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.
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.
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.”