LETTER: Petitioner to Change Watertown Zoning Urges People to Speak Up

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Hi Guys,

We’ve got to stop meeting like this! With every Watertown development meeting, every Affordable Housing Trust meeting, and on and on, there we sit. We’re quite a bit smaller in number at actual meetings, but we’ve proven that we have at least 600 Watertown residents that share our point of view. I know for a fact, from conversations with residents who didn’t get a chance to sign the petitions, that there are many more of us!

As Watertown residents band together to say, “Save Our Community!” we’ve seen comments that imply that we’re old fashioned, elitist, anti-change or all of the above, trying to portray our concerns as insignificant. Ouch!!

And yet, it’s a large part of the Watertown community’s consistent assertion that if Big Development has its way, (which has been proven to be the case so far in Watertown), Watertown’s future will be whiter, richer and be peopled by more transient folks than it ever has! That’s not a recipe for a modern, healthy, vibrant community that looks toward the future while remembering the lessons of the past. That kind of developer-driven community flies against the values that many of us who were drawn to the diversity and history that Watertown had in the first place. And before anyone says that those are “old” values … really? Diversity?? Inclusion?? Learning from our past??

At times, I’ve seen us be accused of “hijacking” the process by writing petitions aimed at allowing citizens to express their point of view on current development trends in Watertown. And yet, as we see it, (and the Constitution sees it as well), we have a right to petition our government.

They question, ”Where’s the Comprehensive Plan???” May I join you in that question? Where IS that Watertown document that citizens have been working on for over a year? [NOTE: the Comprehensive Plan Draft was released June 28 after the letter was published. See it by clicking here] Will it come out AFTER the developers have had a chance, using the MBTA Law,* to divvy up their “territory,” finding the choicest pieces of Watertown property to “enhance” their bottom line? Neither of the two petitions slated to go before the City Council on July 11th shouts, “Stop development,” rather they whisper, “Use restraint when building, please.” Hence an FAR (Floor Area Ratio) of 2.2 in the Central Business District (Main Street), which falls right in between the two newest Main Street projects, one (166 Main) being built at an FAR of 1.9 and one in the planning process (104 Main at FAR 2.5) seemed a compromise, a nod to both progress and restraint.

The current FAR for the Central Business District is 4.0! By the way, at that Planning Board meeting, it was stated by one of the Board members that the FAR number for Watertown Square has been falling over the years. I guess this petition is right on trend!

The second petition attempted to temper industrial development right next to Watertown neighborhoods. It was not an attempt to eliminate it, even though they are very large buildings that have lights and giant fans on, blowing things (still to be determined) into the environment 24/7, 365 days a year. It’s an attempt to gradually fit this development into the neighborhoods that they’re joining. Question: Is that unreasonable or “anti-growth”?

That’s why I was so appreciative of the two Planning Board members who put actual thought into what the citizens’ intent was when writing these petitions. They were looking for what citizens were trying to accomplish and understood and appreciated our earnest attempts. By their decisions, they said, “We can work with this. We can work with you!” It was a small, but significant shift, and I credit former Council President Clyde Younger with introducing the now too often underrated word “compromise” into this conversation.

We, as a community, all agree that we need housing, but that’s where the conversation ends. We say Watertown families are leaving. But we’re not giving them the opportunity to stay with the type of housing that developers are building that maximizes their profit and minimizes chances that it’ll work for Watertown parents with kids. We’ve gotten public nods of agreement from Watertown government officials, but up till now no action.

So what’s the answer? Go down with the ship? That wouldn’t be my first choice.

Last night, June 27th, at the City Council Meeting, there was a “first reading” of these petitions. The Council did not discuss the actual petitions at this meeting.

Oh, by the way, tonight’s Zoning Board of Appeals meeting (June 28 at 7:00) is a must see. The Board will be discussing the 104 Main Street project. For those of you who haven’t been following these things closely, that’s the huge mixed use development that could potentially close down our Post Office.

The next City Council meeting on these two petitions is on July 11th, where there’ll be an actual discussion and decisions will be made. You might want to send a letter or e-mail to the Council members before that meeting or join us on the 11th to participate and ask questions of these councilors … where do they stand?

Here are the ground rules for that meeting, as I understand them. The Council can:

• Reject the petitions without discussion
• Reject the petitions after discussion
• Table it for further study.
• Take certain portions of the petitions and earmark them for further study (as two of the four
Planning Board members suggested)

Am I missing anything?

Yes! This just in: On July 10th from 6:00 – 8:00 the the Watertown Economic Development and Planning Committee will be discussing the results of the Comprehensive Plan. That will be interesting.

Sigh … see you on July 11th!

*At that same Planning Board meeting, it was revealed that the DCDP is busy planning for the
MBTA Law (potentially 1700 new units in Watertown Square) without the benefit of citizen
involvement OR the ratified Comprehensive Plan

Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

9 thoughts on “LETTER: Petitioner to Change Watertown Zoning Urges People to Speak Up

  1. Thanks Linda, as always some great information. I really picked up on many of your points, on my walks around with the dogs/dog, I’ve gotten to know some people, as they have gotten to know me, there is nothing better than the conversations learned from those walks, that they face in these times trying to stay afloat in Watertown. People who grew up here, some who didn’t. They talk about what is affordable to them and that the struggle is real, even with 2 wage earners. So when an out of town developer tells us what’s good, along with some others, it shows how out of touch they are with Watertown. Let’s hear about that our taxes are not going to be rising but lowering from all of this. I commend Tom Tracey and Earl Smith with their honest assessment the last time that opened our eyes of how development has not lowered them as we may have thought they would. The second petition is very important due to the area that developers are eyeing now, Rosedale/Acton St/ Howard and Waltham St. Some of those parcels back right up to the neighbors houses lot lines. No problems when the buildings are 1 maybe 2 floors as they have been for decades. Of course there are some who like the Industrial height of 85′ right of your back patio you’ve enjoyed for years, I’ll bet the current abutters won’t. So do they need the change to their little piece of paradise all in the name of “the buck” going into someone’s out of Town pocket? So let’s find the common ground by finally listening to the people who’ve paid the bills for a long time by living here, rather than turning the backs towards them! Thank you

  2. 1. PLEASE STOP suggesting, in Letters to the Editor and in comments at city meetings, that “the 600” speak for all Watertown residents. Many, many, Watertown residents/home owners/taxpayers (the “silent majority”) have very different views, but they have busy working lives and don’t attend city meetings or read this newspaper.

    2. If this author perceives that some comments “imply that we’re old fashioned, elitist, anti-change or all of the above,” then please reconsider what you write. Those views come screaming (screaming) through these Letters to the Editor.

    3. Building new apartments and condos does NOT lead to “whiter, richer and more transient” communities. Many people of color have taken the TIME AND EFFORT to get the necessary education and skills to earn sufficient income to pay market rents. I’ve worked with many of them. They deserve housing too. And many who move here will stay for years, as I have.

    4. For all those who wish developers would build something else: Feel free to spend your own money to build what you want. But if a developer is spending the money, they get to decide how to invest it.

    Based on what I’ve seen at city meetings, resident laypersons who display zero expertise in the complex field of real estate development, seem to feel they have every right to tell developers what to do, down to the tiniest detail. This just makes all of us sit through hours of unproductive “comments” in city meetings.

    5. Just because city officials decide in a different way than some residents want, this does NOT mean those residents weren’t heard. It means their ideas didn’t attract sufficient support. Saying the same things over and over and over reminds me of the stereotypical “ugly American” who travels to a foreign country where they speak a different language, but refuses to learn any words in that language, and instead just speaks LOUDER in English assuming they will understand. Not a successful strategy.

    6. The views of ALL Watertown residents, no matter how long they’ve lived in Watertown, are equally meaningful. I’m sick and tired of all the residents who boast of the long time they’ve lived here, with the implication that their views are more important than the views of other residents who live here now. They are not.

    • Well said. Those of us who write here are a small minority of our communities. Our voices should be heard, as should all.

    • Oh, Kathi, you’ve been as consistently loud and dismissive as anyone else in this comment section, and you’ve consistently implied that anyone who disagrees with you doesn’t work hard enough or doesn’t possess enough education to see alternate viewpoints. I’m personally in favor of more downtown development, and other large-scale buildings — such as the one at the base of Galen Street next to the MBTA stop — do not bother me in the least. I also do not have any problem at all with those who are banging the drum loudly to oppose large developments encroaching into neighborhoods (like the Canistrano site project). And I don’t have a problem at all with petitioning city government, speaking up at city hall, or gathering support through this letters forum. Changing zoning and attempting to influence large developments are activities that are entirely within the purview of the citizenry. Citizens telling developers what they want “down to the tiniest detail” has led to concessions on building height, sidewalk setback and more on the downtown project. That’s Democracy — a good thing to remember as we come up on July 4th. The idea that “it’s a developers property and they can do what they want with it” is simply not legally correct. I agree with you that the time you have lived in town should have no bearing on your ability to speak up. (I’ve only been here 19 years!) But I disagree with you when you say that those wanting to influence the built landscape in which they live should either quiet down or find the funding to build their own developments. I admire the fact that my fellow citizens are participating in the process.

    • When you get 600 people to sign petitions, then I will consider the above. Actually I believe that the views of the petitioners are shared by many, many more Watertowners. And their voices count. The petition signatories are only the tip of the iceberg.

      I am also very tired of having my own views and the views of persons I know misrepresented in the service of an agenda. I find the backlash against those who are wanting better development in Watertown to be ugly and divisive.

      BTW, I work as a design consultant on some pretty big buildings, so I am not uninformed about architecture and design. Stop trying to vilify your neighbors. Just because they are not real estate people does not mean that they do not understand the issues at stake and many of them understand their town as well or better than developers from out of town.

  3. It is absolutely absurd to say that families are leaving Watertown. The elementary schools are adding extra Kindergarden classes to accommodate all of the new students, parents are signing up for lotteries to get into extended day care for their kids. If you look at the latest comprehensive plan draft (page 23) you can clearly see that over the last 10 years Watertown undid the previous 30 years of population decline. So yes, I think we have learned from our past and are correcting for it. If you don’t building anything for 30 years people leave and the town services suffer. https://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/mysocialpinpoint/uploads/redactor_assets/documents/c460057dc1bfc66ca6fb6a9b318225351f66fb479e6b4008c8587174435dbf36/81158/Watertown-Comp-Plan_Draft-Revised_230626.pdf

    Now, I do agree that older families (families with middle & high school age kids) were leaving, and I argue that is because of how poorly Watertown’s schools have ranked academically vs. surrounding towns. Watertown does not support kids who want to get a leading vocational education, these students have practically been abandoned and forced to leave the community. (https://www.watertownmanews.com/2023/04/04/few-options-at-area-vocational-schools-watertown-to-work-with-students-to-find-best-solution/) Our High Schools AP classes participation and attainment is mediocre at best. If you want someone that will fight to change this, please vote for Rachel Kay for School Committee this fall.

    In conclusion, the town needs developments like the one on Main street. The units will not be cheap, but increasing the supply of housing units in Watertown is desperately needed. A transient population is not bad, they pay taxes and require little services (they don’t have kids yet) so they are a net revenue increase for the town and help fund schools, senior services, and DPW projects. The more densely you can build for them, the bigger net revenue impact they have. If you want families to choose Watertown for the long term, ensure there are world class options for all types of students. The new buildings are great but if kids are not able to thrive in top AP classes or learn the trade they want to be successful, those families will not stay.

    • The O’Connor project represents a childproof response to today’s housing crisis. It squeezes as many units as possible on the site, touting luxury living while charging market-rate rents for units that ten years ago would have been larger than what is typically offered today. With few three-bedroom, family-friendly units, Nimbyies can be assured that the unit mix will serve singles, roommate arrangements, childless heterosexual or same-sex marrieds, and students whose rent is paid by guarantor parents, a revenue windfall for the city coffers and no burden on the local school system.

      The project is unacceptably auto-centric, which drives up the price of the units, limiting the number of affordable, family-friendly three-bedroom units, undermines public transit, and increases traffic congestion. Nervous Nimbyies are assured that a multi-use development will be safely segregated in the CB district and not in their neighborhoods and that renters cars will not be parking on their streets. Those who think fostering racial and class diversity is unimportant to community building in Watertown can be assured that the O’Connor project demonstrably proves it.

  4. It is good for as many people as possible to express their opinions either in this publication or at city meetings. For those who speak or spoke up for the petitions and their issues, they are doing so for those who did sign them, not for all of Watertown.

    The petition signers didn’t need to be convinced to sign; they spoke willingly that they were happy that they had an opportunity to get their voices out there in a public way as they felt that our Planning and Development officials and others in the city weren’t listening to their individual requests, despite making calls or sending emails. They expressed that they felt that developers always have more input and control in any discussions and decisions.

    People have busy lives and many aren’t comfortable speaking at meetings. If others can represent them, that’s a good thing. Years ago when there were town meetings I understand that there were more people who participated. Those were different times and Watertown had a smaller population.

    If you are interested in what’s going on in Watertown and feel that you want change or moderated change, you should voice your opinions at the various meetings or here. If not, allow the people who attempt to bring important issues to your attention the freedom to express their opinions without judgement for their intent. We don’t have a weekly local newspaper so many people aren’t aware of what is going on and appreciate information being researched and brought to their attention.

    George Washington once said, “For if Men are to be precluded from offering their Sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences, that can invite the consideration of Mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of Speech may be taken away, and, dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter.”

    Housing and diverse businesses are needed in Watertown and it can sometimes be difficult to get the right balance. Most people aren’t against growth, but they stress they want a thoughtful and fiscally responsible approach to serving people’s needs and accommodate people with diverse financial and professional backgrounds. Affordable housing is difficult to create with the inflationary factors affecting land values, construction costs, etc. Many of these new developments aren’t affordable for many average Watertown residents and there don’t seem to be many ways to make them so.

    Developers need to be held to standards and regulations and be receptive to citizen suggestions and comments. That is or should be part of the process and is why we have community meetings when large developments are being proposed. If we allow them to propose huge developments without controls or input, many businesses in today’s world will build to the max in every situation to accommodate their bottom lines.

    We know that most things today are all about money and that’s fine, but old-fashioned efforts at compromising and wanting to be a good neighbor in a community can go a long way in maintaining quality of life for residents and a cohesive environment. Approaching development in that way seems to be a much more workable and desirable way of doing things. We may not all agree at all times, but let’s be tolerant and work together to make Watertown a desirable community for all.

  5. Once again, Linda, thank you for your thoughts and comments. And for yours as well, Dennis. This is a critical stage in Watertown’s development. As both of you have written, we do need more housing. But we need housing that will encourage families to remain in Watertown, not attract big earners who want a smaller version of Boston. Compromise is a key word. Buildings that are appropriately sized to ‘fit’ into the 2 and 3 story downtown area are what we need. Compromise would be the 4 or 5 story version of the Main St project with an additional 15 feet of set back to accommodate pedestrians, cafe tables for outdoor dining, plantings to absorb noise and auto exhaust, and add visual interest to the Square. I hope our elected officials and the Planning Board get this right because whatever is built we are stuck with for our lifetimes.

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