Petition to Reduce Size of Buildings Allowed in Watertown Square Sent to Planning Board

Print More

The City Council voted to send the petition requesting that the allowable size of new buildings in Watertown Square be reduced to the Planning Board for consideration. Councilors did not weigh in on the request, and were told they were required by statute to send the petition on.

The petition submitted with the signatures of more than 200 residents calls for the floor area ratio (FAR) be reduced from 4.0 to 2.2 in the Central Business District, which includes most of Watertown Square. 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. In the Central Business District developments can cover 100 percent of a property, and there are no required setbacks. The maximum height is 55 feet, but developers can request more height.

Multiple residents spoke for and against the petition. Those supporting the petition said they do not want the Square to be filled with tall buildings, and some said that would lead to Watertown losing its small-town feel. Many pointed to the proposed six-story project at 104-126 Main Street as an example of they types of projects they oppose.

Those against said they do not like “zoning by petition” and said the City is taking a look at zoning in Watertown Square through the Comprehensive Plan process. Some said that the petition seems to be aimed at stopping one particular project. People on both sides said they support having more housing, some particularly pointing to having affordable housing.

See the petition language below by clicking here.

The Central Business District is shown in red

As the Council began considering the petition, Council President Mark Sideris clarified what they are considering.

“This is not a discussion of if we like the petition or not,” he said. “What decision is what to send it to the Planning Board for their discussion and expertise because they are the ones that help us deal with zoning along with the Zoning Board.”

Councilor Caroline Bays asked whether the Council is required by law to send the petition to the Planning Board.

City Attorney Mark Reich said the Watertown City Charter requires the Council to submit a zoning amendment petition to the Planning Board, and said that the charter allows proposed zoning changes by petition.

“To the comment about whether zoning should be done by petition, this is enshrined and in the charter. The council doesn’t have a choice as to whether to allow a petition, as long as the petition follows the charter and the statute,” Reich said. “So, at this point (the charter) mandates within 14 days that a petition submitted the Council it shall be referred it to the Planning Board.”

The Planning Board will hold a public hearing and make a recommendation to the City Council. Then the Council will have its own public hearing before making a vote on the zoning amendment proposed in the petition.

Councilor Lisa Felter said she wanted the public to know that the Council is taking the petition seriously.

“Unfortunately I have heard things like: the Council doesn’t care, the Council is ignoring us, the Council is delaying, etc. But we are following the process that is in the Charter, also per State law,” she said. “I know things felt like this to me before I was on the Council. It feels like things take forever, but in a democracy we want to be transparent, and we have a process and that process has to be followed. That’s what we are doing.”

Dates were not announced for the public hearings at the Planning Board or City Council. Sideris said they will be posted, and the first 10 people to sign the petition will be notified by the City.

19 thoughts on “Petition to Reduce Size of Buildings Allowed in Watertown Square Sent to Planning Board

  1. I object to the term “zoning by petition” being used to label a legitimate request from residents and taxpayers to consider scale, height, attractiveness, compliance with the Watertown Comprehensive Plan goals including: community engagement, to manage climate change impacts, enhance the character and quality of squares and connecting corridors, etc. The petition is the only mechanism by which we can call attention to the fact that we care enough about our city to offer input when a project doesn’t live up to those goals. Watertown can have an appealing downtown and build housing in its business district without allowing a bunch of misplaced, over sized buildings. This IS community engagement.

    • Backing up Anne’s comment, this petition doesn’t apply to a single project but to future development in Watertown’s business district, specifically Watertown Square.

      In particular, I find it disturbing that although it appears that retail and restaurants will be on the ground floor of future developments, there is no setback allowing for a wider sidewalk, the potential for outdoor dining and socializing. and planting of trees. Those things would draw people to the square and be good for all businesses. We want a vibrant town square, not a dying town center and a mall-driven future.

    • Agreed. 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 defines one means as more legitimate than another.

      Calls casting doubt on amendments proposed by petition whistle back to manufactured outrage against ‘mail-in voting’ or ‘hybrid meetings’. Such attacks undermine the democratic foundation of not just our municipality, but those across the state. The intention is clear: to disenfranchise well-intentioned citizens and discourage others from participating in or supporting the same.

      If people are so against the right to petition, the appropriate avenue would be to ask local and state governments to change the law, Charter, and ordinances to fit their whims. Ironically, the means to do this would be to… Petition.

  2. Anne, thank you for your comment. This label of “zoning by petition” puts the entire petition effort in a negative perspective, and distorts the views that the petitioners are expressing.

  3. ‘Those against said they do not like “zoning by petition”…’. Submitting a petition to request consideration of zoning amendments is common practice. It is also common practice for developers to submit requests for zoning amendments to accommodate their plans. The law is written to allow these procedures. If someone does not like the laws regarding the process, then they need to address the law, as written, not the people following the process allowed by it. But personally, I believe it is quite appropriate for the people who live in a city/town to have the opportunity to give their input on how they feel it should be developed. ‘Some said that the petition seems to be aimed at stopping one particular project.’ This petition doesn’t seem to be aimed at stopping any particular project; the goal appears to be about making sure that projects are developed at an appropriate scale for the area and with respect to the existing environment.

  4. “Zoning by Petition” is exactly what is. First it was a petition to get the entire area designated an historical district. Once that petition failed, as it should have since it was a complete abuse of the historical district designation, now the activist group has identified (FAR) as a method to derail the main street project and those like it.

    Reducing the floor area ratio (FAR) from 4 to 2 in a high-traffic mixed-use zone can have several negative consequences for the community, local economy, and the environment. The key downsides include:

    1) Limited development potential: By reducing the allowable floor area, developers are restricted in the amount of residential and commercial space they can build. This limitation may deter investment in the area, stifle growth, and inhibit the creation of a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood.

    2) Reduced housing supply: A lower FAR may result in fewer housing units being built in the area. With a growing population and increasing demand for housing, this can exacerbate affordability issues and contribute to urban sprawl as people search for affordable options further away from the city center.

    3) Diminished economic growth: With less commercial space available for businesses, the local economy may suffer. Reduced foot traffic and a limited customer base can make it difficult for businesses to succeed, leading to vacant storefronts and a less attractive neighborhood.

    4) Inefficient land use: A lower FAR often results in lower-density development, which can contribute to urban sprawl and inefficient land use. This can lead to the loss of valuable green spaces, and natural habitats, as well as increased infrastructure costs for the community.

    5) Reduced public transportation efficiency: High-density development in mixed-use zones support efficient public transportation systems. By limiting density, the demand for public transportation will decrease, making it less viable and potentially leading to reduced transit options and increased reliance on personal vehicles.

    Watertown square has two major bus depots that stretch all over the area and feed directly into downtown Boston and Cambridge. Watertown should be focused on building as much housing and commerce within short walking distance to them as possible. We should incentivizing redevelopment of the truly horrible buildings that make up parts of Watertown square (the Armenian Museum is missing half the letters. The stucco on the building at the corner is cracked and breaking off and there is an AC unit just hanging out the window over the sidewalk. Massive parking lot that can be consolidated and parts turned into parks/green spaces.

    I hope both the Council and Planning board throw this petition in the trash where it belongs. I have spent the last 15 years (my entire adult life) building a life and family in Watertown. I want it to grow into the City I know it can be, instead of being held back because of what it once was.

    • Sorry but this is a hysterical and specious reaction to a legitimate citizen demand for more accountability in the development process. Watertown residents have seen a quite a number of poorly conceived developments and want a more reasonable approach.

      In the fifteen years that I have lived here, it seems that the negotiation over development happens in a back room and that public process is little but a sham. The quality of stewardship regarding the built landscape of our town has been slipshod at best.

      It is right–and consistent with our responsibility to future generations–to demand both better and more open process and better results.

  5. As a Watertown resident and taxpayer, I oppose this “zoning by petition” approach. It’s not well thought out, and a case-by-case approach to considering new developments in context would be better for the city. 5 or 6 stories is NOT “misplaced” or “oversized” in our *central business district* – an appropriate location for more dense development! (should be obvious)

  6. Taking a thoughtful approach to basically re-building our downtown area is not spot zoning. This petition is attempting to have smart and creative planning for a very important section of our city. Perhaps the FAR approach isn’t the best one in the long-term. Until other considerations such as form-based codes are investigated, the FAR is the only instrument we have to control over development presently.

    People are not against building housing, but there are other areas that should and could be considered too. If you use your imagination and see a bunch of too-high buildings on Main St. with very few desired architectural characteristics, such as a row of buildings that that are similar to the one that is going up at the old 711 Store site, that is not a pretty site. Does that type of building add anything to the area? I think not and many others do not.

    Many people seem to want to take a pause before any more big developments are approved for Main St. Let the Watertown officials look at the petition and its many merits and make intelligent decisions as to what the vision for a future Watertown should be, not the Developers’ visions.

    We are already among our state’s ten most population-dense municipalities. If we don’t take a thoughtful approach to more developments before it is too late, will we be proud of what has been done? Watertown has drawn many people to move here because we are different than many of the big cities around us. Do we want to lose that distinctive small-town character?

    • People today don’t move to Watertown “because of its small town character.” That vision seems to be held by long-term residents, but it’s not relevant to those who move here today. As one example, I moved to Watertown because of its close proximity to Boston and to work opportunities in biotech. Also, I believe it will be a good real estate investment.

      • I believe that people move to Watertown for many different reasons and to proclaim ‘People today don’t move to Watertown “because of its small town character.”’ is quite presumptive. You may have your own particular reasons for having moved to Watertown and others have theirs, but you cannot speak for all. There may likely be people today who do move here ‘“because of its small town character.”‘.

  7. This petition should be rejected by the planning board. To add on to what Eric York said above, the entire text of the petition itself is either false or irrelevant to what the petition proposes. The petition says that “the current allowable floor area is a relic of 1960s ‘spine’ planning and design theory”, but I can find no information on any such 1960s theory, and furthermore, building taller buildings in the city center is how cities have been constructed for most of human history. It then says the FAR is inconsistent with the comprehensive plan, even referencing a page number, but nothing on that page is inconsistent with a FAR of 4 instead of 2.2, and the comprehensive plan lists the area around Watertown Square (the CB District) as one of the areas targeted for transformation. The rest of the petition is some half-hearted argument for a form-based zoning code that is not relevant, as the petition is not about moving to a form-based code, but tweaking a number in the existing zoning framework. I am all for a form-based code, Somerville’s new zoning code is beautiful, but this petition ain’t it, it’s just an attempt by a small fraction of Watertown residents to restrict development downtown.

  8. To clarify, the FAR for the current proposal for 104 Main St. before the planning board is similar to the 2.2 requested by the petition. The developers were still able to propose a significant 5-to-6-story building on the parcel with exterior amenities to include a public alley/plaza, private dog park, balcony/rooftop gardens, and copious parking – while preserving a historic townhouse.  As a small city, it’s those amenities that will define the built environment for new residents and create the places in which they engage.  A reduced FAR (as per the petition) would encourage similar proposals throughout the Central Business (CB) district.

    Were the 104 Main proposal to instead have a FAR of 4.0 (as allowed by current code), few of those features would be feasible. We’re already the eighth most dense municipality in the state and one of the smallest as well. As such, those ancillary benefits, enabled by a more modest FAR, are what will make Watertown a desirable, livable location for new residents occupying new buildings.  For example, a FAR 4.0 development in the CB District is virtually impenetrable and leaves little opportunity for pedestrian or bike access across the site, while a FAR 2.2 (or similar) project increases the potential for such connections.  I’d argue that the proposed amenities for 104 Main are lackluster, but this discussion is on the CB FAR petition, not that project specifically.

    Given the limited area available, it’s critical to ensure that any new density is accompanied by an offsetting amenity.  Watertown shouldn’t just be a place to live, we should strive for it to be a great place to live.  A reduced FAR for the CB district (which would still be the highest in the city) moves us in that direction. 

    Converting private parking lots to open space, as a previous commenter suggested, is infeasible with current zoning and a FAR of 4.0. What’s the plan, ask nicely for major concessions?  Density-at-all-cost arguments fall apart when proponents want additional amenities which can best be accommodated by, (surprise), reducing FAR.  And, no, you can’t take it on a “case-by-case” basis.  The city’s boards lack the necessary authority and discretion.

    I understand and agree with the need for affordable housing, but honestly question whether those chanting “Build baby build!” have the city’s or the residents’ (both current and expected) best interests at heart.  Redevelopment and revitalization require more than density and floor area.  The goal should be to integrate new developments into our city such that they enhance rather than overshadow our diverse neighborhoods.  When I reference a “small town” feel, I’m thinking about that 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 and instill a sense of belonging.

    • I’m no longer a Watertown resident, having moved to Boston, but I’m a little confused by this argument. The 104 Main St. project appears to be a range of heights, from 4 stories along the street to 6 further back, so if it has a FAR of 2.2 that means the building will only occupy a bit over a third of the lot while two thirds will be open space. I understand that more open space allows for amenities like pedestrian areas and dog parks, but why does that need to be required? FAR of 4.0 is a maximum, not a minimum, and it of course did not preclude the 104 Main project with its lower FAR from being proposed.

      Also, while it’s maybe great that 104 Main is being proposed with a dog park and pedestrian alley, does every project in Watertown Square need to offer those same amenities? Does the Square need a separate dog park for every building that goes up? Should there be a wide pedestrian alley between every building? Older city centers of the sort many people enjoy are often composed of multiple buildings covering their lots almost completely with no amenities, with larger common amenities nearby for use by all. Experience shows that the “open space” mandated by FAR restrictions often ends up being paved surface parking lots; does that really improve the area?

      • The following is the definition of Open Space, as written in the Watertown Zoning Ordinance: § 2.61. Open space. Areas open, and unobstructed to the sky that can be used for active or passive recreation purposes. Amenities such as a plaza, square, courtyard, paths, or outdoor dining areas, and items such as benches, walkways, planters, landscaping, swimming pools, kiosks, gazebos, and similar structures shall not be considered as obstructions. Opportunities should be sought that bring together the open space requirements of adjoining properties in order to foster a more coherent and continuous landscape network. Parking and loading areas of any type shall not be allowed in any required open space. Further, in all residential districts, the minimum required open space shall be contiguous and pervious, and shall not include any side yard driveway buffer where required by this Ordinance. Open space would not end up being “paved surface parking lots” under this change, as, by definition, “Parking and loading areas of any type shall not be allowed in any required open space…”.

        • There’s a difference between “required open space” as defined in what you quoted and the open (common usage, i.e. un-built) space that’s created as a result of FAR restrictions. FAR is calculated based on structures and surface parking is not included, so while a parking lot would not count towards any open space explicitly required by §2.61, it would also not count towards FAR. This makes sense, since a parking lot isn’t a floor so it doesn’t contribute to “floor area”. Any portion of the lot left over once both open space and FAR requirements are met can be, and often is, used for surface parking.

      • The 104 Main St project might be ‘interesting’ because it’s an odd-shaped lot that also includes a townhouse building. The FAR is similar to the 2.2 proposed by the petition, but I think it’s closer to 2.5. Does every project need an alley and a dog park? Of course not. But there are other public amenities that would add value to our city’s center, especially patios to allow for outdoor dining (and maybe live music), and simply shaded green space.

        While 104 Main and the new building on the 7-11 lot are close to Saltonstall park, much of the CB district doesn’t abut green space. As you move away from the river and the square, there are almost no common/public open spaces. If the plan is to increase residential density in these areas, “pocket parks” would be a welcome addition. As the Community Path is slated to eventually transect the area, I’d hope that some amenities would complement that. I share your concern that open space might include paving. I’d hope that the Planning Board or Zoning Board would exercise their authority when reviewing projects to ensure that’s not the case.

  9. I personally think the plans of having the upper floors set back address the desires of the local residences for having a a more open feel for the main st. area. I’m not sure using the FAR code will insure this is the way it’s done in the future. More specific wording is probably the better way to go. I too would like to see more green space intermingled into the down town area.
    I think the Square as a village area is what people are calling for.

Leave a Reply

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