LETTER: Developer of Arsenal Yards Commends Watertown Planning Department’s Efforts

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In the nearly 10 years since we purchased the Arsenal Mall to make it a better destination for all, we’ve accomplished much with you and the people of Watertown. Our goal was always to transform the Mall into an accessible space to enjoy with friends, family, and neighbors, to rejuvenate the untapped economic potential of the Arsenal Street corridor, and to be an integral, improved part of the community in many ways. It has not been a short, perfect, or straight line, but we believe it is a very good result at Arsenal Yards.

Throughout the years, we’ve had many a spirited debate with various stakeholders, councils, and boards in town, including, of course, the Planning Department. I’ve personally had “robust” dialogues with Steve Magoon and his colleagues in what we see as a productive back-and-forth in which we are constantly improving ideas with better ideas. We hope that shines through in our “placemaking,” our events, and our contributions in town. Steve and I have a few scars to show for those robust debates, but they have healed, and I have to give him ample credit for what’s happening in town. After all, he is the Planning Director … and improving Watertown seems to be happening in a first-class manner.

Last week, we decided to pull our application to the City Council regarding signage atop the 100 Forge building for an “Arsenal Yards” sign. We’ve seen the many online comments, and we’ve listened to our friends at City Hall, who have relayed their concerns. While we would love to respond to every comment immediately, we think we should step away from the process for now, gather all the information, and then answer reasonable concerns that will fully inform any future review.

There is, however, one comment that I’d like to address:

The Planning Department and Planning Board in Watertown have done for this City more than they are ever given credit for. Steve Magoon and his team deserve their fair share of credit for the vast improvement of the Arsenal Street corridor. The vision that went into the Comprehensive Plan in 2015 is a driving reason why we successfully replaced the declining Arsenal Mall with Arsenal Yards.

We think Arsenal Yards looks great and feels great. 100 Forge is a signature building in the City, and harbinger of a wondrous life science industry that has emerged spectacularly in Watertown. But our buildings are one of many examples of first class, contemporary architecture that complement the historic brick structures that dot Arsenal Street.

How about 99 Coolidge, or 250 Arsenal Place, or the two great new lab buildings on the Alexandria Real Estate/Arsenal on the Charles campus? Or the stunning example at 66 Galen St.? If the Planning Staff and Planning Board, or the process these projects go through, is so bad, Mr. Bockian, why are the buildings so attractive?

Whether it’s noticeable to the untrained eye, we’re constantly improving Arsenal Yards – improving it after seeing it operate in real life and keeping it fresh as time goes on. And while we would love to stay cocooned in the comfort of the community of Watertown, the truth is that the retail landscape is challenging and requires us to think beyond. Retailers are closing and shuttering daily for various reasons – online shopping, COVID, staffing issues, supply chain woes, increased business costs, and dwindling consumer loyalty and attention spans. Despite all these factors, we’ve had a strong launch of Arsenal Yards, and we’re happy to report that most of our retailers are pretty satisfied with their position at AY. But, if there’s anything these past 3-10 years have taught us, anything can and will change in the blink of an eye. And we have to be ready and proactive in the case of these situations – both daily challenges and once-in-a-lifetime disasters. Now more than ever, our retailers need us to attract customers and patrons beyond the borders of 02472.

In retail, every little bit of effort helps, and the success of our retailers & restaurants have always been monumentally critical to the success of Arsenal Yards and, therefore, the Arsenal Street corridor in the East End of Watertown. If our retail fails, our life science businesses move elsewhere, our residents move out, and Arsenal Yards begins to look like the Arsenal Mall 2.0. If Arsenal Yards fails, which we hate to even to say, the City of Watertown loses millions of dollars in tax revenue in any year.

We refuse to let that happen because the repercussions are massive, and it impacts the City of Watertown in equal parts. Thus, why we have continually innovated in how we bring new people and communities to our property, including innovative events, programming and marketing. An investment in growing our social media audience, online advertising, and, yes, signage that differentiates us and helps AY stand apart and above the rest – reaching new audiences and driving ongoing awareness. Everything that helps our retailers helps all Watertown retailers. Everything that doesn’t help … DOESN’T HELP.

Creating a project of this magnitude, as well as the decisions of Planning Departments of any dense urban/suburban City, requires risk-taking, the ability to react, adapt or change plans, a dash of humility, and a little more than just thick skin. We can’t and won’t speak for the Planning Department and Planning Board in Watertown, but we will defend their successful efforts to partner with the many property owners that have taken risks along the Arsenal Street corridor.

We don’t do anything in a vacuum or accomplish the progress by our efforts alone. If “it takes a village,” which it clearly does, the Planning Board and the Planning Department deserve a big dollop of credit for any and all of it.

Bill McQuillan
Boylston Properties

10 thoughts on “LETTER: Developer of Arsenal Yards Commends Watertown Planning Department’s Efforts

  1. Bill, thank you for calling out the hard work the planning board/department does to make sure these large scale projects are successful.

    There are a lot of people here in Watertown that love everything being done to develop Watertowns and bringing in all the innovative companies and people.

  2. I need to support Jon Bockian in the opinion that Mr. McQuillan quoted. He is quite right, and I think represents the views of many, if not most, Watertown citizens, when he asks how the Planning Department and the Planning Board could be so out of touch with the opinions and values of the citizenry that they are meant to serve.

    Indeed, the Arsenal Yards sign episode proves that they don’t understand what most Watertown residents value about their home town. The citizens spoke loudly and were right. The Planning Department must take stock of the fact that the citizens pay their salaries and not Mr. McQuillan.

    Indeed Mr. McQuillan seems to see very little development that he does not like. That is because he looks at buildings and sees dollar signs. Watertown residents look at new buildings and think about how they will impact their homes and their lives. He speaks out of self interest.

    For quite some time now, I believe that the majority of residents believe that the Planning process in Watertown ignores their concerns and values. They have grown weary of public process that seems no more than a show. The results are determined before the public has any say.

    It is up to our new City Manager, Mr. Proakis, to restore greater balance and an awareness of community values to the planning process.

  3. In my 35 years as a homeowner in Boston’s South End Historic District, leading a neighborhood association, being a mayoral appointee to Citizen Review Committees for Copley Place and the Orange Line replacement, and attending numerous Planning and Development Agency hearings over the years, I have heard versions of Mr. McQuillen’s comments before. Developers typically touted the benefits to the city of approval of their projects. They never said out loud that if they didn’t get approval, they’d take their ball and go away, or if they didn’t get their approval, some really bad actor might come along and propose something, um, worse. What went unsaid was: “We’re showing you the money, if you pass on us, you’re out the money. We like Boston, but, well, there’s always somewhere else.”

    In all of these meetings and hearings, residents who knew intimately and cared about, their neighborhoods spoke with wisdom about what they considered of value in their lives and why. What planning officials and developers seem to dismiss is that no other expertise can substitute for locality knowledge in planning and decision-making. Now, many Watertown residents are worried that the city is in danger of losing the common, ordinary things that characterize its specialness because increasing development pressure for standardized and corporate-driven design and uses (the bio lab fad) threaten the very essence of what makes Watertown a unique place.

    Many residents think the existing planning and approval process doesn’t balance residents’ desire for development that creates a sense of place that is interesting, safe, walkable, environmentally sensitive, attractive to residents, businesses, shoppers, and visitors. The city needs 1,700 units of housing — multiunit, affordable, starter homes. What many residents think is lacking are planning and design guidelines that will help create and sustain a unique city identity and character so that decision makers will have a basis for making consistent and resident-informed decisions.

  4. This letter captures the greater issue precisely. Developers, including Boylston Properties have great relationships with Watertown’s Planning Board. Some, but not all make efforts to understand the needs and wants of the Watertown citizens. Clearly, from recent events around the sign proposal and the above letter, Boylston Properties is not one of these developers.

    After interacting with Boylston Properties, Watertown’s Planning Board voted to approve the 10-foot tall, illuminated sign on the tall building in Arsenal Yards. As we now know, this proposal was vastly unpopular with Watertown citizens. Why were both the developer and our own Planning Department so oblivious to the wishes of our community? Because they never asked what we thought.

    I need to point out that in contrast to recent experiences with Boylston and Mr. McQuillan, Alexandria Real Estate has gone out of their way to build relationships with the community, especially abutters on both sides of the campus. Not only have they sponsored numerous small, interactive, and very helpful information sharing sessions to share their proposed changes, but more importantly, they have been extremely responsive to multiple citizen concerns about noise, garage lighting, park maintenance, snow removal and a host of other issues. Community representatives have clear lines of communication with representatives from Alexandria Real Estate and I am confident that any future concerns of our community will continue to be heard and addressed as they develop this property. Alexandria has already shown that they are responsive and respectful of the wishes of our community and though the construction phase is quite honestly, a nightmare for many of us, I am confident that Alexandria will continue to be a good neighbor in Watertown.

    The previous owners of this site, athenahealth, were a completely different story. Despite vigorous citizen engagement with all of athena’s plans for developing the site, we were constantly blindsided by decisions that were made behind closed doors, including only athena reps and Watertown officials. Same exact problem that we now seem to have with Boylston Properties.

    Boylston properties could learn from the example set by Alexandria Real Estate. Sure, you would have to work quite a bit harder to engage the diverse population of Watertown. I might even suggest that you soften your tone to show that you want to negotiate, not threaten the citizens of our city.

    Please engage and listen to the people of Watertown!

  5. I stand corrected. The Watertown Department of Community Planning and Development has done an outstanding job — at increasing the city’s tax base and density. That is no small accomplishment, even with some tailwinds; the staff can take pride in it and all who use city services (that is, all residents and businesses) can appreciate it. It is nevertheless far too narrow a mission, and has been achieved at a significant price in public trust.

    The city administration seems to be largely reactive, reactive to commercial interests, rather than taking a true planning approach. It appears to be the philosophy of the administration that when it comes to development, the market knows best, and development, that is, increasing the tax base, takes priority over all else. This approach has required riding rough shod over the great many local residents’ voices who have wanted the city administration to give higher priority to other local concerns and to do that in a more thoughtful, considered and forward-looking way.

    It is true that there are processes for resident input, but in the end the felt experience of the residents is that such input barely makes a difference. It is true that the city has put together some general long range plans, but the resulting development seems either to consistently cherry pick verbiage in the plans that is used to support market forces, or to ignore the plans (as was done for the proposed Arsenal Yards sign). It is not that developers get whatever they want; they don’t. But they know to over-ask, and in any event, the debate is all in reaction to the fine points of their special permit proposals, rather than about what zoning allows in the first place.

    One unfortunate result of this approach is that we now are told that the city’s health depends on continually giving more to the owners and investors in these projects to prevent their imminent failure and evaporation of the tax base. Some of these pleas ring a bit hollow. Just the other day, The Boston Globe carried the following, about Arsenal Yards: “I mean, it’s sort of crazy, and wild from a retail standpoint, as it’s just very, very successful,” McQuillan said. “And it’s, quite frankly, a bit of a surprise to us. Not that it’s successful, but how successful it is.”

    Watertown has indeed changed enormously in the past ten years. What is needed now is a different planning philosophy in the city administration.

    • Excellent points. I am hopeful that a more planning-oriented approach as opposed to reactive is on its way with our new city manager.

    • Agreed, planning and zoning need to be proactively discussed as a community/city. We need to understand what can be built by law, what we are looking for in the future and zone/plan accordingly from a Macro level. This will not allow the city to state that someone can not build something but we could zone appropriately for size and type per community.

  6. Jon Bockian, Joe Levendusky and Carolyn Gritter have all said what I have been feeling and said it much better than I ever could. I am actually insulted by Mr. McQuillan’s letter. Arsenal Yards might be doing well money wise but my personal opinion is it is ugly. The buildings do not fit the neighborhood and have ruined the view of this side of town. Then add in all the new building going on around the Athena Complex and it just makes me sad. They came in bragging about more green space and all I see is more building.

  7. Not everyone thinks the “Arsenal Corridor” and Arsenal Yards are the best things to happen in Watertown. I don’t consider Astro turf to be green space and I don’t think tall boxes are beautiful architecture and I don’t think residential neighborhoods should have to look out their windows and see 6 story parking garages. Enough! I don’t trust anyone who does deals that aren’t transparent to those who will be affected. I stand with Jon, Joe, Carolyn, Sarah, Linda and Patty.

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