Dear Honorable Town Councillors and fellow Planning Board members:
I am writing to you all today in regards to some comments that I made at the July 14th Planning Board meeting, which have apparently caused some consternation amongst several members of the Watertown community at large, and for which I would like to set the record straight:
First of all, I would like to be absolutely clear on the fact that I take public feedback on proposed projects very seriously — in fact, on several occasions during Planning Board meetings, I have expressed my preference to hear comments from the public BEFORE board members add their thoughts and questions, because these comments often influence my own. I always make every effort to read all of the letters and e-mails that are forwarded to us by Planning Staff, even when they are “form letters” where only the author’s name and address are altered, but the text is otherwise identical. My objection, in this case, was to the expectation of having to read dozens of messages that arrived in my Inbox on the afternoon of the meeting, within hours of the meeting start time, which is why I expressed my strong preference to have some sort of “cut-off” time for e-mailed public comments, prior to the meeting. I have no objection whatsoever to hearing any and all public comments, either in person or read into the record from e-mails, live at the hearing.
As for the letter from 3 members of the WE3C that I read aloud at the meeting, my intent in reading that particular letter was to voice my frustration which was exacerbated by a comment made by a community member on the Zoom call, and for that I apologize to all of you and to the community at large — I realize that, as a member of this board, I need to have a “thicker skin” when it comes to situations like these.
In summary, I can assure you that I take my role as a Planning Board member quite seriously, and always value the feedback of members of the public, so long as it is expressed in a respectful manner. I am proud and honored to represent my community on this board, and I hope that people have found my decisions to be fair and thoughtfully considered, even if they do not necessarily agree with the outcomes.
Jason D. Cohen
Watertown Planning Board
Vice-Chair, Community Preservation Committee
Regarding Jason Cohen’s comment (reported elsewhere in this edition) that Alexandria Real Estate may have been treated unfairly in comparison to previous developers who’ve come before the Planning Board: Alexandria has operated in Cambridge, Boston, New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Research Triangle, and in the corridor along I-270 in Maryland. They are well accustomed to extensive mitigation and climate requirements. Such requirements are a usual cost of doing business. What Alexandria will contribute to Watertown’s infrastructure and climate efforts is well within the expectations of modern urban areas in the United States.
Dante Angelucci, who is in charge of Alexandria’s Arsenal projects, rightly says, “(theirs is) the largest contribution made (from a project) in the history of Watertown.” In the history of Watertown, yes, but not in comparison with New York, San Diego, Seattle, or any other major metropolitan area. Alexandria is not being treated unfairly. Rather, until now, Watertown has declined to make normal, usual demands.
Also reported elsewhere in this edition, Jason thinks that groups that have made other demands (like the Arsenal’s neighbors; residents concerned about protecting Watertown’s tree canopy, and Watertown Faces Climate Change) oppose the Arsenal project: “The Planning Board was being pressured to vote against the project by groups in town,” he says. Just not true. Planning Board members were and are being pressured to take into account Watertown’s policies, strategies, and resident concerns when reviewing a site plan. As a member of WFCC, I can assure you that we who work with developers for a more climate-friendly city are not against increasing our tax base. We are for development that safeguards the climate protection that’s already in place and guards against increasing Watertown’s greenhouse gas emissions. If there is any group that asked a Planning Board member to vote against Alexandria’s project, I’m not aware of it. On the contrary, Alexandria has worked cooperatively with many concerned groups, and they have made changes as a result. We continue to work with Alexandria, not against them
Clearly and perfectly stated Susan. Residents put in an amazing amount of time attending community meetings, thoughtfully reviewing these projects, and doing their due diligence to improve the quality and impact of development in our town.
Thank you to everyone who participated and contributed suggestions to the Alexandria project.
Thanks for the clarification Susan. Jason, I like your idea – “I have expressed my preference to hear comments from the public BEFORE board members add their thoughts and questions.” In fact, I would prefer that emails are read before the meeting starts. It is a distraction, and sometimes I think individuals use it to run the clock or thwart momentum. I don’t mind all the development as long as it is done a smart way, and Watertown benefits in terms of extracting resources from developers for more trees, shuttles, community programs, etc. This land is valuable and they need to pay for it.
I agree that the platform for public comments (at least in the recent Alexandria meetings) could be optimized for Watertown Planning Board meetings. It was difficult in the Zoom meetings because the ‘public’ participants that were signed in did not see the list of participants. I agree with the above that public comments should perhaps come first, or that a new process may be considered. In many cases for the public comment section, there was an undertone of “please keep it brief” or “hurry up” or “if you’ve already spoken, your turn to speak is over”, at least that’s the feeling that I got. In addition, if people have written in an email, I agree that it should be read aloud during the course of the meeting or at least be posted and accessible somehow during the meeting. Lastly, I hope that in this year of 2021, with fires, flood and tsunamis all around us—and yes, headed our way, Watertown may start demanding higher standards for development in our town, and require plans that maximize sustainability. This means demanding, from the onset, plans that (for example) incorporate our current mature tree canopy, instead of cutting down hundreds of mature trees and starting at ground zero for every project. It’s true—there are higher standards in other places, like California. Let’s follow their lead, before it’s too late.
As one of three people Mr. Cohen so rudely chastised for their feedback, which he says he so values, I’m writing to correct his account of the incident.
1. Our letter to Mr. Cohen was sent on July 1 to Ingrid Marchesano–well in advance of the July 14th Planning Board meeting. Those of us who co-authored the letter should not be publicly chastised for how the Department of Community Development and Planning operates, especially if it decides to withhold letters to its Board members until the last minute. That has nothing to do with us. Nor should any member of the public be publicly chastised for the content of a letter to the Planning Board.
2. Two of us who co-authored the letter did not speak during the July 14th meeting. Only one of us did, and she did so to thank Alexandria for finally answering our many requests for answers to questions we’d raised throughout the process about the greenhouse gas emissions of their new planned buildings. A “thank you” is not “bad.” Nothing “bad” was said by the three of us.
3. The Planning Department’s staff liaison to the Planning Board who was running the meeting said nothing to intervene, stop, or help Mr. Cohen with his reactive outburst. Mr. Schreiber is also at fault for not helping the members of the Board participate is a respectful manner, or if there is an unfortunate interaction, speaking to the public attendees about the interaction. Volunteer members of our boards deserve training, supervision, and advice on how to respond when they are reactive.
Taking one’s role seriously as a member of the Planning Board is a bottom-line basic requirement. This requirement has nothing to do with reactive and rude behavior. These meetings are designed for public input, and nothing entitles any member to be rude to the public. If a person cannot control his reactive behavior, he should not volunteer to be a member of these boards. As it happens, the three of us have been most respectful over a long process in which Alexandria had not responded to our questions until right before the July 14th meeting. Mr. Cohen owes the three of us and the town of Watertown an apology. Likewise, so does the staff liaison.