The developer of the project going on the former Russo’s site adjusted plans after the first Planning Board hearing in September and received approval in October. The development includes a life science building constructed for an established pharmaceutical company, as well as a retail space that will be filled by a “world class” eatery.
At the previous meeting, the Planning Board asked for the height of the penthouse holding mechanical equipment to be reduced, the biotech building to be pushed farther off the street, opportunities for public art, and to reduce the amount of asphalt.
Developers from Saracen Properties came back with some changes, and agreed to another at the Oct. 12 meeting.
One of the biggest sticking points for the project at 560 Pleasant St. was the 25-foot tall penthouse where equipment like heating and cooling equipment, and air circulation machines will be located. The mechanical screening brings the height 66 feet for the four-story, 191,220-sq. ft. lab/office building.
The height of the screening for the front third the penthouse was reduced to 22 feet, but the building will need the penthouse space for equipment needed for the companies that Sacacen hopes to attract. Ted Sarecano, president of Sacacen Properties, said he would like to attract a “mature” pharmaceutical company.
Chris Leary, from design firm Jacobs, said these companies have different needs from many of the other biotechs in the area.
“A lot of companies in Boston are smaller, have lighter technical needs,” Leary said. “From our work with companies — we are currently outfitting space for Bristol Myers, for Eli Lilly, for AstraZeneca — these large companies are not only doing great science but are more stable.”
Planning Board member Jason Cohen said that he is concerned that the building “maxed out the zoning envelope,” and that it will loom over Pleasant Street. He added, however, that he would be scapegoating this project if he voted against it because other projects in town were approved with 25-f00t-tall penthouses.
Fellow board member Payson Whitney said he sees a problem with Watertown’s Zoning regulations, which govern the board’s decisions.
“We should be considering (the penthouse) as part of building height,” Whitney said. “Ask anyone walking down the street ‘how tall is the building?’ and they will point to the top of the penthouse. It’s just common sense. That’s something for another day.”
Planning Board members also had concerns with how close the building is to Pleasant Street, with 10 feet between the facade of the building and the start of the sidewalk.
Whitney said that at four stories and being so close to the street, he thought the building was too close.
“Moving back 10 feet would make a world of difference,” Whitney said.
Saraceno said designers looked at pushing the building back 10 feet, but that would make the site too tight, and noted that they had reduced the scope of the project 20,000 sq. ft. from where it started. He did offer to move it back a few feet.
“Ten feet would totally change the design. I am happy to offer up 3 (feet),” Sacaceno said.
The Planning Board made the 3-foot addition to the setback, for a total of 13 feet, a condition of the project’s approval.
The development also includes a 5,700-sq. ft. retail building. Saraceno said they already have a tenant in mind for the space.
“We have interest in the life science building, and we also have a letter of intent signed with food and beverage — I’d like to say world class food and beverage operator for the retail site,” Saraceno said. “It will be a place to get really good baked goods, really good coffee, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
There will also be a small retail space in the life science building, which Saraceno said would not likely be a cafe considering the tenant of the retail building. Planning Board member Abigail Hammett encouraged developers to look for something that would appeal to the public and not just serve tenants of the life science building.
In September, the board also raised questions about the landscaping in front of the building. Developers said that they would have a mix of trees, shrubs, and grass. They will use Armstrong Maples, which are native to New England and have a tall, narrow shape, so they will fit between the building and the sidewalk.
Public art opportunities were identified, including a totem or other similar sculpture, designs inlaid into the pavement, and the side of the garage, which could be a large canvas for an artist. They would all be located in the pedestrian plaza along Paramount Place (the former central driveway for Russo’s). Developers have been in touch with the Isenberg Projects, which has done some work at Arsenal Yards. They will also reach out to Watertown’s Public Arts & Culture Planner, Liz Helfer.
Another concern previously raised was the amount of asphalt at the rear of the property. Designers had to find a way to accommodate large delivery trucks, as well as fire vehicles, but said they can do so with a permeable material — either “grasscrete” (cement blocks with holes in which grass grows), or grass rings, where matrix of plastic rings sit below the surface of the grass that can support large trucks.
The Planning Board unanimously approved the project. When Planning Board member Janet Buck made the motion to conditionally approve the special permit with site plan review, she addressed some of the comments made by the public in September.
“At the hearing last month there were a lot of objections to this. A lot of people felt they hadn’t been heard. What I wanted to do is say how much we have to consider, some of the limitations the Planning Board and staff has to work under,” Buck said. “Use of the site, setbacks are governed by Watertown’s Zoning Ordinance, which is what we are here to enforce. We can’t say this business use is allowed but we don’t like it here. That is not our role here. What we can do is negotiate improvements, and I think we have been successful.”
She added that changes to the Zoning Ordinance could be made after the update of the Comprehensive Plan, which is currently underway. People can give input at the virtual Comprehensive Plan workshop website. See more below: