LETTER: Thank You Watertown, and an Invitation to Get Involved

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Dear Watertown Citizens,

I’d like to thank those citizens of Watertown who have taken the time and effort to stay involved in City issues and governance. It takes some effort to get on this swiftly moving train, as I’ve learned in the past six months. I invite you to get involved. For starters, pick something small. You might even find it gratifying!

I’d like to thank Joan Gumbleton for opening up a discussion in WatertownMaNews.com to find ways to make City information more accessible to residents:

A special “shout out” goes to Nicole Gardner and Emily Izzo, who I’ve heard from residents are
making special efforts to connect with their constituents.

I’d like to thank all of the citizens who have advocated so eloquently for our City’s values. Jon
Bockian, you continue to provide a clear and thought-provoking analysis of our City’s decisions in WatertownMaNews. I found this exchange of ideas particularly illuminating:

I personally got involved after speaking with Clyde Younger about a City issue. He very kindly responded and mentioned his current public project. I offered to “get some signatures,” and as a result of that process, I’m in!

The City Councilors voted down even taking a look at protecting the area of Cross and Main Streets (a section of Main Street Village), where there are multiple buildings built in the 1800’s and owned by prominent historical figures in Watertown as well as housing the working poor immigrants. In addition, the five story project planned to replace these would displace current Watertown residents and shopkeepers. So, I have taken it upon myself to study this area.

In the process, I have learned about the large industries in the 1800’s and 1900’s that came to what was then the Town of Watertown, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the more things change, the more things stay the same.

We have more in common with our industrial past than we are aware: big industries were
welcomed in, making plenty of money for the few, harnessing cheap labor and building tenements to house them, and using the river as they pleased. It turns red? The wildlife is dying? Too bad. As long as we’re making our money, no problem.

A lot has been done to renew the Charles, our City’s most precious resource, thanks to involved citizens. To have the newest, most pervasive forms of pollution unnecessarily re-victimize this environment for someone’s bottom line is unconscionable.

I would like to thank all of those alert residents in this City who have kept up with the issues and
who have repeatedly helped to guide us away from the precipice. Who knew about Dark-Sky, for instance? Thank you, Elodia Thomas.

Here’s another thing that we need to thank involved Watertown citizens for. Do you know that there are 4 levels of safety for bio labs? Level four deals with germs, etc. that there are currently no cures for (can you say “Wuhan”)?

It is my understanding that as it stands now, thanks to our involved citizens, Watertown can have no higher safety level labs than level 3, diseases we have cures for. That’s much better, but in our compact urban environment, it still doesn’t help me sleep at night.

Speaking of sleeping at night, Google “Beagle Bill Massachusetts” for an eye-opener.

Estimates from involved citizens who have been closely watching bio lab construction in Watertown say that there are more than 20 labs built, being built or approved to be built (one with a parking lot with a capacity for over 400 cars, and one on the Charles River, just yards from where our children swim in the summer). The one recently approved in West Watertown is just across the street from a busy ball field. I would welcome the actual numbers from our City Councilors, if they take issue with these.

Could we please consider looking at other forms of income and tax revenue besides the bio labs and the behemoth and unaffordable condo and apartment buildings popping up all over the City, like the City is playing its own game of whack-a-mole?

Residents are coming time and time again to the City Council looking for housing relief, and I’m sure that the new Watertown Affordable Housing Trust will be able to provide some help, but in the end, is it too little too late?

How about involved citizen Carolyn Gritter’s suggestion in Watertownmanews.com for starter homes? Maybe let’s put these monster buildings on hold for a while, so that we can explore more innovative and appropriate ideas for housing that our residents can actually have a hope of affording in the little space we have left.

It certainly isn’t as fast and easy a process as waiting for companies with deep pockets to come to you and throw big money at you, (for some “community price” to be determined later), but I think that for a community that prides itself on family values, diversity and inclusivity, it would sure be more civically satisfying for all of us.

In closing, I quote from the Boston Globe article last week entitled “Watertown has been a city for decades. Now, it’s acting like one.”:

City Council President Mark Sideris: “Maybe, we, you know, at some point, we’re going to say we overdid it … I can’t answer that right now.”

Mark, maybe it’s time to find that answer.

Linda Scott
Olcott Street

14 thoughts on “LETTER: Thank You Watertown, and an Invitation to Get Involved

  1. Large condo and apartment buildings *are* how we keep housing affordable. The reason homes are expensive is because the land is expensive. A “starter home”, as you call it, uses up a lot more land for one family than an allegedly “unaffordable” condo. The reason nobody builds “starter homes” is because they would be so expensive that nobody would be able to afford them.

    • Hi I agree with your comment on space.
      Checking if I am misunderstanding your reference to “ allegedly ‘unaffordable’ condo”.
      The condos I’m seeing are being offered well above half $1 million, some close to and well over $1 million. That seems quite an affordable to me.
      Thanks in advance for clarification if I am not reading your reference as it is intended.

      • I meant only to compare their affordability, or lack thereof, to the hypothetical “starter homes” that the OP complains aren’t being built. I agree the condos are expensive. I was attempting to make the point that however expensive they are, they are going to be less expensive than the proposed “starter home” alternative.

        Looking back at Bob Arasian’s last “open houses” post, https://www.watertownmanews.com/2022/09/30/more-than-20-open-houses-this-weekend-in-watertown-2/ – the cheapest single family home there is $570,000 – and it’s only 1,037 sq. ft and is over 70 years old. The only homes there listed for under half a million are condos. So even no matter how expensive these condos are, so-called starter homes will cost far more.

      • I will use the example of the economics from my neighborhood in Watertown. A developer just bought a 2 family house for about $1m. They will be doing a full gut renovation over the next 6-8 months and spend about 600-700k in materials and labor. They will then try and sell each new unit for $1.1m, which would net them 500k on the project.

        On another lot they bought a single family (where the lot was zoned for multifamily) and built an entire unit behind the existing structure. That is the only way for a developer to make money.

        So say there is a .2 acre magical empty lot somewhere in Watertown in a residential area zoned for single family. Just that land would cost $400k, then they spend 800k to build a 2k sq/ft 3br/2bath “starter home” and list it for $1.5m. Now that $800k condo doesn’t seem that expensive.

        Watertown has moved beyond its blue collar roots. It is simply not possible to build housing the avg. MA family can easily afford especially at today’s interest rates. (2 earner household of $170k)

        • Eric York, According to the National Association of Home Builders, a starter home is typically less than 2,000 square feet. Cumbersome local land use regulations and expensive material and construction costs incentivize homebuilders to build larger, more expensive homes that yield a larger return on their investment. Yet the demand for homes under 2,000 square feet is strong and consistent. The market is ripe for more of these smaller homes. Last year, the average sales price of a starter home was $260,000. In markets where cost per square foot is lower, like in the South, this type of home is being built.

          Policymakers at the state and local levels can help by reducing regulatory barriers and financing challenges that discourage production of starter homes and other housing that is affordable to low- and moderate-income households. Nimby-minded homeowners insist on maintaining large lot sizes, which is an incentive for tear-downs and for building larger, more expensive homes.

          Freddie MAC defines homes up to 1,400 square feet as entry-level homes. Think back to new homes in the 1950s in Levittown. They were more around 1,000 square feet. These days, 1,400 is not that large for a home. As things stand, the starter-home math ($200,000) means land and building costs can’t exceed $160,000. The problem is a 20% margin on a sub-$200,000 house is difficult to achieve. The lowest build cost is around $50 a foot. That math can still work, but not in many locales.

          At the local level, cities and towns are struggling with tax issues. They need to make more money. On one hand, you get property taxes, development, and job growth with new homes. On the other hand, you get just one shot at monetizing new residential properties and offset infrastructure and school costs, etc. What’s more there’s the political problems of introducing lower-income residents to established communities, potentially impacting property values and neighborhood “ethos.” So, entry-level buyers take the nimby hit. If you want to build homes on more expensive land — closer to job centers and business hubs, a solution is to build in density. But whoa, again, local governments tend to hit the reject button. If cities and towns are serious about activating the starter-home market, they’re going to have to redo entitlements and downsize. If they do that, many homebuilders say you can build a single-family detached home, price it to the market, build it, and make money on it. Clearly, the under $200,000 market segment is a big underserved market, so builders who can profitably serve it will have a ready set of buyers.

          • Using national average numbers for your argument is completely useless. There are a number of 1000-1200 homes in Watertown that were built in the 40s and 50s. They usually sell for about 600k. So you think a builder can come to Watertown and start building them and selling them for 200k. How do you propose they accomplish that ? There is no government solution to this, the town council is not going to pass anything that gets 1400 sq/ft homes built in Watertown for 200k.

  2. Thank you for taking time to write this, recognize some of our active citizens and providing links as ways for people to get involved!
    I have one clarifying question
    Not sure I am understanding if your reference to Wuhan is about development?
    Thanks in advance

  3. Hi Devan.

    “Wuhan,” is a reference that I thought most people would be familiar with that is widely reported as an example of a safety level 4 bio lab. I was trying to familiarize those who weren’t aware of the designated safety levels of labs. Are you aware of any other current development in our City that comes with “safety levels” attached? I believe that should be noted, especially since they are popping up in neighborhoods all over Watertown.

    My turn for clarification…did you think that the prices on condos were affordable or unaffordable? Also, after looking at the space provided in these, in your opinion, would these condos be family-friendly?

    Thanks, Devan.

    • There are only 10 level-4 labs in the US (one in the south end of Boston that is part of BU. They study Ebola )

      It look nearly a decade of approvals to get that project built and requires federal, state , and local approvals. They are all tied to either gov agencies or academic research.

      Getting one built goes way beyond local zoning ordinances, it literally takes an act of Congress.

      • Eric York, Residential neighbors of the level-4 lab in the South End vigorously fought the project. I know I lived there. Neighbors fund-raised and sued. Siting a level-4 lab in a densely populated rowhouse district like the South End Historic District taxed any concept of common sense. Residents not only fought City Hall but Boston University, too. It was a done deal from the get-go.

        • They put it right near all the other massive BU medical center buildings on Albany street. It made perfect sense to put it there. It hard when BU is one of your neighbors , they are going to have a lot more pull as to what gets build on and near their campus

        • As someone who has been paying property taxes for the last +15 years in Watertown and chose to start his family here , I am 100% for invested in making Watertown a place for others to do the same. I, along with some others in my same situation will be writing a series of op-ed’s that layout what our priorities are. (So keep an eye out for those in the coming months). Personally I see educational excellence as the #1 pillar for creating a community that people want to raise a family .(I know a number of families that left because near by communities offer better schools, and I know a number of current families that have pulled their kids out to go to private schools) There is no reason why Watertown schools should not rival those of Belmont, Newton, Arlington, and other surrounding communities when it comes to academic achievement. We should be tied into the Minuteman vocational schools for those that want to learn a trade and join a union, and we should have a full set of AP classes offered at the high school with support to ensure students can earn college credit with high end of year test scores.

  4. Eric,

    I guess it does make sense, if your attitude, (not your attitude, personally, Eric) is corporations before people. It is the rare (and wonderful) business that considers the neighbors in the equation.

    That’s why we have to be extremely diligent gatekeepers as to what comes into Watertown. Maybe as well as safety track records for in-coming businesses (are we actually doing this, by the way?), we need to do a community-friendly assessment.

    If a corporation puts its interests first, for instance, by building a ten foot neon vanity project, and after the citizens are overwhelmingly against it (for good reasons, by the way), the corporate response is, “We’ll be back,” how community-friendly is that business?

    It’s all fine and good if we can agree with what the business wants to do, but how do they react when the community doesn’t want a project? How do they respond? It matters.

    As for planning and development, it could very well be inevitable that we turn Watertown into a city of apartments (one look at Arsenal and Pleasant Streets tell us we’re well on our way), but can’t we look into other options first, rather than taking the obvious road?

    God knows, we have enough people with creativity, know how and brainpower in this city to imagine a brighter outcome for Watertown than turning it into a dormitory city, that siphons people in and out, perfectly nice people, who have no intention of staying in Watertown long enough to get invested in its future.

    I encourage you to read a BBC Generations Project article entitled, “Major Cities Being Designed Without Children in Mind”


    It lists the pros and cons of building for one demographic and its unintended consequences.

    We still have many young people left in our community with what the article calls “roots and remembering”, or the value of having residents rooted in a city, who grew up there and can tell the story of its change over time”. They want to stay. They’re already contributing. Let’s try a little harder to keep them, please.

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