LETTER: Time to Involve Residents in Planning of Watertown’s Future

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At the Nov. 3 District D “Meet the new City Manager” meeting, a resident made a request that I’ve heard very often around the City. Could the Planning Department please give us the big picture of the City and not just the various pieces? This could answer many questions that residents have.

I thought that was an excellent idea, and trying to expedite this process, I worked with some residents to demystify the biggest missing piece for people who live in Watertown, the increasing role of the Life Sciences Industry in our community.

Planners and Councilors, please update or correct us if we’re wrong. Despite the Comprehensive Plan, (definition: covering completely or broadly), we residents haven’t had the advantage of being clued in to the big picture of what’s being planned for our City.

To date there are:

At least 24 bio lab buildings built, being built, or in the planning stages in Watertown, totaling more than 3 million square feet of space. (tallies by residents)

There are at least 60 bio lab and life science companies currently in the City or approved for
entry into Watertown (see Board of Health meeting, October 19, 2022). This is a drop in the
bucket of what’s to come. By the way, it was mentioned at this meeting that the Biosafety
Committee will be making a presentation to the City Council. Keep an eye out for that.

The developers’ corporate representatives are already at the Traffic Department, attempting to make changes to our streets and sidewalks (see Traffic Commission meeting, October 26, 2022). These proposed changes may or may not be good for Watertown residents. What’s 100 percent certain is that if they are approved, they will be good for the developers.

Now, a big piece of property in West Watertown is in question, and again no information is forthcoming. The Cannistraro site (80 Rosedale Road) sold in September 2021 and is listed as a 3 acre site. Again, it was sold over a year ago, and residents have been given no hint of what the tentative purpose of that site might be. Since Cannistraro’s is in District D, it was brought up at the November 4th meeting, with no answer given.

Here’s a question. What happens when the Watertown bio tech and developer interests overwhelm the interests of the small businesses and residents in this city? It might be worth considering. Want a big neon sign? Not a problem! They’ll have enough political clout to make that happen.

I believe that there is no free lunch and that the money we’re “saving” now will come due with interest as the many large and politically influential businesses moving into Watertown flex their corporate muscles. This issue is, quite simply, a good government issue, where an active, informed citizenry participates fully in municipal government decision-making.

We in Watertown have a history in this regard. According to Charles Burke, a Watertown historian, in A Topographical History of Watertown, the (mostly) farmers in Belmont seceded from Watertown and created what is now Belmont, because their votes (and interests) were vastly overwhelmed and ignored by the mass of industrial businesses along the Charles River, the ones we’ve been cleaning up for decades!

Watertown Planners and Councilors:

NOW is the time to involve us in the whole picture, if you have any respect for what Watertown residents think and for the rules of good governance.

Watertown Residents:

If you are at all concerned about future plans for the Cannistraro site or the “don’t ask, don’t tell policies” that have gotten us here, please contact your City Councilors and the City Manager. Tell them that we, as residents and taxpayers, deserve better!

Linda Scott
Olcott Street

13 thoughts on “LETTER: Time to Involve Residents in Planning of Watertown’s Future

  1. Thank you Linda, I didn’t know Cannistraro property was sold knew of the Plumbing Museum being moved. The new manager did mention somewhere in an interview that, Labs bring in the taxes and with the expensive equipment inside brings in more tax revenue into the City, so I would believe this is the direction to expect more of. You mention local small business which in some cases is just a one day out of the year to support to feel good. I personally know how this City is treating small business and it’s not very well. Small business depends on the parking to bring in the customers in order for them to survive. Look at the start of Mt. Auburn St just relocating the gas line, piping taking up valuable parking spaces along with the equipment parked there. Streets blocked both ends losing more parking, everyone involved in doing this work is making a paycheck, except the small business owner, anyone in this City, planners/developement never mind the head of the DPW who should know better what this causes. This just the start of the of many years of construction of Mt Auburn St. along with other major corridors. Do you think the Councilor in “A” or a couple of Area wide Councilors or another in a district is at all concerned about this? Of course not, They are more worried about telling the State House what to do, again. Your right it’s time to really pay attention to what is going on with these departments and elected officials before what should be right is now wrong!

  2. I believe the business I was talking about, one in general as of the other day did not see nor hear from anyone. Also of note may have been affected pretty bad by the Kimball Rd. work. Pretty tough when no income is coming in and still have to pay your bills, payroll and of course your taxes. I did read that didn’t notice which businesses took part in it, thanks

  3. Zoning & Planning: A citizen petition seeks to address the economic impact that excessive biotech development has had on low- and moderate-income residents in Cambridge.

    Is it time for Watertown to readdress the zoning and planning rules and process given the impact on quality of life issues in our community?


  4. Without most residents’ realizing, Watertown’s four-square-mile area is becoming ground zero for biolabs. Reasonable people wonder if the city planners and approvers have never heard of the tulipmania market bubble and crash. It should serve as a parable for the pitfalls that tax-revenue greed and developer speculation can lead to.

    Duplicative use leads to the blight of dullness which is destructive to city life. Successful cities need a mixture of uses of sufficient complexity to sustain public contact and cross-use. Commercial diversity stimulates more diversity. Where is the discussion of planning for a variety of small enterprises to support the corps of workers or customers of the city’s chosen primary use, biolabs? Surely savvy Watertown residents will not put up with a sorry waste of the city’s potential if Main Street and Coolidge Square become hollowed out, dispirited, dull, and deserted by seven o’clock. As it is these districts are increasingly dead by evening and half-alive by day. Yet, residents pay dozens of visits a year to shopping, dining, and entertainment destinations in neighboring cities and towns.

    Concerned Watertown residents must not let wrong principles, shortsightedness, and lack of vision motivate planning, development, and approvals. It is up to residents to make sure that decision-makers hear and understand what residents consider of value about the city and why.

  5. Linda, thank you for your research and insightful approach to the problems you outlined. We have long felt that when we attend the community meetings on proposed developments that we were already at a disadvantage, that the plans were pretty much formalized. The developers would give us a few crumbs and make small tweaks to their plans, but the projects went forth as is. If we had known about the projects in advance and had a chance to give input, perhaps things would have been different.

    I thank Manager Proakis for having the meeting with District D residents. He seems to be a knowledgeable and reasonable person. In his prior positions he gained much experience and, hopefully, that will help him lead us on a better path regarding development if he listens to and we give him our comments.

    In the meantime it is important that we all approach our Councilors and express our concerns. There are opportunities to look at established zoning and see if we need to make changes now rather than waiting for developers to buy more properties with the intent of making them large buildings abutting and towering over residential areas. Waltham St. near Sterritt Lumber comes to mind. We don’t need this street to become another Pleasant St. with large buildings, small front setbacks, and too high buildings with no real solutions for increased traffic.

    I am sure there are other property owners in other areas that may consider selling their land to cash in on the high costs of real estate. If we don’t know the City’s plans to accommodate the developers, then we have no way to control what is happening in our backyards. Zoning regulations need to be revisited NOW to see if they are benefiting us or causing the potential problem of overdeveloping the bio lab industry in Watertown without consideration for other types of businesses. The metro west areas are already wondering if we are catering to a business model that could fail due to overbuilding and cause a lot of vacant buildings in the future.

    The Council had the presentation of the Biosafety Committee last night, November 9. Due to the elections on Tuesday, the meeting was held on a Wednesday. I don’t know if many people knew of this change. Hopefully many people will watch the tape of the meeting on Watertown Cable to see what was discussed. Perhaps Charlie could find out when this tape will be aired so people can look at it. He is great about letting us know about the upcoming meetings with his notes on the bottom of the Watertown News publication now.

    Along with diversity of people in Watertown we also need diversity of businesses for work opportunities. If only Biolab personnel move here, many of them they make huge salaries and can afford the high price of housing. Then we lose more of our long-time middle class residents who can’t find jobs here or afford to live here. Let’s look at the total picture of what we want Watertown to be. If people haven’t given their comments on the Comprehensive Plan, please contact our Councilors and Manager Proakis NOW.

  6. Thanks, Joan. You mentioned last night’s City Council meeting. Below is my takeaway from what I saw. I’d welcome hearing what you thought, and I agree that Charlie is a great resource for finding out about meetings, etc.!

    Did you watch the City Council meeting last night? I did, and as usual, I have some comments and questions.

    First, I have no doubt that the people on the Biosafety Committee are good, qualified people. We need more concerned citizens to get involved, and I am the last person to want to give a public servant grief, having been one myself. So any questions and comments I have are only meant to clarify and hopefully add to the conversation about making things better here.

    I have two questions regarding Bio Lab safety that came up last night:

    1. We’re pretty much going to let labs police themselves? Inspections (other than the building before occupancy) come way down the line? I guess my experience has been an unwatched business is trouble in the making. It doesn’t work, because unfortunately, the tendency towards greed is so strong in humans.

    2. The Fire Department has been tasked just recently with developing specific safety regulations? After businesses are already in the buildings? The regs aren’t due till September 2023? This is NOT the Watertown Fire Department’s fault. They can only respond to orders from the City Government. They’re not called “first responders” for nothing, and their members will be the first people in the building if, God forbid, there’s an emergency.

    Speaking of the Fire Department…do you folks even have equipment to fight a nine story fire or the explosion of an HVAC system the size of Rhode Island??? I’m not being flip here. I’m just concerned. We’re entering a new era in Watertown where over 3 million square feet of property ( close to 3.5 million, as of today’s tally…I’ll explain later) is new construction and new materials, containing potentially hazardous waste, etc. Are you guys all set, or do we need to yell about this a bit until you are?

    My other question about last night’s meeting: Did our taxes just go up?? I’m bad at this stuff, so someone with a tighter grip on this topic, please respond.

    This never pleases anyone, but with the current situation, where residents and small businesses are not feeling that they’re being responded to…I heard you, Dennis. Thanks for responding to my letter. I’m sure that this won’t help, but I’ve gotten an earful from merchants across the City, not just you, and right now, I’m at a loss for how to get the Councillors’ eyes off the shiny objects, the labs, and back on the residents and small businesses that make Watertown unique and inviting.

    So, as to 3.5 million square feet… After writing about the Cannistraro site, I decided to do some investigating:

    The Cannistraro site is due to be …drum roll please…a 180,000 square foot bio lab! To put this in perspective, the Russo site is 192,000 square feet. And that added to the 3 million plus tally before, brings us very close to 3.5 million square feet.

    Funny, when asked about this at the District D meeting, no one, not the City Manager OR the City Councillors there filled us in. Why the secrecy??

    Finally, during my investigation, I found that this might be Broder Property’s first foray into the lab business (see the link below). In the past they’ve done high end residential stuff.


    Wouldn’t it be nice if they could be convinced to work with the community to create state-of-the-art affordable housing on that site…the kind of stuff that people come from across the country to study? That would put their company and our community on the map for something really good! I can dream…

  7. As a couple of readers wrote, “Zoning regulations need to be revisited NOW.” The uses and dimensions allowed by right or special permit are a major determinant in the market value of a property, maybe as important or more important than location. That price equates to the return (profit) a developer can get and feel they must get, which in turn equates to rent. If a buyer can pencil in X% return from a multi-story lab, why would they ever do something with a lower return, like small retail or moderately priced housing? So it comes back to what zoning allows by right or special permit. If zoning allows intensive multi story commercial use, the public meetings and hearings will be about tweaks, not anything basic. Then the city administration and planning board can say, with considerable justification, don’t blame us, it’s what zoning allows. In a boom town in a boom time (which may be about to end), changing zoning to more restrictive uses and dimensions sets up a battle with the commercial property owners who stand to lose. To perhaps state the obvious, that’s what we’d be asking the Council to do.

  8. Jon,

    I’m in! I have no idea how to proceed, though. What are next steps? I’d put some of this stuff on Facebook, but I’m not on it. Can someone do this to see who else is interested in getting this “structural problem” fixed?

    I have heard nothing but complaints all over the City about this issue! I’m sure others are interested in resolving this before Watertown isn’t a City but an industrial park where people happen to live.

    As for the City Council facing Big Business, they’re adults who’ve taken on an adult job. We voted them in to do just that!

  9. Stopped in to my favorite friendly local business this A M. Was informed that Councilor Gardner stopped by yesterday, in fairness I wanted to bring that up Thank you Councilor. I’ll tell you that, this keeps getting better. The foreman from Feeney Bros. goes on vacation or leave for a week, so all of the equipment plus, is taking up all that parking all day & night long. Is Greg St. Louis, Supt. of the DPW paying attention to what goes on with these projects? Call it for what it is, great job Greg right out of the starting gate on a massive redoing of Mt. Auburn St. How does the East End Fire House not get notified except when Feeney shows up and starts digging for 4 days, in front of it, do I have the number right? Thank God no emergencies. The people and businesses deserve a lot better than what’s going on!

  10. Sadly lot by lot, parcel by parcel, block by block our community is falling apart and losing it’s character to these developers, luxury condos and biolabs. If we haven’t reached a tipping point yet, we’re close to it.

    If you want to see what our future is like, one need look no further than what is transpiring just over the river in Allston and what is in the plans for that community. It’s not pretty and you can bet that those same developers along with Harvard University have their eyes set on Watertown next. Their vision of our future can’t be more than 3-5 years behind.

    As to what can be done about the gentrification that’s threatening to destroy Watertown I know, I’m uncertain. More community involvement, input and being part of the decision making certainly. However, that will do little good if our elected officials and board members don’t listen to us and instead go where the money is.

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