Legislation recently passed on Beacon Hill requires communities with MBTA service to create an area where dense housing projects would be allowed in locations near transit hubs. Watertown officials say, however, the area of the City designated by the state does not make sense and should be moved closer to the center of town.
Each of the 175 MBTA communities must designate an area of at least 50 acres where multi-family projects with up to 15 units per acre would be allowed by right, so the City could not deny approval based on density. These zones are supposed to be within half-a-mile of a transit station.
In Watertown’s case, the bus hubs in Watertown Square and the Watertown Yard do not qualify because they do not have a building available to passengers, acting Deputy City Manager Steve Magoon said at the Feb. 23 City Council meeting. So, state officials identified an area in the northwest corner of town that is within half a mile of the Waverley Commuter Rail station in Belmont.
The City has until March 31 to submit comments and ask the state for changes to the multi-family zone. Magoon told the City Council that the Department of Community Development and Planning has looked at the issue and recommends asking the zone to be moved closer to Watertown Square.
“Within a half mile radius of Watertown Yard or Watertown Square are central business, limited business, and industrial zones that could potentially be adjusted by-right to multi-family zoning,” Magoon said. “It makes more sense to plan for more dense development in that area of town. It does have multiple bus lines, significant pedestrian access to the area. We would advocate that the City make those comments to the state.”
Councilor Caroline Bays said she worries that other communities would also seek to change the definition of a bus stop in an effort to avoid creating the multi-family zone.
“There is also an intent in law to create housing as a way to help the climate, and I feel there was an intent behind the law,” Bays said. “We should be thinking about that and how this might impact not just us, but the whole area.”
Magoon said that he does not think that having the area near the Waverley Station serves Watertown well because the area is mostly single and two-family homes, so new large projects could be disruptive. He added that the likelihood of projects being built is low, but it could happen if a developer bought up several adjoining properties.
Councilor Lisa Feltner noted that the law requires communities to designate a multi-family zone, but does not require the housing to be built.
Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli said if the multi-family zone was close to Waverley, most of it would be more than half-a-mile away from the station. It also would lack some of the other things needed for an area with that much housing.
“We need to have support services — restaurants and stores. I think Watertown Square provides that. Waverley Square — that is in another community and it doesn’t have the services,” Piccirilli said. “The law has a way to appeal for relief from what the regulations are and I think we should do that.”
Councilor John Gannon said that there appear to be unintended consequences of the law, and he supports appealing the multi-family zoning area.
Council President Mark Sideris agreed.
“Between the Delta (in Watertown Square) and Watertown Yard, there is no better place that offers this opportunity,” Sideris said. “It doesn’t make sense not to ask to look at this again, that northwest corner is just not going to work.”
The Council voted 8-1 in favor of appealing and sending comments to the State to change the multi-family zoning area. Bays voted against the motion.