Residents Worry About Impact of Building on Waltham Street Approved by Planning Board

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Nordblom Company An illustration of the life science building approved to go on the 148 Waltham St. property, the former Sterritt Lumber site.

A two-story lab building on Waltham Street approved by the Planning Board has residents concerned about the impact on their neighborhood, and the Westside of Watertown.

The 67,000-sq. ft. lab and office building that will go on the former Sterritt Lumber site at 148 Waltham St. was approved on Sept. 14 at a meeting where residents who spoke about the project either opposed it or had concerns about how it would impact the area. Traffic was the main concern, but the size of the building (39 feet tall with a 15 foot mechanical penthouse stepped back from the exterior wall) and the proximity to the street concerned people as well.

The project, to be built by The Nordblom Co., sits across from a couple homes, Gigi’s Pizza Co., and a pair of outlets from streets between Waltham and Main streets: Evans and Rutland streets. It is also diagonally across from Bemis Park.

Residents of Waltham Street, and the side streets that come off of it, said that the area is already filled with vehicles cutting through to get to and from Main Street. The property also sits on a slight curve on Waltham Street, and residents of Rutland Street said they already have to pull onto Waltham Street blindly. It becomes worse at busy times for Gigi’s when vehicles park on both sides of the street.

City Councilor Emily Izzo, who represents the district where the property is located, said that both she and State Rep. John Lawn believe something else should go on the site.

“I think that it would be in the best interest for the West End not to build a lab building on the site,” Izzo said. “Speaking with Rep. Lawn, who could not be here tonight, we believe the City should pursue taking the site by eminent domain. The location is near many homes as well as Bemis Park. This area is a residential neighborhood and not necessarily the best place for a lab.”

The City would have to compensate the owners for the 2.62 acre site. Property in the area is going for several million per acre. The 4.8-acre Russo’s site on Pleasant Street, which is in the same zoning district as the Waltham Street property, was sold for $36.5 million, or about $7.6 million per acre. At that price, the 148 Waltham St. property would go for nearly $20 million. The assessed value of 148 Waltham St. is significantly lower, at $3.4 million according to the City’s property assessment website.

A proposed project on the former Russo’s site was also heard on Sept. 14, but was continued to the next Planning Board meeting because of concerns, including the proximity to Pleasant Street and the 25-foot mechanical penthouse proposed to go on the lab building.

Vanasse & Associates A map showing the property at 148 Waltham St. and the streets in the area surrounding the property.

Traffic

The traffic study for the project projected there would be about 710 vehicle trips per day (355 coming and 355 going) from the site. The 137-space parking lot sits behind the building and will be accessed off of Green River Way (the street on which the entrance to the Watertown Recycling Center is located. There will also be 40 bicycle parking spots.

Traffic engineers predict that heaviest traffic would be 67 vehicles going to the site during the morning rush hour, and 54 trips during the evening rush hour. The study predicts that about one-fifth of the traffic will go on Pleasant Street toward Watertown Square, about a fifth will head toward California Street on the other side of Charles River, and about a fifth will head west on Waltham Street toward Waltham. About 15 percent of the traffic is predicted to use the side streets off Waltham, including Evans Street, Rutland Street, Edward Road (which is one way toward Waltham Street), Bridge Street (toward Main Street) and Rosedale Avenue.

In an effort to discourage people from using the side streets, speed bumps with signs and markings will be installed on some of those streets: two on Edward, two on Rutland, and one on Evans. Another traffic calming measure includes speed indicator signs on Waltham Street at Stanley Avenue and at Falmouth Road. Also, a pedestrian crossing with flashing beacons will be installed on Waltham Street near Evans Street.

The traffic numbers are based on 70 percent of employees driving to the building, but the transportation demand management plan agreed to by the owners requires them to reduce that to 60 percent, said Jeff Dirk, the transportation consultant from Vanasse & Associates. Incentives will be provided for employees to use other modes of transportation to commute, including free MBTA passes and a free BlueBike membership. If those things do not bring it down to that percentage, Dirk said, other steps would be taken with the most drastic being charging employees to park.

Rebecca Cinci, who lives near the project, said that Watertown needs to improve transportation and other services to accommodate all the new life science labs coming to town.

“If we are going to act like Cambridge we have to act like Cambridge,” Cinci said. “We are certainly playing like Cambridge with these buildings.”

She said more robust transportation options are needed on that end of town, and she does not think that the Pleasant Street shuttle run by the Watertown TMA cuts it. She also noted that in Cambridge the sidewalks are shoveled during the winter so people can get to work from transportation stops.

Building Design

Several residents were concerned about how close the building will be to Waltham Street, though some expressed appreciation for the small publicly accessible park going in front of the building.

The distance from the building to the front sidewalk ranges from 16 feet to 56 feet. Some residents said that they fear the building will feel too close to Waltham Street, and it was suggested that the parking be moved to the front and the building pushed to the back of the site. Senior Planner Gideon Schreiber said that the Pleasant Street Corridor District, in which the project is located, does not allow for parking in the front for new projects.

Planning Board member Abigail Hammett said she likes the park in front of the building, but suggested that a raised planter, or other type of barrier, be placed in the front of the park to prevent small children from running onto the street.

City Councilor John Airasian said he and his family frequent the area, particularly to go to Bemis Park, and he is concerned with how busy the area will be. He requested that the parking, bike lanes, and crosswalks be examined to make sure they are clearly marked to try to make the area safer.

Unlike many areas of Watertown, the Planning Board has the ultimate authority to approve or deny projects in the Pleasant Street Corridor District. The project was smaller than the maximum allowed in the area. It could be up to 66 feet high with a special permit, but it will be 39 feet tall. The floor-area ratio (FAR), a measure of density on the site, is 0.59, but could be up to 1.0. The project is also smaller than the six-floor residential building with 253 apartments that was originally proposed for the site. Residents strongly opposed the project when it was proposed in 2020.

After hearing input from the developers and the public, the Planning Board unanimously approved the project. Board member Janet Buck made the motion to approve the two-story lab building at 148 Waltham Street.

“It is compliance with the ordinance, which we are here to enforce,” Buck said. “Unless the City quickly acts to take the property and turn into a park, I recommend approval of request.”

12 thoughts on “Residents Worry About Impact of Building on Waltham Street Approved by Planning Board

  1. This is just another case of poor town support, poor town planning allowing developers to build up against a residential neighborhood. Its unfortunate that Gideon Schreiber and Planning board members don’t support residents. And they wonder why we are fed up with the developments. Watertown is overbuilding Lab/Office space that has the potential to sit empty. Should have been a park / green space. The town can build 3 schools but didn’t have the foresight to aquire this site for 8million 4 yrs ago. Blame Steve and Gideon for missing that opportunity .

  2. Unfortunately it’s too late to pull the permits of currently approved projects and pending ones but this crap is getting out of hand and before you know it, the entire community will be overrun and colonized by life science labs and pharma bros.

    The City Council should seriously consider amending the zoning laws to prohibit construction of any new lab space or at least make the regs stricter to at least discourage any new expansion and make Watertown unattractive to developers. If they won’t do it, maybe the voters should?

    • I like the idea of making Watertown less attractive to developers. Let’s start with new regs and add:
      – All parking for new developments over a certain size must be underground – like buildings in most major European cities.
      – New construction that requires roads to be opened for gas, electric, sewer, cable, etc. must repair the road to the same or better condition, add curbing, resurface sidewalks.All would be inspected by a city employee (whose salary would be paid by fees charged to the developer) and work found lacking would result in fines.
      – Require solar, geothermal and other renewable sources of energy to be incorporated in new buildings along with a green roof.

      Watertown needs to hold the developers’ feet to the fire.

      • The way I look at it, the tax revenue we’re currently receiving from new developments over the last 5-7 years should be more than adequate and that doesn’t even include the ones that have already been approved and haven’t even broken ground yet.

        I for one AM NOT looking forward to the proposed structure in Watertown Sq. where the post office currently is, nor the lot on Mt. Auburn St adjacent to the New York Diner. I can guarantee people that there’s still more yet to come if any future development is allowed to go unabated. Off the top of my head, there’s the parcel of land at the corner of Arsenal St and Coolidge Hill Rd. that developers would love to sink their teeth in (current tenants are a sand and gravel company, mattress store, Dunkin Donuts and TH McVey stone company among others), and the building on Coolidge Hill Rd. where Freddie Farkels once was since 1927 but the building owner didn’t renew their lease (I can’t imagine why). There are a good number of other parcels in this community that are also ripe for the land grabbers to swoop in on.

        At some point the losses to the quality of life should come before developers and we’ve reached that point.

        Putting a stop to it can be done if the desire to do so is there.

  3. I think residents need to understand these aren’t HOA meetings. What is being built is easily within all the guidelines for the area and is clearly a better use of space than what is currently there.

    If a huge park is right across the street the town doesn’t need to spend 20-25m to build another one. Also blame fiscal Driscoll or Mark for not buying up the property when it was available for 8m, no one on the planning board has control of the towns purse strings to drop that kind of money. And the schools were literally falling apart for the last decade before they got the attention they needed, and Driscoll did it with no new taxes to his credit, no way is he jeopardizing that to build a park next to another park.

    Definitely a good call to make sure all the pedestrian marking are very visible for the area, so hopefully that get the proper attention.

    Lastly, if your representative is telling you he doesn’t think they should build that, but wasn’t working with the planning board to get it re zoned, they are just blowing smoke. Demand more from the at the right times instead of having them feed you lip service when nothing can be done and the try and blame the planning committee. All of those planning board member work hard to ensure all the rules are followed and that we maximize what is possible for Watertown.

  4. We made a valiant attempt to change the Sterritt Lumber site to green space for everyone in the area to enjoy, but it seems that big money has more influence. I guess we can still HOPE that the City does act quickly to reconsider their options and obtain this piece of property now by eminent domain.

    The amount of tax money this proposed new property would bring into the City can’t be worth the devaluing of the properties across the street from it, not to mention the reduction of the residents’ quality of life by looking at this huge building when they walk out their front doors and deal with the increased traffic in the neighborhoods.

    It doesn’t fit the scale of the other buildings next to it on that side of the street. It also opens up the door for other huge buildings to go up along this strip if the other existing buildings or businesses change in the future. Then Waltham St. will look like Pleasant St., but these buildings are much closer to single family homes. Our west end area is truly a neighborhood with a neighborhood feel and that is why so many families moved here. We are only trying to maintain this.

    We urge the Council to seriously consider making an offer on this site and to do it ASAP.

  5. We can all post comments on the site but until people actually start going to town meetings, community meetings with developers and town council events, nothing will happen.

    This Thursday, you can start by attending the Community Plan Workshop.
    Lets put our planners on notice that we expect better

    https://engagestantec.mysocialpinpoint.com/watertown-plan/watertown-plan-events/

    https://engagestantec.mysocialpinpoint.com/watertown-plan

    • The neighbors have gone to meetings and pleaded for more to be done to preserve our neighborhood. No one cared enough to work with the neighbors and now all that can be said is it’s too late to do anything. Not good enough. Time for councilors and the city to determine what CAN be done to mitigate the negative impact to the community.

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