An effort to create a historic district in the area of Main Street near City Hall and the Library ended Tuesday night when the City Council voted down the proposal in the citizen-submitted petition. The effort was started as a way to prevent a proposed project in the area.
The Council was not convinced that the area, which also includes a block of commercial buildings across the street, has historic significance. The decision was unanimous.
Had the vote been favorable, the City would have started the process to create a historic district, which could have taken up to two years, and would require a study by the Historic District Commission as well as hearings by the Planning Board and City Council.
Councilor John Gannon said when he thinks of a historic district, he thinks of a historic resource and something that adds to the fiber of a historic area of town.
“I don’t recall seeing these buildings as old or truly historic,” Gannon said.
City Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli said that he did not see any buildings on the commercial block that had historic significance. He said the effort was to stop a sale of the properties to a developer who wants to put up a mixed residential and retail building.
“One of the buildings proposed to be sold, the Salusti building, consists of a two-story office building built in 1975,” Piccirilli said. “If anyone in this building thinks the Salusti building is historic and is an essential historic element of Main Street and the facade of the building can never be changed because it is historic — this building is not even old enough for the historic demolition delay, which is 50 years.”
Clyde Younger, a former Council President, led the petition effort, and submitted hundreds more signatures than the 150 required by the City Charter to have it considered by the Council. He said the area would be changed by a major development such as the five-story building with 146 apartments proposed on Main Street.
“We see the area as a village within the city. Certainly, professional planners would agree with us, around City Hall should be an open space, lined with trees, with little stores and other amenities consistent with New England’s unique character,” Younger said. “Reviewing the proposed development is completely out of character with the area.”
Joseph Salusti, whose family owns the properties that would be sold and redeveloped, said his father Joseph started his dentistry practice in 1949, and he joined his father in 1982. The family has sought to be “good stewards” of the properties they owned and they “care greatly for the welfare of Watertown today and for its future.” They opposed the historic district designation.
“It is our rights as land owners that are being discussed here. We feel these proposals are outrageous. We feel this petition is senseless and inappropriate and therefore the Salusti family strongly opposes it,” Salusti said. “We feel there is a big difference between old and historic, and while our building may be old and mishmashed they are certainly not historic.”
Those who spoke in favor of the petition said development is out of control in Watertown and it is losing its small town feel. Some noted that the big complexes recently built in town even use the Watertown’s historic, small-town feel as ways to appeal to prospective residents.
Several people said they opposed the petition, and said the City and the whole Boston area needs more housing, especially near public transportation like in Watertown Square. They added that young families are struggling to find housing they can afford in town, and additional residents would benefit local stores and restaurants.
Others said while they do not like the development that has gone on in Watertown, creating a historic district is not the right way to stop it, and mentioned that the City is in the midst of reviewing the Comprehensive Plan (the main planning document that outlines a vision for future development in Watertown).