OP-ED: MBTA Law Part 4 – Possible Strategies for Watertown to Meet the Mandate

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Linda Scott The Elan Union Market apartment building on Arsenal Street.

By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

These scenarios are meant to mitigate some of the stress put on Watertown by the MBTA Law. One or more of these added to some thoughtful re-zoning, for me, seems ideal. Please note that because of Watertown’s overall housing density and availability to transit, there are even more options than I’m listing. In fact, there are enough to account for the entire 1,701 units plus 200 housing units more! Here are just two of these scenarios.

Keep in mind that, ironically, the communities who’ve done the most building can be most challenged, because to get to the number 1,701, it’s based on a percentage of how much housing we have already. This ability to offset by using buildings we already have in MBTA zones is an attempt to level the playing field.

Salem, Beverly, Danvers, and Peabody are examples of communities who’ve experienced a lot of development over the past years who are using this approach to fulfill their MBTA Law mandates. (See Salem News article link below).

Two Scenarios

Remember, by law, we are able to include areas in our City that already comply with the density and the transportation rules. See this article in Salem News, February 1, 2023:
( https://www.salemnews.com/news/for-some-communities-mbta-housing-law-will-have-little-impact/article_744953a2-a170-11ed-bfe0-13f7505acae2.html)

If you wonder if using land that already meets the criteria counts, please see the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development Compliance Guidelines. (https://www.mass.gov/doc/compliance-guidelines-for-multi-family-zoning-districts-under-section-3a-of-the-zoning-act/download)

In the MBTA Law guidelines, it states:

“c. Requests for determination of district compliance

When an MBTA community believes it has a multi-family zoning district that complies with Section 3A, it may request a determination of district compliance from DHCD. Such a request may be made for a multi-family zoning district that was in existence on the date that Section 3A became law, or for a multi-family zoning district that was created or amended after the enactment of Section 3A.”

So, here are two of the possible five scenarios for our City to consider in fulfilling our state mandate:

Option 1: Zone the Gables/Elan Union apartments for the purpose of this law. This takes some of the pressure off of the “balloon” that Community Development & Planning Director Steve Magoon mentioned to the City Council in January.

Option 2: Zone the Repton Circle 1, 2, 3 parcel.

Linda Scott Repton Place on Pleasant Street.

The Pleasant Street Shuttle stops right at their door. That will take them to Watertown Square and then on to Harvard Square. They can also get the 558 bus at Pleasant Street and Repton Place to Newton Corner, where they change to the 504 bus Boston Express bus which gets them to Copley Square.


A very detailed summary of these and three other possible zones (numbers of units, number of acres and adjacent “T” stops) are available for conversation’s sake. Remember, these are suggestions, and at this date have not been vetted in a public forum, because, besides the 12 minutes in the City Council Meeting, no public discussion of this law has been conducted. Keep in mind that these sorts of discussions have been going on in communities all over the state since at least five months ago.

Because of rampant, some say runaway, development in Watertown, we have more multifamily housing than we need for MBTA Law compliance. These two examples alone fulfill almost two-thirds of this mandate, and these are not the only options!

I believe that we should still build housing units, but let’s do it in a more deliberate, balanced and nuanced way, and not under some threat from the state or starstruck wonder at smooth talking, very rich developers, accustomed to doing exactly as they please, wherever they please.

Perhaps generous City financial incentives (linkage fee money?) for small local contractors (to be vetted for quality and no conflict of interest), who are willing to endure an unusually frequent and strict inspectional process, could build a few multifamily buildings in which all units meet government affordability standards. They could be imbedded, one to a neighborhood into a variety of neighborhoods, perhaps five buildings to start. This pilot program could produce 20 units, let’s say, evaluate and build more with the knowledge of what to do and what not to do from the first five.

Too slow, you say? Just look at how long it takes to build massive buildings that won’t even produce the numbers of affordable housing units that we’ve gained from the first five produced by a pilot project.

If this can be worked out, there is no reason why we couldn’t gradually and steadily add housing stock for the middle class and those struggling to keep up and integrate it seamlessly into our actual neighborhoods.

Let’s use the much touted and current “smart planning,” techniques that believe we should conform to the scale and shape of this City and and not create buildings that are absurdly out of scale for a 393 year old historic New England Community!

What are your thoughts? Here’s a tool designed by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership for you to explore and share your own ideas:

Let’s get this conversation started, before it’s decided for us. As far as the MBTA Communities Law goes, we appear to be a little behind.

18 thoughts on “OP-ED: MBTA Law Part 4 – Possible Strategies for Watertown to Meet the Mandate

  1. I am waiting, and hoping, that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reviews this inane law and strikes it down as blatantly unconstitutional.

  2. Hi Fred,

    Don’t hold your breath, but in the meantime, we have some very legitimate options available, before we just give up and hand 100% of Watertown over to large developers:

    Scenario 1: Elan Union and Gables (Arsenal Street)
    588 units
    12.4 acres
    Density: 48.2

    1113 MBTA units left to be zoned

    Scenario 2: Repton 1, 2, 3
    527 units
    13 acres (or more)
    Density: 40.5

    586 MBTA units left to be zoned

    Scenario 3: 81 – 290 Pleasant Street
    This would need to be zoned very carefully, to include what’s there, but to allow some specific planning so that the river doesn’t have an even bigger built “wall” than it has!

    321 Units
    6 + acres
    Density: 53.5

    265 MBTA units left to be zoned

    Scenario 4:
    Note: there’s a very large elephant in the room. The Cannistraro site would be a great place for more housing (possibly mixed use?) Too bad we’re getting yet another bio lab. Are we past 30 labs yet?

    That, combined with an L shaped portion of Pleasant Street that is already developed (the bottom of the “L” being Watermills..330 Pleasant Street) would add up to 163 more units without any housing units on Cannistraro.

    Now, we’re down to 102 MBTA units left to be zoned

    Boulevard and Bond at Arsenal Yards has 300 housing units…

    All of these zones have multiple close transportation options except Arsenal Yards that has one.

    The list goes on, but I don’t want to bore you.

    I know that Sam mentioned that at least one zone had to be 12 acres. We have two. He also mentioned no more than 3 zones would be allowed, but I’m not sure that’s right. Besides, I think that if this is true, the State might be flexible with this, given all of the pushback other cities and towns are giving them.

    All food for thought. And this…

    “Developers Smell Opportunity In Boston’s Suburbs As State Finalizes New Density Minimums.”
    Bisnow, August 2022

  3. Thanks to Linda & whoever else was involved in this reporting, amazing part more information in a matter of days by an independent source writer not aligned with any groups that I know of. Unbelievable!

    • Dennis,

      Thanks again! I learned a lot more about Watertown than I’ve known ever, I think. There are some real nooks and crannies in this place! I’m not aligned with some political group, but I am finding friends who care about Watertown that I can call when I have a question…so many smart, talented people!

  4. It is impressive to see the research and clarity of presentation from a private citizen on this important issue of housing and the MBTA Law. Thank you, Linda.

    • Thank you, Joan! I just figured that we might want to know what our City was signing up for…not some simple “zoning exercise”.

  5. None of the existing apartment developments cited in this article are “affordable.” Have you checked the rents there? Also, Repton Circle is too far away; most people don’t want to depend on unreliable busses, they want to walk to their transportation node and have a predictable time to get there. I think that is what the MBTA Communities law is trying to accomplish.

    • Unreliable Buses, that’s the first problem. They want Cities & Towns to build the housing, they should get their act together first before they mandate TO ANYONE about doing anything.

  6. Kathi,

    Read the law, please. It is not an affordable housing law. It simply requires that we have housing units that are non-restrictive where families can live..

    Repton has a shuttle (I believe it’s free to them, but non residents can pay a dollar to use) that pulls right up to their front door, brings them to Watertown Square and then to Harvard Square, with no transfer needed. They also have an MBTA bus that pulls up right out front and takes them to Newton Corner, where they can get the Boston Express bus to Copley Square…not too shabby as transportation goes.

  7. Linda, thank you for spending so much time to accumulate your facts and presenting them in an understandable manner in this series of articles. As usual, this article very eloquently addresses a serious issue for Watertown. We are already one of the most dense cities for its size, 4-square miles, and these plans to create more housing to comply with the new MBTA law do not benefit our city. Let’s consider the amount of apartments already in place as part of the MBTA goal, if we even need to do this.

    We have had a lot of huge apartments pop up in the last few years and a substantial number of the apartments are still empty. They are too expensive for many people to consider renting.

    We are becoming a city of a majority of renters, many of whom have some means and can afford these types of apartments. This does not help us maintain a community of diverse people who want to raise their children and keep their families here. These buildings are not conducive or friendly for children. Looking at these huge buildings overshadowing our streets is not a desirable site to view every day either.

    Renters tend to be more transient as they move on with their jobs and often when they start families, they move on to other areas where there are established neighborhoods with yards and good school systems.

    We are building new schools and I wonder how many children will be here to fill them if we keep encouraging such large apartment buildings that don’t really fit in with neighborhoods and communities. With the increased congestion in Watertown, with more to come if the MBTA rules are allowed to be implemented, I wonder how many current families will sell their homes and move out when the economic conditions stabilize? I have heard comments to that effect.

    Let’s think of the future of Watertown. Do we want to be a welcome community for families where long-term friendships are made or just transient renters who may or may not contribute to our community? Some renters are true assets to our city and remain here for long periods of time while others are short-termers and vote on issues important to them. Then they move on and leave us with the mess they wanted. We need our Planners to do thoughtful and smart planning and not just create quick fixes to get things done and off their agendas.

  8. Thanks. That’s good to know. But it does show up at Repton? I was sure that that was the case. If it’s. not, it’d be good to know. Still at $1.00…pretty good.

    Clearing up discrepancies just adds a fuller picture to what we’re dealing with. Thank you, “nameless”, for being part of this conversation.

  9. Thanks, Joan.
    I think that there’s a knee-jerk reaction when someone opposes a large development…you’re against affordable housing…you’re against families staying in Watertown.

    I have friends that have sadly been forced to leave because of economics. I have neighbors who are wonderful, supportive people who rent, but their life plans involve leaving the area to further their careers or to buy a house, because they plan on raising a family and want the space and privacy a house gives. They cannot afford Watertown. I will miss them!!!

    I feel the loss that others are feeling. But, let me just give you one example:
    the large project being planned for 104 Main Street (it’s changed its name for some reason).

    1. Let’s start with affordable housing. At the Affordable Trust meeting the other week, they mentioned that they’ll have 22 affordable units, and 2 will be handicapped accessible. I applaud the 2, but let’s take a look at the other 20.

    To build this project, they’re now planning 5 townhouses in the brick historic tenement house on Cross Street, one affordable. Again, great…an improvement over an amenities building, with no housing. But here’s the thing, that old brick building currently houses 10 units of (since it’s old) reasonable (not legally “affordable”) housing.

    So, leaving the affordable unit out of the mix, that’s a minus 9 units. They’re also tearing down a very old four family house on Pleasant Street for this project. If that’s equivalent in rent to our newer buildings, could someone please let me know? So, for argument’s sake, that’s minus 4 of reasonable family units.

    Let’s see…20 affordable units minus 13 “reasonable” equals 7 units of affordable housing. Not much bang for the buck!

    2. Let’s also look at the design recommendations that went along with the 2015 Comprehensive Plan, described as a vision for Watertown through 2025 (p. 11), where it discourages “privately owned public spaces”, which this building has in spades. It describes this as new developments that meet the letter of the law regarding the percentage of open space, not the spirit that the law had intended. That “spirit” is benefitting the community, not just the fortunate few.

    So now we’re left with two years of rats, construction, massive traffic, before and after it’s built,
    and a downtown that looks like every other downtown that’s fallen prey to this “any town” craze and possibly less retail space. A prescription for escalating the final demise of our downtown.

    At this rate, how many of these large scale projects do we have to build to adequately meet our friends and neighbors’ needs for affordable housing? And are these large units even what families desire? By the time we’ve taken up all of this valuable space building intrusive and inappropriately large buildings that are 85% unaffordable for our current Watertown citizens, what do we have to show for it?

    We need a new plan! We need a pilot project to bring more families into our neighborhoods…possibly subsidized townhouses with adequate green space that fit into the feel of the individual neighborhoods they’re being built in, some with affordable rent and some with affordable sale prices.

    The problem is that this kind of construction does not benefit our large developers’ profits to the extent that they are used to.

    I don’t see any other way out of this mess. Do you??

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