The new owners of the Crown Cafe invested tens-of-thousands of dollars into the space on Main Street and the restaurant began serving food in January. Just a few months later they worry whether their investment will be for nothing, and the space where their business sits may be demolished to make way for a proposed five-story mixed use development near Watertown Square.
One hope for the owners may be a grassroots effort started to try to stop the development by making the area a historic district.
Zahra “Sara” Rafiei moved to Watertown from Iran, where she ran two medical businesses — a genetics lab and a medical lab. She has two doctorate degrees, so running a restaurant was not her original plan.
“I didn’t have any plan to open a restaurant, but had a chance to cook for my family, my friends, some American friends,” Rafiei said. “They suggested to me, why don’t you open your own restaurant here?”
In 2021, she ran across an advertisement online for a restaurant for sale in Watertown, just a few minutes walk from where she lives. She decided to buy the Crown Cafe at 106 Main St. and had hopes of making a seamless transition from the former owners without closing the business.
Due to state health codes, and local zoning requirements that was not possible, said her son Sep Madani, who is taking a year off from studying computer science at UMass Lowell to help run the Crown Cafe. A lot of things in the restaurant had been grand-fathered in, such as the fire suppression system. They spent about $30,000 on upgrades, and Rafiei had to sell her house in Iran to buy the business and do the upgrades.
After the work was done, they received their permit from the Watertown Health Department and opened in January 2022. They closed briefly in April after Rafiei injured her arm. That’s when they got some surprising and concerning news, Madani said.
“Around the same time one of the customers called and asked me, ‘Are you closed because of what they are doing here? Developers have plans all set up to tear the whole building down,'” Madani said.
That was the first time they had heard about the project, which was filed with the City of Watertown in April. The five-story building in the proposal would have four floors of residential units above retail on Main Street. It would also impact the location of the downtown Post Office, and includes parcels on Pleasant Street and Cross Street, as well.
Typically developers honor the leases of businesses if they redevelop a property, or reimburse them for their investment. However, Rafiei is leasing the Crown Cafe spot on a month-to-month lease, and said she was encouraged by the property manager to do so.
“I told them what kind of lease is this? They said because of COVID it is (to) your benefit, because if COVID is extended and you cannot work, for this reason we cannot ask you for money. If you have a long-term lease you have to pay rent,” Rafiei said. “Now, I think this is deceiving.”
Madani reached out to the property managers about the lease, and the developers to find out about the future of the Crown Cafe’s space.
“Did the owners know they were going to do this when they were negotiating with us?” Madani said. “When I contacted the managing person, she claimed the first time she knew about this was when I told her over the email.”
When Watertown News contacted Eastport Real Estate Services in Auburn, which manages the property, a representative said they were unable to comment because it is a private matter between landlord and tenant.
Madani tried to contact the developer, O’Connor Capital Partners in New York City, by email and phone, but has not received any response. Efforts by Watertown News to contact O’Connor were unsuccessful.
Rafiei worries that she will lose her investment because no one would want to purchase the business if it could be demolished, and much of the equipment installed at the restaurant could not be moved to a new space.
“It’s not fair because I brought my money here to invest here, I didn’t borrow any money,” Rafiei said. “I just worked. I am an honest person, an educated person.”
The news of the proposed project on Main Street grabbed the attention of former Watertown Council President Clyde Younger, who said he believes the size of the project does not fit with other buildings in the area.
“It would overwhelm the Town Hall and everything else in the area,” Younger said. “That doesn’t really make sense to anybody.”
He has been going around Watertown collecting signatures on a petition to put an item on the City Council’s agenda to consider creating a historic district in the stretch of Main Street where the project is proposed.
“What we are doing is trying to get this dedicated as a historic district: from the Asian restaurant (Ginger Express) at 98 Main St. up to 224 Main St. — across the street from Saltonstall Park (on one side), and then from the Fire Station up through Saltonstall Park,” Younger said. “That is what we are suggesting.”
Younger needs to collect 150 signatures to get the item on the agenda, but plans to get more than that. He expects to present the petition to the City Council at the May 24 meeting. He left a copy of the petition at the Crown Cafe.
Thanks for your comment on the petition. Inthink he left copies at Crown Cafe and the Post Office. (And remember comments must be signed with a full name).
This is going to create deadlock traffic in the square and on Pleasant St. it will also effect the ability of the fire department to get where they need to go. We do not need another apartment building especially in the square.
I’ve been to this restaurant many times, and have gotten to know Sara and her son Sep. I was impressed with their commitment to upgrading the restaurant equipment and decor, and I loved the friendly and personalized welcome every time I was. Plus I love the food.
I’ve heard about the new development, and am concerned about its size and scale for this section of Main Street. But even more, I find this situation to be unacceptable — given the landlord’s urging the new owners to take a monthly lease … while also watching them sink thousands of dollars into upgrading the premises for their business.
I don’t know what legal redress the new owners have, but it seems to me that they have been deceived. Dr. Sara came to the US as an investment in her family’s future well-being, and she has worked hard and spent a large sum to invest in this new business venture. It seems very unfair and just plain wrong to have this investment threatened by the deceptive behavior of the landlord.
Thank you, Chuck, for the support! It’s good to see that the community is behind the local businesses here.
I think I am one of many people in Watertown who think this proposal is inappropriate for this space. Most of these apt bldgs build »retail» space that stays empty for ages (see Arsenal apt bldgs between Irving and Louise Sts.) because it’s never built at the right size for much. Either too big or too small. Developers promise all sorts of great ideas like a Trader Joe’s that never happen. The character of our Main St will not be improved by this building.
We need to support local businesses—-and we need to continue to unite and voice our opinions when these development projects do not align with what Watertown citizens want and envision for our future. That being said, I’m alarmed by some of the plans that have still been approved by the town, even after many many people have shown up to town meetings to voice their concerns. We need more green space, more trees, less toxic Astro turf, better pedestrian access, and yes: more locally owned restaurants and businesses… as this town evolves rapidly, there seems to be a real imbalance in what people want …and what is implemented. Maybe with this petition will empower our voice…
Thanks for the support! I’m happy to hear that others in the community also agree. Much appreciated!
Further development of that sort on Main St. (by an absentee concern no less) is a terrible idea. Aside from the unfortunate demise of a great business (Crown Cafe) the traffic in the square is at critical mass already even w out the future flow from further Arsenal st expansion and large condo projects such as at Trapelo and Common st., the former Cadillac dealership on Galen st et al. The word to describe this rapid buildup mentality is UNSUSTAINABLE.
I didn’t even realize that the company was based out of NYC, I looked them up further and not only is the company based in another state, it itself is a subsidiary of a Limited Partnership company whose agent is The Corporation Trust Company, a corporation that allows nearly 300,000 companies (including over half of all Fortune 500 companies, like Google, American Airlines, Apple, General Motors, Coca-Cola, J.P. Morgan Chase, Walmart, Verizon, videogame corporation Take-Two Interactive, about 430 of Deutsche Bank’s more than 2,000 subsidiary companies, and former President Trump and Secretary Clinton) to dodge taxes due to Delaware’s notoriously loose laws regarding “intangible assets”. All in all, Delaware costs other states nearly $10b in lost tax revenue through these loopholes. Not only this, but the state doesn’t require companies to disclose the names of officers and directors, allowing for a level of anonymity not seen in any other state.
It’s all well and good that building the development would presumably employ and pay contractors in Watertown, but after it’s completed any income from the tenants of that address will be siphoned off to some faceless management company, not to mention the myriad negative impacts to businesses like Crown Cafe in the meantime, or the incredibly ugly and unattractive design decisions that they plan to make according to the architectural drawings. It’s hard for me to imagine this being a net benefit to Watertown, and I hope the people responsible for approving it can see past the short term financial rewards to see that.
Great job Joe! This is what is needed exposing these LLC and where it is going, definitely not back into the community. The future looks bright
Any way to get this petition on line so that it reaches as many people as possible?
Good question. Clyde Younger is collecting signatures that have to be verified by the City Clerk, so an online petition won’t work.
New residents and new developments have the potential to bring vitality and more activity so Main Street can once again be an active “Main Street”. Most new developments build big retail spaces that go empty because they seek high rents from corporate retail and restaurants. Instead we should routinely as part of the permitting and negotiation with developers require that they offer small low rent retail spaces to attract local entrepreneurs and local ownership. In this particular case, the developer should enter into a formal agreement with Crown Cafe to provide an equivalent space. I am glad to see the community rallying in support of keeping this amenity
I’m also very happy to see the support of everyone in the community. Thank you very much!
While I sympathize with the restaurant, the larger picture is important. This building is the size and height of the Residence on Summer Street also with no setback from the sidewalk. At 5 stories, it is out of scale with all the other buildings on the Square. Three stories stepping to four away from Main Street might work.
I believe most Watertown residence would be willing to see smart development continue. Obviously size, scope, and community benefit are key factors motivating this acceptance. But it would be nice to see the rewards brought by these projects in real and observable form. I have to believe the tax revenues, permit fees and many other funds have been quite substantial over the course of the last couple years. So how come our roads, bridges and some parks look so horrible? Show us the money and perhaps you will see community support!
I think there are two distinct stories here — 1) the potential financial harm to a small business owner who is making a good attempt at improving a breakfast place that was in steady decline, and 2) the large development planned on the site. As for the first issue, I hope she is made whole for her investment or that some accommodation can be made for her in the new space. As for the development itself, I say bring it on. Bring more residents into downtown to make it vibrant; ensure that the first floor commercial spaces are able to accommodate restaurants or shops; do anything to make our downtown less seedy. If I had my way, I’d also tear down that ugly brown glass monstrosity at 85 Main next to the fire station.
These are such good comments. I’d like to add one more.
It’s high time Watertown modified its zoning ordinance to require that new developments include not just a specific amount of “open space”, but also a specific amount of living green space.
As Watertown builds out, it’s so important to include a requirement that every development contribute to the living green infrastructure in our community. Including actual living green infrastructure in the design of every new development will contribute mightily to the future livability of Watertown, by tempering the effects of increased mass and density on both the climate and the human spirit.
It would be great too to see a front setback requirement for mixed-use buildings downtown, to allow coffee shops and restaurants to set out planters along with chairs and tables in season. Green infrastructure on the street side.
Watertown should also be making sure that as part of its green infrastructure requirement, developers protect and preserve existing healthy trees to the greatest extent possible. We need protective tree canopy now, and will need even more of it down the road. It takes years for a new urban tree to provide the considerable infrastructural and community benefits of a healthy mature tree: the cooling, the air cleansing, the tempering of searing sun and pounding rain, the seasonal beauty and connection with the natural world.
To emphasize: “open space” as defined in Watertown’s current zoning ordinance is not “green space.” Bizarrely, Watertown’s open space requirement allowed the upper-level private terraces of the new building approved just west of this proposed project to qualify as “open space”.
A green space requirement should be added to Watertown’s zoning ordinance for new developments, and so that these trees and plants will actually thrive and contribute to our city long term, the requirement should include 1) design by a qualified landscape architect, 2) a landscape-architect-approved maintenance plan, and 3) insurance that this maintenance plan will be followed.
Traffic is already hideous there. I really don’t see the city of Watertown allowing this.
Terrible idea! Shady and deceptive business practice as well. A project like this doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere! Traffic will be an absolute nightmare short-term and long-term which will make Watertown a less desirable place to live. Let’s make this area of Main St a historic district and fast!