(The author has responded to some of the comments from the original Op-Ed posted on Feb. 8, 2023, see them after the letter:)
First, I want to thank the watertownmanews and the Historical Society of Watertown and Joyce Kelly, in particular, for this Saturday’s trip into Watertown’s past. It seems sometimes that the City of Watertown is engaged in such a head spinning rush to blandness and “anytown-ness” that in the words of Joni Mitchell, “We won’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.”
In June 2022, Clyde Younger and I presented a proposal that would require a study of old buildings on Main Street, and one in particular (104-106 Main), to see if a local historic district was appropriate. The City Council, without much discussion, unanimously voted down our proposal for a study, one councillor even remarking that there are no old buildings on Main Street.
Having been turned down for a historic study of one of the oldest and most historic cities and on one of the oldest and most historic streets in North America, I decided that I would do a study myself. I felt that a study was necessary to make sure that we were considering our long and unique history in this Commonwealth, and not just tearing it down and replacing it with a brick wall and a plaque or two, making our Main Street look like Anywhere, USA or worse.
So, having done my research, I can share a few more details on one of this old, no VERY old, house’s inhabitants.
William Leathe was a blacksmith in our town. He was also a Revolutionary War patriot who served his country as a private in Captain Barnard’s company and fought on April 19, 1775. The details, as I’ve found them:
On April 18, 1775, the colonists were called to mobilize against the British in Lexington and Concord by riders sounding the alarm. There was a bit of a glitch in Watertown, however. The famous “Midnight Ride” for this area was scheduled to be executed by someone other than Paul Revere, although Paul was actually living in Watertown, just across the river in the Cooke house.(That house was later torn down by the owner, because she was tired of paying taxes on the place. But in its place on Watertown Street we have a plaque … kind of).
Why we in Watertown got left out, I don’t know. If I had to guess, the rider assigned to our town was in a hurry and bypassed us, because he just assumed Paul Revere told us. Well, he didn’t. As the Newton minutemen came through Watertown, they noticed a decided lack of activity and woke up Captain Barnard to give him the news. Captain Barnard hurriedly spread the word, but it takes a while to mobilize, so in a few hours our men were on the march, 126 men and two kids (the Bemis brothers) lagging behind, hoping to pick up some souvenirs.
On the way, they ran into Brigadier General William Heath, who told Barnard that the British were on their way back to Boston. He ordered the Watertown brigade to go toward the bridge between Arlington and Cambridge to fight them there. This was the largest and bloodiest encounter with the British that day. See this account on ACMI News: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mL-w9m3vWVY
William Leathe fought in that battle, and the Bemis Boys got their souvenirs, a British officer’s fusil and sword. They’re in the Concord Museum.
William also served his country by standing guard over Watertown’s powder house for six months. He served his newly formed nation by providing a transportation service sorely needed on Main Street in those fraught political times. He tended to the horses and wagons on Main Street, the only thoroughfare from Boston to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
When William died, in 1820, he was buried in the Common Street Cemetery (over by Watertown High School). A quick walk (or stumble, since the burial ground is in total disrepair) around the graves will tell you that that part of Watertown’s history (many of the historically prominent builders, merchants, decision makers of Watertown who lived and worked on Main Street) has been neglected by this city for many years, as well.
I hear that there are plans to respectfully and thoughtfully improve the Common Street burial grounds while making it a pleasant place for Watertown residents to walk, sit and enjoy the birds, breezes and shade from the trees while getting respite from their busy lives. And, if they’re so inclined, to be mindful of those who went before us, this country’s first veterans. This will make the Common Street Cemetery a destination, a place to go. And after you go there, maybe you’ll stop for a slice of pizza, some frozen yogurt or treat yourself to a haircut, among other services just across Mount Auburn Street.
So, instead of building ridiculously tall, anonymous, cookie cutter buildings all over Watertown, we should stop and think for a minute or two. The City’s planning and zoning departments’ quick and dirty solution for partially dealing with the MBTA housing issue so far seems to be building a very tall brick wall all along the south side of Main Street, extending all the way to St. Pat’s.
If built, this towering brick wall of anonymity, demolishing all links to our past, will loom over Saltonstall Park, overshadowing the other side of the street where people come to sit and relax, buy produce at the Farmer’s Market, attend concerts, do town business, get a book, enjoy coffee and companionship on the patio outside of the library.
What a bizarre juxtaposition that will be and counterproductive to what we want our Main Street to be, a bright, welcoming, unique and approachable New England town center.
As well as being one of the oldest cities in Massachusetts, we’re one of the most commuter friendly, with buses running within a half mile of most residences all over the city. If you count the buses and trains in adjacent Newton and Belmont, even more Watertown residents find commuting within reasonable reach. In the early 1970’s, I moved here with my then husband, who worked at USDOT and was firmly committed to public transportation. For that reason, Watertown was one of the only towns that he’d consider living in.
I’m thinking we need to go to the State with the facts. I’m thinking our state reps need to help us with this. I’m thinking that a lot of rush hour traffic we experience on a daily basis is coming through Watertown from communities that are not as commuter friendly as we are. We are way ahead of the so-called “MBTA Law,” and have been for years!!
In the words of Paul Simon, “We need to make a new plan, Stan.”
Thank you all for your responses! If you don’t mind, I’ll take them one at a time.
We’re having a housing crisis. I’ve heard that a lot lately. When you say there’s a housing crisis, what do you mean? Is it housing or affordable housing that’s in crisis? Where do your numbers come from, or is this a feeling or personal experience or stories from friends? apartments.com says that currently Watertown has 2,726 units available.
In the case of the proposed gigantic Main Street project, at the Developer’s Meeting, they gave estimates for their affordable units. One person making less than $60,000/year would pay on average $1400/month…that does not include utilities, a pet fee if you have one, and a parking space fee to be determined. That would probably bring up the cost close to $2000/month. It was noted that a 2 bedroom “affordable” would cost $1542 plus utilities, parking, etc.
As with most of these large projects, there are fewer affordable units than you might think for their size. Does this look like something that would be helpful? Many people who need affordable housing say that units like this just don’t make sense dollar-wise for them, and for the project’s size are just a drop in the ocean of housing need.
I understand and feel your frustration! It seems that common decency has “left the building”. The name of the game is keep it secret, get your money and run! So much has been sacrificed. using our community as a springboard to wealth and leaving us with very little to show for it. I do agree that we need zoning changes that protect our community and not make it vulnerable to predatory developers. At the Developer’s meeting, the Developer said, “All we can do is design within the regulations.” Your move, Watertown Zoning!
Thanks for the clarification. These distinctions are important. I’d love to talk with you some day about your research.
I‘ve been reading a lot of blogs from historic communities that have successfully revitalized their town centers, and I swear, none, not even one of them, have said, “First, we got rid of our post office.”
The point about buildings like 104-106 Main is they need a lot of attention. They’ve been standing for over 120 years with minimal care and appropriate updating. How long do you think
it’s going to be before these new buildings are going to start falling apart? If you have any friends or family in “the trades” who are working on these new buildings, they’ll say in private that between materials and workmanship, they’re built to last 20 years or less, not 120. Planned obsolescence! What happens to this community then, when our construction boom turns bust? I may not be around then, but I sure care about future residents who will be!
How are you planning to keep these people in this Main Street apartment building (because that’s what it is) from leaving the Square in the evening? Electric collars come to mind. We’ll see these folks, alright, or at least we’ll see their cars as they pull into their private parking garage or pull out to go to Arsenal Yards or Waltham or Newton for dinner. Or, they’ll do what a lot of 30 and 40 somethings do after a long day at work…meet people for dinner on their way home from the office, after the insane hours that they work and before they go home to Watertown to do even more work!
As far as small stores in the Square goes… If I understand the information from the Developer’s Meeting on January 19th, for the Main Street building, tearing down 104-126 Main Street, retail space in this very large building is being reduced from 25,000 square feet to 6,000 square feet.
Let me put this into context for you. That gives us the retail space equivalent of one and a half McDonald’s restaurants. The only difference is that besides planning for a 4,000 square foot restaurant, Mickey D’s won’t even consider a property without thousands of square feet more so that they have plenty of parking! The developer said on January 19th that they’re looking for businesses that would encourage multiple trips a week. That sounds a lot like Store24 to me, not some nice restaurant. Is that the upgrade to 104-106 that you’re hoping for?
And, as far as Samuel Walker goes, a plaque might work for a great president who passed through town, but how about someone who was a resident here and who is responsible for the library that you and your family use or was part of a group who helped persuade the part of Watertown across the river from seceding to Newton? He also provided reasonable living spaces in Watertown for what we call today “essential workers.”
Tom, Paul and Johnny,
We ALL need to understand this MBTA Law … yesterday!!
1 – Who profits from it?
2 – How it’s going to affect Watertown?
Who profits from it?
Years ago, I was speaking with a young, talented Watertown politician of my concerns about an
education bill in the legislature. She gave me some good advice. If you want to know the motivation for a bill, look at what committee it comes out of. In this case, the education bill didn’t come out of the education committee, but rather the finance committee. Similarly, if you want to know who the MBTA Law benefits, just look at who was standing with Charlie Baker while he was signing the bill…the smiling presidents of the construction unions.
How is it going to affect Watertown?
Dennis Holland can confirm that we were both at a meeting where this was being discussed.
The way it was explained: Put a pin in the center of a map of Watertown where the Watertown
Square bus leaves from.
Attach a string to the pin that represents 1/2 mile on the map and attach a pencil to the end. Draw a circle around that pin on the map. If your property is within that circle, they’re coming for your neighborhood!! Within that small space, we’re supposed to build 1,700 plus more housing units!!
I asked why those godawful half empty new buildings on Arsenal Street don’t count? I was told
that most of them are outside of that 1/2 mile circle. Now, can you spell a-r-b-i-t-r-a-r-y??? You
can step right out of those buildings and get on a bus!
My feeling is that the site was already changed once, from the area near Waverley Square in Belmont to Watertown Square. I was told that one of the criteria for choosing the T spot to “spin off of” was it had to be covered.
How about we cover some more T stops? I think a lot were covered in the past. It would be a good idea in general, since the City is trying to encourage T ridership. Make them unique, and welcoming, something to look at as well as hide under in a rainstorm.
Then propose multiple sites throughout the City…get our state reps to make this happen! Many of those areas combined should already have the population density required by this law. Watertown isn’t MBTA Lite. If we had multiple sites, perhaps one on Arsenal Street, one in the Square and one on Mt. Auburn Street, we could possibly survive this Law without turning Watertown into some kind of brick jungle. Philadelphia went that way many years ago…BTW, do you know how much heat bricks retain in the summer??
How about a T route on Pleasant Street? Then those apartments could be part of the count! It could cut down on traffic coming into the Square a bit. It would also give those poor people something. That recently built “corridor” is so overbuilt and isolating, I’m guessing thanks to really poor Watertown zoning regulations. The residents better love the river, because that’s all they’ve got!
Our Councillors and City Manager are in a very difficult place. The “stick” being used against them is withholding millions of state funds from our City. I found this explanation that makes the most sense to me. Please respond, someone, if this doesn’t accurately explain the MBTA Law and its consequences:
My understanding is that this law is throwing off a lot of old, established communities who have
already welcomed mixed use and multiple dwellings into their communities.
A Modest Proposal:
How about 4 1/8 square mile “zones”? This is just a rough count. There are more in these housing “zones” in these areas than I have included:
The Mews Zone: are there going to be housing units at Russo’s too? 206 units so far
The Pleasant Street Corridor Zone:
Riverbend. 170 units
Charlesbank 44 units
Watermills 99 units
313 units (plus more units I haven’t counted)
Arsenal Street Zone
The Gables. 296 units
Elan Union 282 units
578 units (plus more?)
Arsenal Yards Zone
Boulevard and Bond 425 units
Arsenal Yards Building D?
Arsenal Street Apartments 156 units
Aren’t they building more??? And wouldn’t they just just LOVE a fancy, covered T stop to brag about in their brochures??
Just what I’ve counted here comes to 1678 units! And if you say that some of these don’t count, let’s look for more! Also, this is contingent on getting those poor folks on Pleasant Street some real transportation!!!
We are not an MBTA Lite community, and we shouldn’t be treated like one for fun and profit!!
It was nice meeting you too. See you at the next meeting…I’m exhausted, aren’t you??