churned up in debates about Pleasant Street developments, the Arsenal Overlay (Athena) district zoning and permit debates, the Gables and Union Market (Elan) permits, the RMUD zoning, and what already feels like endless rush hour gridlock despite soothing traffic projections. Residents are entitled to know that when the processes of our town politics and administration produce a result, when a debate is settled – particularly when it is settled by compromise – that the settlement will stay in place for a reasonable time and not be reopened quickly and opportunistically. Residents are entitled to know that when the Town Council approved a certain zoning change, they did so with good reason and due respect to the opinions of all residents. Residents are entitled to know that when the DCDP and the Planning Board approved BP’s building plans, they carefully evaluated those plans and insisted on getting the best they could for the town – that they did not simply rubber stamp a bad plan because BP wanted it. Residents are entitled to know that the DCDP, Planning Board and Town Council will not be duped by a developer’s obviously premeditated scheme to wear them down and back them into a corner. Residents are entitled to know that marginal tax revenue has not become the be-all and end-all of every town planning decision. Residents are entitled to know that if a developer has made poor design choices, correcting those choices will be at the developer’s expense, not the Town’s.
I delivered these comments to the Planning Board at their July 11th meeting. I urge the Board and Town Council to reject BP’s proposed zoning amendment.