Citizens Petition Seeks to Limit Size of Building in Watertown Square

Print More
The Central Business District can be seen in red. It is located in Watertown Square.

Tuesday night, the City Council will consider a citizens petition to reduce the size allowed for new buildings going up in the area around Watertown Square.

The City Council will meet on Tuesday, April 25 at 7 p.m. in City Hall, and will also have remote participation by Zoom. The agenda also includes a vote on funding for the recommended projects from the Community Preservation Committee. (See the agenda and Zoom links here).

The Petition

The Council received the petition requesting that the floor area ratio (FAR) be reduced from 4.0 to 2.2 in the Central Business District.

The petition was signed by more than 200 registered Watertown voters. It says: “We make this request out of concern that the current allowable floor area ratio is a relic of the 1960s “spine” planning and design theory and is incompatible with the goals set forth in the Watertown Comprehensive Plan for Watertown Square.” It adds that focusing on numbers and rations makes it difficult for residents to understand, and “frequently does not address residents’ concerns about the community’s authenticity, historical heritage, and neighborhood scale.”

(See the petition’s entire language below)

What is FAR?

The FAR regulates and restricts the height, number of stories, and size of buildings. Other factors impacting the mass and height of the building include the allowable height, the required setbacks from property lines, and the amount of open space required.

A FAR of 4 does not limit buildings to four stories, but rather the square footage of a four story building covering the entire property. If part of the property has landscaping or a parking lot, for instance, the building can be built higher but would cover a smaller portion of the property.

Watertown’s Zoning Ordinance has required set backs and a maximum percent of the coverage of the property for most areas of town, but the Central Business District 100 percent of the site can be covered by a building and there are no required setbacks. There is a maximum height of 55 feet, but developers can apply to go over the maximum height, such as with the proposed project at 104-126 Main St.

Illustration of different floor area ratios with percent coverage.


Any change to Watertown’s Zoning Ordinance must first be reviewed by the Planning Board and then approved by the City Council.

On Tuesday, the Council will discuss and vote on whether to refer the Citizens Petition to the Planning Board.

The Watertown Zoning Ordinance can be seen at

33 thoughts on “Citizens Petition Seeks to Limit Size of Building in Watertown Square

  1. Hi, Charlie:

    Thank you for defining floor area ratio (FAR) and thank you for providing this illustration.

    So that we can better understand the illustration could you please explain the acronyms BCR and FSI?

    For the health of our city, Watertown needs to be planning the Central Business District carefully so as to ensure strategically integrated natural green spaces and adequate neighborhood sunlight always accompany increased housing.

    Looking at this illustration, it’s clear that with an allowed FAR of 4.0 these would be very difficult to achieve. Seems to me it would be much better for Watertown to reduce the maximum allowed FAR as the community petition asks. We can see from the FAR 2.0 column in the illustration that multi-apartment buildings could still be built without sacrificing the possibility of a healthy green neighborhood.

    With a FAR of 2.2 a taller building would necessarily be narrower. More healthy green space could be provided around a narrower building, and the building would block neighbors’ view of the sky much less than a FAR 4.0 building. As the sun moves across the sky a FAR 2.2 building would allow more sunlight during the day to reach neighboring plantings and outdoor living spaces.

    We must not discount the importance of growing green things and natural light to human health. Let’s plan ahead for a Watertown Square that showcases how increased housing can be provided along with all the important benefits and services of a carefully integrated natural urban landscape.

  2. It is about time. Going back 20 years there was a limit on the high of new constructions of buildings of any size. All of a sudden that rule has not been in effort. Drive down Arsenal Street and you can not see anything but tall buildings.
    Why is our neighbor town turning into a city of cement?

  3. Thanks go out to all who signed this petition. The overwhelming comments made by the signers were that the 104 Main St. building plan was the impetus to object to future similarly tall structures. Residents feel it is too tall for this area , especially with the addition of the sixth floor in the last proposal. People feel it will only add to the traffic problems already existing on Pleasant St. as some residents who live on Pleasant St. can’t even back out of their driveways with the traffic that exists now. As this building is on the bus lines, people expected less resident parking in it and more use of the buses and bikes that are available. Plus there is a concern as to whether the P.O. will still be part of this block.

    Many petition signers said we are losing the character of Main St. with the possibility of cavernous effects similar to Pleasant St. with the addition of more new very tall buildings. People are frustrated that they feel many of the new projects are just rubber stamped by our Planning and Development Department and that the Developers seem to be favored over the residents’ wants and needs.

    It is IMPORTANT that people, who signed the petition and those who perhaps did not have the opportunity to sign it, PARTICIPATE in the Council Meeting Tonight at 7 p.m. If you sign onto Zoom, please make comments vs. just observing. People need to express their views NOW so everyone’s feelings are out there to be heard, not just a few people. Those who can attend the meeting in person at City Hall are encouraged to do this too. All voices should be heard, considered and be part of the meeting minutes. If you are not happy with what is happening in Watertown regarding possible developments in the area of the square, please speak up now.

    The consensus seems to be we want smart and thoughtful growth, not what we are seeing in the space at 104 Main St. and the old 711 Store site on Main St. Going from the FAR ratio zoning to form-based codes may help us in this process going forward.

  4. Where can I find the zoom link as I wont make it home in time to attend the meeting? Is it still possible to sign the petition?


  5. Patty, the petition has already been signed and submitted, but your interest is truly appreciated. It is so hard to reach everyone when petitions are being circulated. Going forward when the Farmers’ Market opens, that may allow better opportunities to handle these types of activities.

    We are so fortunate to have Watertown News to keep us informed of what’s going on and to access the various meeting links in the bottom of Charlie’s publication each day. Please spread the word about Watertown News, ( and encourage others to sign up for this free subscription. Martha Rountree once said, “An informed public means a strong Republic.” That applies to Watertown too.

  6. I think we need to stop being so afraid of change in this town. What is our fear with development on Main Street – is it building height? is it total SF? is it the additional of new business? is it bringing multi-unit housing? The amount of people who are constantly contradicting themselves as “Not In My Backyard” – you want low income housing, but not in our downtown. You want redevelopment but not in Watertown. Look at our square in comparison to Waltham, Belmont, Newton… We cannot get businesses to stay. We need to attract people to our city center – the heart of our community. We are seeing increased numbers of young families, the famer’s market is growing, our outdoor concerns are a huge hit. Let’s build on the momentum… literally. Now do I agree we need guidelines – YES. But why does that mean a reduction in FAR – why not look at zoning height requirements? Take a walk down Main Street in Waltham, take notes from our neighbors. We can be urban renewal leaders and be an example of revitalization – but as someone said on Facebook, we need to stop fighting against our own town.

    • There are few in town who are simply afraid of change. What matters to folks is the quality of the change.

      Watertown Square needs revitalization for sure. But that will only happen if it becomes a pleasant place to linger and spend time and money.

      One only need to look at the behemoth on Galen Street to see that there has been a lot of reckless development. It is time to have a public debate that is inclusive and deliberate instead of having decisions being made in a back room.

      • I doubt anyone is worried about change per se. We need more affordable housing. And a vibrant downtown. What I’m worried about is inappropriate scale. Take a look at Arlington’s city center with its many restaurants, shops and businesses. It has no towering boxes of apartments. I’d love to see enough setback from new buildings that a restaurant could actually have a half dozen tables outside without impeding foot traffic. Now we are just a “pass through” town on somebody’s way to somewhere else. Let’s make it welcoming and appealing. Building a pile of apartments is not an interesting feature. There are more attractive ways to provide new housing for the downtown area.

        • Hear! Hear!

          For an object lesson in what we don’t want to happen in Watertown Square, please consider the horrible development in Cushing Square, Belmont.

          An attractive, if dated, human scale, walkable town square was undermined by a massive development with inadequate setbacks, little street activation and zero architectural appeal. Did I mention chintzy looking materials?

          We all want more housing, but how it’s done is the important question. We can insist on quality and harmony with the existing community.

      • Referencing the development on Galen Street couldn’t be a better example the wrong kind of development. How that project got approved is beyond my understanding. It is extremely inappropriate for the area; it is far too large in scale and devalues the adjacent properties.

        • No, what devalued the adjacent properties was being across the street from a failing Buick dealership, a nearly falling down house, and a Jiffy Lube. While the new development is definitely large, it brings in hundreds of high paying jobs which in turn helps the adjacent business’s.

          Having large office/lab space within short walking distance to 2 main hubs of public transportation is exactly what Watertown needs more of to ensure we can grow the workforce in the area. And putting right next to public transportation increases its usage and lowers the impact of noise and pollution.

          • Whoa, sir. . .slow down! The choice is not between the Buick dealer and what is being built at 66 Galen. Most Watertown citizens would like to see a development that is more in scale with its surroundings, particularly our riverfront.

            Sir, the sky will not fall down on our heads if we demand more thoughtful development that is appropriate to that which surrounds it.

            BTW, soon there will be no transportation next door when the MBTA sells the car barn property to a developer. Mark my words.

          • Are you the one putting up the money and time to buy the land & design/build the property, find a business to occupy it , manage and maintain it?

            Just because you live in a zipcode, that doesn’t give you some ultimate authority over everything getting developed. Just because you live down the street doesn’t mean any developer should listen to your opinion on what materials they use or how they should design it. Do you tell your neighbors what siding to put up or what their fence should look like?

            And yes the MBTA should sell that massive falling down building and rebuild the entire bus station for the 504 and other routes, it is a complete waste of space as it stands.

          • Eric, we live in a democracy. Laws are made that mean that individuals cannot always do everything that they want. We have to consider the welfare of our neighbors, our community, our planet and so on.

            Zoning laws keep our towns and cities from becoming the Wild West. They insure some sort of order and are perfectly legitimate. And it is also perfectly legitimate for citizens to have a say in how the built landscape of their city is built out through their elected government and public process.

            That is a basic tenet of both democracy and civilization.

          • Ha ha High Paying job…. I’ll believe that when I actually see it. Add in that employees will most likely now live here or spend that high salary here because Watertown is just another tower city with all apartment building hanging large banners stating they have units available. Sure they are available but who can afford them.

        • Well, being at the meeting for the zoning change at the Council, It was done above board, not that I was in favor of it and I was more concerned for the small businesses in the area. They wanted a new gateway into Watertown and they got it, instead of the old, dumpy, and very blighted looking area. Boston Development Group submitted their plans, nothing secret that I know of. What I do know is that returning from the airport a few times this week, the building doesn’t bother me, that fact that BDG did a lot more, open green space, how about changing a dangerous intersection along the river into a safe one and including a park, I believe at their own discretion. And most importantly not forgetting that one Councilor named Palomba actually hit them up for a donation to the Affordable Housing fund. So like it or not, my personal opinion is that BDG is I think one of if not the best Developers to build in Watertown.

      • The developers read our laws ,valued /bought the property and designed a building based on them. Now a group of activists are trying to now change the laws after the fact which impacts not only that project but all future projects and drastically reduces the value of the existing properties in Watertowns central business district.

        In what universe is lowering the property value in the town square while trying to incentivize redevelopment a good idea?

        The activists behind this petition have not put forth a single point on how lowering the FAR will help water redevelop the downtown area, lower infrastructure costs for the town, increase usage of public transportation or any of the other goals laid out by the various groups in Watertown.

        All they seem to care about is lowering building heights for no other reason than they don’t like tall buildings.

        • Any developer knows that zoning may change, and reading of our laws would actually reinforce that. Factors including fluctuating construction costs, market preferences, economic forecasts, and, yes, changes in zoning and regulations, are among the risks for which they plan. The city isn’t responsible for mitigating those risks. As there might always be a project in some state of development, your argument, taken to it’s logical conclusion, would imply that changes to zoning should never occur.

          Luckily, the city’s ordinances and Home Rule Charter provide a number of ways by which amendments may be proposed – petitions included; the Commonwealth’s “Zoning Act” does the same. Neither assigns preference to one means over another and each should reach our boards and Council without prejudice.

          The ordinances also specifically outline how enacted amendments will impact projects that are in various stages of the application or development process; there are no surprises here.

          The call of some citizens to place priority or cast doubt on the manner by which amendments are proposed whistles back to manufactured outrage against ‘mail-in balloting’ or ‘hybrid meetings’. Such attacks are undemocratic and serve to potentially disenfranchise well-intentioned participants. Interestingly, those you’ve term ‘activists’ for signing the CB FAR petition outnumber those who submitted a Comprehensive Plan survey by almost two-to-one.

          Lastly, FAR governs the ratio of floor area to lot area, not height independently. By reducing FAR and *encouraging* height, you allow space for those features that improve quality of life. As Watertown is a small city, it’s vital to demand such amenities as they’ll be what integrate a project into the surrounding community.

          • Very good points indeed George.

            I’ll add one more. The prices that developers pay for property has gotten to astronomical sums. Let me suggest that when a developer says that they cannot make a project pencil without an excess of height, density or building footprint–that they have to build a building inappropriate for its surroundings–it really means that they have paid too much. They have paid too much to build a quality project that they can be proud of and the community can embrace.

  7. I don’t think the citizens of Watertown are afraid of change per se. I think they are concerned with the speed of development and decisions taken that if left unchecked, could result in problems down the road. Citizens are looking for town officials and employees to safeguard community interests and quite frankly, the record here has been somewhat cloudy and opaque.

  8. I was dismayed and shocked when I learned about the development at the post office across from the library. Has the change to label Watertown as a city and not a town has caused many (read developers) to lose sight of our precious small town atmosphere.

    I am firmly opposed to the redevelopment on Main Street that will replace the unique downtown soul of Watertown with a generic rebuild that does nothing to improve the look and feel of an authentic piece of Americana. I believe the only way to attend tonight’s meeting is by Zoom which I will do.

  9. The current proposed building plans are totally unacceptable. This and the Pleasant St corridor planning should be put under moratorium for 2 years while the people of Watertown can discuss and regroup. In the meanwhile the town should be returned back to Town rather than City designation. This would allow for return to Town Meeting form of Government which would ultimately restore democracy, transparency, debate and grass roots decision making by and for the people of Watertown.
    A comparison to Last night’s Lexington Town Meeting shows the undeniable difference in free and open speech and decision making at its best, by the people.

  10. I want to thank all of you for responding to this issue. Frank dialogue is needed for our City to grow in positive ways.

    To Joan, as always, ditto!!

    For Libby and others who have questions about FAR, I’ve found a video from a community in California which is the clearest explanation I’ve found. The link is below:

    The largest building in this video has an FAR of 3.6, not 4.0. It’s important to note that when calculating the FAR of a building, they don’t even count the parking garage or stairwells!

    There are clear forces amassing to fight this petition who will write letters and show up for every meeting. They’re probably talking to City officials as we speak.

    We’ve literally done the “leg work.” It was a labor of love for the City that we love. As inconvenient as it may be, could you please come (physically or on-line) to the meetings on this issue and speak up.? The next one will be vital…the Planning Board will be looking at this and be making recommendations to the City Council on how to proceed.

    Charlie is very good about letting us know when those meetings will occur. The money forces will succeed if it’s just us, and we’ve seen what that’s gotten us so far.

    To people who see any kind of “progress” as good, I’d like to remind you that not in the too distant past, Watertown experienced “progress” that landed us on an EPA Superfund cleanup list. What could possibly go wrong??

    There will be nothing left of Main Street to plan for if we wait until studies of the Square are complete and the Comprehensive Plan is approved, The proverbial closing the barn door after the horse has left. This petition gives the Square a fighting chance of survival until we, the people, have weighed in.

    Joe, I know that the “Godzilla on Galen” (thank you, Bruce Coltin for that image…it is so apt!) is the obvious symbol of what has gone wrong with recent development in Watertown.

    But, just for a second, take a closer look at Main Street itself. The building currently in construction across from Saltonstall Park is a stellar example of “progress” run amok…towering…skyline destroying…public disregarding. That’s what our zoning currently allows. How many of these can Main Street survive?

    We’ll do our best to keep you aware of what’s happening. Please help us revitalize Main Street in a thoughtful way!

    As one of Watertown’s most famous residents, Helen Keller, once said, “Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.”

  11. I’m concerned about development encroaching into neighborhoods (Canistrato building) but I’m in favor of developing our remarkably unattractive downtown. For example, I’m hoping there is a proposal to raze 85 Main Street — the most unattractive building in Watertown. The building under construction across from Saltonstall replaced a skeevy convenience store, parking lot, and chain-link fence — a decades-old eyesore. The proposed Post Office development will replace mainly a parking lot in back of a dated brick building, just like the Cushing Square development mentioned above thankfully got rid of an abandoned CVS, its unattractive parking lot, a greasy spoon abandoned chicken joint (2004?) tailor shop (2005-6?) and long-time, don’t-go-there Chinese restaurant. Sure, weigh in on the Post Office development’s height and its facade; that’s fair game. Plant trees along the sidewalk in front. But my vote is to bring housing downtown, create restaurants on the building’s first floor, and raze what is there now.

    • Agree 100%. The Main St and Cushing Square developments both improve (or will improve) their respective neighborhoods. What they replaced were *neither* enhancing the look of their city nor drawing patrons from far and wide. In each case, the land is being put to more attractive and productive use…. including new housing!

  12. To those who coined the phrase “zoning by petition”:

    I find this phrase, “zoning by petition” very contrived, as if a special group got together and decided that repeating it often enough made it true. Curiously, the phrase certainly spread quickly enough among a seemingly small cadre of individuals.

    Why such rancor and repetitive language, aimed at hundreds of your fellow citizens, who have just as much right to express a vision for Watertown Square as they do, I wonder?

    This phrase plus the platitude, “We need more affordable housing” are often used together and provide more heat than light.

    I don’t know anyone in Watertown who wakes up each morning and thinks, “How can I stop poor and middle class people from getting housing in Watertown?” No, it’s just the opposite.

    So, when all of those frequently used platitudes calm down, what is YOUR plan for building affordable housing in Watertown? I’d like the actual specifics, please. A detailed map would be helpful. How many and what kinds of units in what neighborhoods? Please present a detailed plan that’s more defined than “the higher the better.” For instance, what amenities would be provided?

    I urge you to actually step back and take a look at the newest construction at 164-166 Main Street, in the Central Business (CB) district. It is Exhibit A of what our current FAR 4.0 zoning in Watertown Square can get you.

    Is that your vision for the Square? Does that building draw you in or repel you? Does it celebrate nature or defy its existence? Where do you imagine new residents engaging with one another and meeting others in the community?

    To me, this building says, “Go away! Private property! We alone own the sunlight. Our shadows should be good enough for you.” It offends its closest neighbors, with its intrusiveness.

    Now look just a few doors down, to the “H and K building,” where great pains were taken to respect the architecture that was already there. Could that building be improved upon? Sure. But it’s obvious that there was a real effort there to be a friendly part of our community and join with St. Patrick’s Church, an example of what is beautiful and iconic in our Square.

    As far as affordable housing is concerned, this modern version of a five story fortress will realize only 35 housing units, five of them affordable, not even making a dent in our housing goals. Precious Watertown land reserved largely for the affluent. That seems to be the trend.

    At this rate, how many acres of land will we have to “steal” from our neighboring communities to achieve our housing goals?

    No, the time for vague platitudes is past. What is your plan?

  13. Wake up, people: Watertown is no longer a “small town” and I, for one, don’t want it to return to the 1950s (yuck).

    The 66 Galen building is not even finished construction yet it’s being excoriated by people who have nothing good to say about anything that is new. I think that, once finished, the building will look lovely from the river. It’s a bit close to Galen St., but the other side of that same coin is the fact that Galen St. is old, tired and in desperate need of an upgrade!

    Agree with Erik York: “Just because you live in a zipcode, that doesn’t give you some ultimate authority over everything getting developed. Just because you live down the street doesn’t mean any developer should listen to your opinion on what materials they use or how they should design it.”

    Example of the worst: “To people who see any kind of ‘progress’ as good, I’d like to remind you that not in the too distant past, Watertown experienced ‘progress’ that landed us on an EPA Superfund cleanup list. What could possibly go wrong??” The logic is false (equating apples to oranges) and the context is missing (the decision to do nuclear research at the Arsenal was made with information available at the time, not information we have today). See comment above about the 1950s…

    • When I reference a “small town” feel, I’m thinking about a delicate balance of preservation and growth, producing a vibrant blend of modern and historic, with adequate amenities to allow for those meaningful, inclusive interactions that build community. Accusing anyone of trying to return us to a regressive 1950s suburbia is an outlandish attempt to create a false narrative (icky-icky-double-yuck!!!).

      While 66 Galen might “look lovely from the river” to some, the project, like many recently undertaken or proposed, overshadows rather than enhances the abutting communities, especially those across Galen. I applaud the amount of green space provided by the project but criticize its orientation (hidden from those that most deserve the buffer). It’s also a red herring with regards to the CB FAR petition as 66 Galen St. is in the I-2 district, which has a max FAR of ‘only’ 2.0. I suspect it would have looked much different if the developers had been allowed a FAR of 4.0.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *