Comprehensive Plan Update Includes Focus on Improving Watertown Square

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Watertown Square

When Watertown Business Coalition Co-President Bob Airasian mentioned that a city square or town center usually being “a place where people like to go,” it was greeted with a chuckle by many at a gathering this week.

“It shouldn’t be a place that you are trying to avoid,” Airasian continued, “and when you are running a business in a place like that, I’m not an economist but, that can’t be good for business.”

City officials want to change that, and will soon kick off a process to plan for the future of the area, and the entire City. During the WBC’s coffee connect, Watertown Planner Larry Field talked about the updating of Watertown’s Comprehensive Plan.

New City Manager George Proakis said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting that he has made no secret that he wants to make adopting the new document a priority of his first few months on the job.

The City seeks public input on the document that will set the vision for what Watertown will look like in the future. The draft of the new document was released on Friday (click here to see the draft), and a public meeting will be held on March 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Watertown Library.

Previewing the draft, Field said there will be nine goals with strategies to meet them, and two will have an impact on Watertown Square. The draft included input from residents and others from a pair of meetings in September, Field said, along with comments received by planners from local business owners during focus groups.

“It was clear during the process that the public very much wanted Watertown Square to be a top priority,” Field said. “What that means is Watertown Square being a destination, a place you want to come to because it has restaurants, retail stores, and arts and entertainment — things to do. And that it becomes again a place that is viewed as a community center, where people come together.”

For City planners, the Square is important because it literally is the hub of Watertown, where all the major corridors converge.

“As some of those (corridors) have been transformed, it has increased the importance for something to connect all of those corridors and bring the city together,” Field said.

Another part of the Watertown Square discussion will be the new State requirement to zone parts of the City so multi-unit housing could be built by-right. This is known as the MBTA Communities Law.

In the years since the first Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 2015, the City has changed immensely, and the current focus of growth is on life science research and development projects.

“When the authors of the 2015 Comprehensive Plan were looking to the future they wanted to have Watertown reposition its aging industrial properties into 21st Century businesses,” Field said. “They could not have dreamt that in less than 10 years there would be more than 3 million square feet either permitted, under construction or proposed.”

Field said a healthy life science cluster in town is nice, but that cannot be the only game in town.

“Something that was added to this plan is not only focusing on the health of that cluster, but making sure it is something that works, that is successful in Watertown, but also looking at the diversity of business that this City likes to see,” Field said.

The diversity includes the size of the businesses in the life science cluster, as well as other types of businesses.

“It is important to focus on all of the commercial areas, we want to have local small businesses that thrive, and Watertown Square is obviously part of it,” he said. “It also includes Coolidge Square and it includes the smaller (business) nodes that the City has.”

The plan will look at ways the City can invest in improvements to these areas to support local establishments, and also look at the rules of doing business in Watertown.

“Frankly, (we will) look at business regulations to see what is necessary for the 21st Century, and things that need to be changed in the way we regulate businesses to make them more successful,” he said.

Field concluded his presentation by encouraging people to get involved in the Comprehensive Plan Update by attending the meeting on March 9, participating remotely, or online after the fact.

The Watertown Business Coalition asked the attendees of the meeting to submit comments about what they see as current challenges for Watertown Square, the positive attributes, and what they would like to see changed by 2030. The group put out an online form to submit comments. Click here to participate.

10 thoughts on “Comprehensive Plan Update Includes Focus on Improving Watertown Square

  1. Small businesses’ need parking to survive along with customers who support them as we all know. Time to start rethinking the Amazon effect on small business, I’d rather help my neighbors than Jeff Bezos and his riches.

  2. I’m glad the city has thoughts about this! We need to make Watertown square less of a drive-by and more walkable area where people can sit in a cafe outside and enjoy the view and not trying to avoid the trucks on Main Street. Parking should be outside and as discreet as possible. Cars and trucks don’t exactly add to the ambiance. There is also no harm in walking from a car to your destination (some may think it’s actually good for you!).

  3. Parking is indeed important for the square to attract sustainable businesses and people wanting to come to the square. If we lose the Post Office because the developers of the Main St. project don’t want to accommodate the needs of the Post Office to function properly and for our people to easily access it, that would be a shame. For too long we have allowed the developers to rule the developments to the detriment of us, the taxpayers.

    As much as one of the city’s goals is to eliminate as many cars as possible in a very short timeframe, that is not a practical approach if you want to have an active downtown and thriving businesses. Families with children, physically challenged people and elderly people can’t ride bikes or take buses to run errands or go out to lunch or dinner if we can even attract small restaurants.

    Last week I had to circle around the City Hall and Main St. three times to find a parking space to go into City Hall until a metered space became available. There were no spaces behind the library either. What a waste of gas and time it was for me.

    I now often go to Newton to the Post Office because they have a small parking lot that is free for 3 hours so people there can go into the restaurants and businesses, helping those businesses do better.

    I went to the Waltham Post Office yesterday as I was heading in that direction. They have free 2-hour parking on their Main St. that helps their residents and businesses.

    I hope people attend the March 9 meeting physically or remotely to give their input on the Watertown Sq. project. If you don’t speak up now, our City may become even more unlivable if we let others make decisions with which we don’t agree.

  4. Councillor John Airasian hit the proverbial nail on the head when he said a city square should be a place to go …. and not avoid. Kudos to him and other councillors who are looking to tackle this decades old problem. For too long, residents have avoided Watertown Square. I am tired of being envious driving through our neighboring communities and saying, “why can’t Watertown Sq look that that ?” To that end, I look forward to what our New City Manager George Proakis and his Team are planning for Watertown Sq.

  5. I’m interested, Jack. Which communities do you drive through and admire? I think that if all of us answered this question, we might be able to clearly define the kind of “downtown” the people of Watertown would really like to have. Currently, we’re looking at a potential tall brick wall on the south side of Main Street, overshadowing historic buildings and a beautiful park on the North side. Is that heading in the right direction for you? Could we start a conversation here based upon that question? It’s such a simple question, but so revealing.

    • I think the question is which downtowns do you drive through and think, “I’ve got to stop there sometime.” Watertown Square is not thriving. It will only do so when we make it a place where folks want to spend some time.

  6. The State’s new MBTA Communities Law permits by-right housing in Watertown Square that meets the following criteria:
    — Minimum gross density of 15 units per acre
    — Located not more than 0.5 miles from a commuter rail station, subway station, ferry terminal or bus station, if applicable
    — No age restrictions and suitable for families with children

    Smart, thoughtful planning for this denser Watertown Square will support human well-being and environmental health by incorporating natural green space. This will certainly help make the Square an attractive destination and community center.

    We urge Watertown and developers working in Watertown’s MBTA Communities Law zone to incorporate the 3-30-300 Rule for housing :

    Rule 1: Every resident should be able to see at least three trees (of a decent size) from their home.

    Rule 2: Every neighborhood should have 30% tree canopy.

    Rule 3: Every home should be no more than 300 meters (328 yards) from the nearest park or green space.

    This is doable, and the benefits are immense. See details at

  7. Yes to all of your comments! Libby, I’ll be sure to check out your information. The draft of the comprehensive plan is out now, I think. I haven’t read it yet, but when I do (soon), I’m going to be looking for:

    A livable City center, where people are not stacked stories high, up and down Main Street, like sardines in a can.

    A walkable area, with trees and greenery of all kinds.

    A retail area that both commands attention and has places to park, for those who are not living within walking distance or are elderly or disabled in some way, and to encourage those MANY people who go through our town daily to think “I’ve got to stop here sometime.”

    I’m also looking for an area that is scaled in such a way that our historic architecture that is left on Main Street, our community pride, is highlighted, not diminished.

    I’ll be looking for an area that does not encourage heat islands or auto pollution traps and through its excessive building height does not totally block breezes from the river, our very own spectacular natural resource!

    It’s a tall order, but Watertown is worth it!

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