The revised draft of Watertown’s Comprehensive Plan will include some new additions and points of emphasis about supporting small businesses and seeking to diversify the local economy after the input provided by residents earlier this year.
On Thursday afternoon, he Planning Advisory Committee heard about the public input from the open house in March, as well as online surveys and emails sent to the project team. They also learned about the process for the final approval of the Comprehensive Plan.
Phil Schaeffing, the project manager with Stantec, said the input came from a room full of people during the March 9 open house at the Watertown Library, which was also attended by several people online. They received both spoken and written comments at the event. Residents also submitted 110 online surveys, which included 290 comments on the plan, plus emails sent to the project team.
A few themes emerged from the public input, Schaeffing said.
“A lot of people who responded either at the open house or on the survey wanted to see an enhanced focus on small business,” he said.
People wanted to support businesses that enliven Watertown Square and Coolidge Square and the smaller retail areas along Main Street and in neighborhoods, Schaeffing said. He added that the retail environment started to become challenging several years ago, but worsened during the Pandemic.
“The other thing that came through was the diversity of the economic base,” Schaeffing said.
People spoke about the large number of life science R&D and lab projects built and approved in the past few years. He noted that the growth in that sector goes back to 2011, when the City developed an economic development plan in which life science developments was one of the four targeted areas.
“Recognizing the success of attracting those types of businesses, we also want to make sure we have a diverse economy that can be resilient to economic cycles, that has different types of jobs, different skill levels, different pay levels, as well as different types of buildings,” Schaeffing said. “We recognize that for some the character and size of lab and life science buildings, to them, doesn’t fit with the character of the City.”
People also spoke out about wanting to have convenient access to everyday services and amenities in their neighborhood, as well as jobs. Also, they should be easily accessible by multiple forms of transportation.
Schaeffing said it fit into a number of areas of the plan, including climate and sustainability goals, as well as transportation planning.
“The more people we have walking and biking and taking public transit, the fewer single occupant vehicle trips we have,” Schaeffing said. “Others were coming at it from more of a small business perspective. If people can easily walk or bike or take transit to Watertown Square, to Coolidge Square, to other neighborhood business areas, the more of a local customer base there is for those businesses.”
After the Comprehensive is adopted, the City will have to work on implementing it. The plan recommends that the City add a staff position focused on doing so.
“There is a clear need at the staff level to increase the capacity related to economic development,” Schaeffing said. “Our recommendation is to create a position whose primary role is focused on that. Someone who will work with small businesses across the City to make sure they have the support they need so they can navigate the processes they need to.”
The position would also be key, he said, to working on improving Watertown and Coolidge squares, and to diversify the local economy.
Schaeffing also outlined the next steps toward approval of the plan.
“The City Council has already referred the plan to the Committee on Economic Development and Planning for discussion, and they are working to schedule that meeting,” he said. “And then the plan will be considered at a joint meeting of both the City Council and the Planning Board for adoption.”
Those meetings will likely take place over the next couple of months, Schaeffing said. They will be announced on the City’s website, as well as the Comprehensive Plan Update project website. He added that the revised drafts will also be posted on the project website.
In addition to the Comprehensive Plan, the City is also updating the Open Space and Recreation Plan. That has a different process, and must be updated every seven years, Schaeffing said. First the City Manager and Planning Board must support the plan. Also, the MAPC, the regional planning organization, must support it. That has happened, and the draft plan has been sent to the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to be reviewed.
“Usually that will come back with conditional approval, pending on address changes (suggested by the state officials),” Schaeffing said.
When the final Open Space and Recreation Plan is adopted, Watertown will be eligible for grants related to open space and recreation.
The Planning Advisory Committee is made up of representatives from the City Council, Planning Board, Conservation Commission, three residents, and a representative of the Watertown Business Coalition.
It is encouraging that people provided input on the Comprehensive Plan in person and online, but it is discouraging that a city our size of somewhere around 35,000 people didn’t have much more participation in the survey. Many people complain they don’t like all the big lab buildings or other developments and want other types of businesses and yet don’t step up to express those feelings in writing when they have the opportunity.
Thankfully the people who took the time to share their thoughts and visions expressed the need for “the diversity of the economic base” that can weather changing economic cycles, provide jobs for people with different skills, employ people of different backgrounds, and to build buildings that fit into our city better than having all huge life science ones, especially ones that abutt residential neighborhoods.
Hopefully zoning considerations will be part of the future planning so that the plan will be smart, thoughtful and easily implemented and not favor big developers, which in 2011 was set as part of the goals. A lot can and does change over 12 years. It will be nice to have additional staff in the Planning and Development area to look into the potential for small businesses and to help them succeed.
As we all know, this is a pivotal time for Watertown to establish how it will be and look going forward. It is now or never to get it right. I wish the City Council and the Planning Board much success in working on this project and representing us in this process.
I think one reason for less online survey participation may have been the difficulty of completing the survey online. I tried 3 times to give replies to the questions and each time I was not able to complete all the questions but there was no way to save what I had already done, so I finally gave up and did not complete it. Which I was really sad about, as I wanted to emphasize at every opportunity the importance of creating and protecting whatever green spaces we have in Watertown in order to preserve the little local ecosystems we have left and to promote the health of Watertown residents and the planet by planting more public gardens and trees. I think it’s also critical to support developers in creating these spaces as they build more structures around the city, and to prioritize creating more such spaces. Not just container gardens and patios, but gardens with wildlife and native plants. Is there still time to say this?