LETTER: A Big Week for Watertown Politics & Development

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By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

This week is a kind of a big deal in Watertown politics. I know. It’s summer, and to borrow a phrase, it’s stinkin’ hot and humid. Who can think straight in this environment? My body has been fighting my mind for about a week now, and I apologize to all of my friends who’ve heard very little from me lately.

You know when you have a complicated task and you just don’t know where to begin to approach it? Well that’s how I’ve been feeling. But time waits for no man or woman, so here’s this week’s lineup:

Government Meetings:

Monday, July 10th. 6:00: The Economic Planning and Development Committee is studying the newly released Comprehensive Plan.

Tuesday, July 11th 7:00: The City Council is considering the two petitions signed by over 600
residents that attempt to address:

Resident concerns about the scale of development in Watertown Square and Resident concerns about transitions of large industry into neighborhoods

Wednesday. July 12th at 7:00: Planning Board Meeting … also looking at the Comprehensive

The Comprehensive Plan:

So, let’s start with the Comprehensive Plan. One of the overarching goals for this plan is transparency in government. They say it’s coming. I say so’s Christmas! My apologies. Did I mention that I’ve been “disturbed” by the heat?

So, a few things that have jumped out at me in the Comprehensive Plan that I’d like to mention:


It states on page 41 under strategy #5 of the Comprehensive Plan: “Continue to monitor and reassess safety requirements for life science buildings as needed (e.g. existing requirement that new labs do not exceed biosafety level 2 and are reviewed by fire and other inspectors with lab specialization).” I have a question: How do we stand on older labs, before this restriction was put into place? I’ve never received an answer to this question.

This statement would make a citizen think that there have been actual protections in place, not just an informal “agreement” between city government and developers. Our Health Department regulations still allow for a level 3 biolab in Watertown, and our City has no codified zoning that prohibits a “3”.

Another question: the language “continue to monitor and reassess safety requirements.” Does this mean that the City is open to reassessing the “do not exceed biosafety level 2 restriction,” “upping” the level of biolabs in Watertown to a biosafety level 3?

Government Transparency 101: Keep it simple. Make regulations clear and unquestionable; do not leave areas of gray.

Also, I’ve just e-mailed Mr. Ramdin, Director of the Watertown Health Department. We’ve had these labs for two years without any inspections. Yep, about 25 biolab buildings and 60 companies later, and not one inspector (other than a fire inspector) to inspect a lab. As one councilor asked, “How do we know what they’re doing?” A member of the Bio Safety Committee stated, “We don’t.” I’ve asked Mr. Ramdin to give me an update on lab inspections.

Government Transparency 102: Trust but verify, and to gain public trust, share results with the public.

Watertown Square:

The Comprehensive Plan (page 34) states: “Evaluate zoning to comply with requirements of the MBTA legislation (Section 3A of MGL c. 40A) by allowing multi-family housing by-right near transit.” It also states that Watertown Square is the one spot that they are exploring for this. In the most frequent public comments made on this issue at the Comprehensive Plan public meetings:

“MBTA Law doesn’t require all new units in one single area! Please consider adding more areas for this MBTA Law!”


“Keep building height to 4 floors or lower.”

In the letter from the consultant accompanying the Comprehensive Plan final report, these comments are dismissed and characterized as “some differing opinions on housing scale” (page 3 of Stantec summary).

Government Transparency 103: Don’t “spin” or leave out the results of public input in service of your own political agenda

I wrote the set of MBTA articles for the March Watertown News, because I feared that this sort of thing might happen. I was noticing that while DCDP’s in other cities and towns like Brookline and Arlington were busy educating the public and eliciting opinions, the Watertown DCDP was busy obfuscating … “We just have to make a plan. Nothing will change. Nothing has to be actually built.” Our councilors were being told this, for Heavens sake!!

In my articles, I gave some ideas for how to think about the space we have in creating more density and how to gradually include more density in areas that traditionally haven’t seen that. In other words, let’s make growth as seamless as possible. Let’s fold it in so that we still maintain the small town feel that somehow, magically, up until now has been achieved in a densely populated community. In my opinion, it’s one of the things that makes Watertown look and feel unique, and to rush to fill a mandate that we’ve already achieved will benefit only large developers, not Watertown. Please see Watertown News MBTA articles for details:

Government Transparency 104: Include all residents’ opinions and weigh them accordingly, even if they don’t fit into your agenda.

Oh … there was also a meeting of the Comprehensive Planning Advisory Board held at noon on April 27th, on a workday, to go over the results of the Plan. This was the agenda:

The public meeting will be virtual only at noon on April 27. The agenda includes: Review public feedback from the draft plan open house and online survey, and Present the comp plan review and adoption process.

Government Transparency 105: Make meetings and materials (current and accurate) easily available and in advance to the public so that they can be meaningfully involved.

By the way, don’t wait to be asked for your input on the MBTA plan. It slipped out at one of the recent Planning Board meetings that it’s already been done for Watertown Square by the DCDP.

The Two Petitions: Okay, now let’s look at the petitions:

First, a reminder. These petitions address:

Petition 1. Resident concerns about the scale of development in Watertown Square, and

Petition 2. Resident concerns about transitions of large industry into neighborhoods

Question: How do these petitions (signed by almost three times as many Watertown residents as were involved in the Comprehensive Plan (215 attendees and/or survey takers), fit with the Comprehensive Plan public data? Here are some quotes from the Comprehensive Plan: On page 1 (Stantec memo); “This [public] feedback is an invaluable part of the public process to test the plan’s recommended strategies and to refine them to better reflect community priorities.”

Page 3 (Stantec memo): “General support for more housing but some differing opinions about new housing scale. General support for affordable housing, housing for families and housing for seniors.”

Page 33 “Zoning and code enforcement are the two primary tools the City uses to regulate
neighborhoods. Considerations for building height, setbacks, design character, and other factors
should guide substantial renovations and new construction.”

Page 37: “Conduct a zoning assessment that looks at building heights, buffers, setbacks and parking”

Page 2 (Stantec memo): Themes from public comments:

“Concern expressed about scale and character of many recent development projects, particularly life science building height near neighborhoods”

These petitions did not emerge out of thin air. They evolved from the the very real concerns of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of our citizens. They go hand in hand with the results of the Comprehensive Plan. They do not oppose it. Not at all. They elaborate on specific areas that must be addressed.

When the City Council reviews these petitions on Tuesday, I hope that they will look deep into their sincere intent and work with citizens to resolve these issues. This would be a start to having residents feel that they are listened to.

Government Transparency 106: Governments need to be clear, accountable and responsive to the concerns of citizens.

How do you as a citizen grade your Watertown government on transparency and accountability? What do you think? How’s your government doing?

(Letters to the editors can be submitted to watertownmanews@gmail.com)

22 thoughts on “LETTER: A Big Week for Watertown Politics & Development

  1. I recognize that many residents oppose current sentiments and efforts related to housing scale. However, I worry that the ‘community’ and the ‘public’ referred to and considered during these important discussions, may not be including the many library staff, teachers, and other municipal staff who commute long distances to work because they can’t afford to live here. And are we including in our references to the public/community the high percentage of cost-burdened residents and the frighteningly long lists for subsidized housing? I fervently hope our elected and appointed leaders are also considering ‘listening’ to them/us, as well.
    Jacky van Leeuwen
    32 Whites Ave

    • Indeed affordability in Watertown is a huge problem. Not only that many essential workers cannot afford to live here, but also that our multi-ethnic citizenry and welcoming environment toward immigrants is under threat.

      Everyone wants more housing in Watertown. But the most common myth in the real estate market is that building more high price housing will have a positive effect on affordability at all levels. This is simply not true. Real estate in the 21st century operates on more complicate dynamics than rudimentary supply and demand.

      Still the “let us build” mantra serves developers well. However it doesn’t necessarily serve communities well.

      In the sixteen years here, we have built at least two thousand units of housing. Still real estate costs have skyrocketed.

      The only way to keep housing in our town affordable is to consciously build affordable housing.

      Yes, we all want more housing. Yes, we all want a larger tax base that will allow us to improve schools and other public services and amenities that contribute to quality of life. But preserving quality of life in Watertown requires that we plan well and insist on quality developments. We have failed to do this in the past. Now is time to change that pattern.

      • You got it Joe! $3000 a month for rent wouldn’t leave me enough to eat nor pretty much anything else in retirement

      • I couldn’t have said it better, Joe.

        “The only way to keep housing in our town affordable is to consciously build affordable housing.“

        I look forward to working with you on this conscious effort. Let’s encourage others to join us.

        • Whether you believe it or not, the dynamic interplay between supply vs. demand is the primary driver of price in real estate and other markets. The more homes for sale, the lower the prices of those homes and this applies to rentals too. Folks who say otherwise are simply uneducated about this topic.

          Yes, developers focus on building higher-value housing because that’s how they make money… but also because THERE IS DEMAND FOR $3,000/MONTH UNITS. Those who can’t afford it should not criticize those who can … let’s remember they put the TIME and EFFORT into gaining the education/skills needed to earn the income level to afford that home. They earned it!

          For those worried that municipal workers can’t afford to live here, you’re pointing out a longstanding problem which affects every community in Greater Boston. It all comes back to demand vs. supply (yes it does) and it won’t be resolved quickly or easily.

          BTW exactly no one has argued that the housing affordability problem would be solved *only* by building high-priced housing. A variety of solutions will be required, and we need every bit of new housing we can get!

          For those worried about decreased diversity from high housing prices, many immigrants of color who live in Greater Boston are HIGHLY educated and earn the salaries needed to pay these rents. I’ve worked with many of them. And Watertown is still welcoming people of color at market rates, as I see in my own neighborhood.

          Regarding “affordable housing” – this must be subsidized because the free market won’t get an adequate return from this kind of investment … or they would have been building lots of low-priced housing during the years when interest rates were near zero!

          I am definitely advocating for building new “affordable housing” in Watertown and I even want my tax dollars to subsidize this effort. But it won’t happen by hoping that someone will build it or by criticizing developers and people who pay $3000/month in rent.

          • WOW! this is amazing, “definitely advocating for affordable housing in Watertown” with all your knowledge of the market, could you please identify a parcel of property that could be used with tax payers dollars for affordable housing {my needs not yours} I cannot believe your remarks that are in your paragraphs above, unbelievable! Could you please tell us which special interest group you’re a member of, or after they read your post you were asked to leave. I’ll hold the door open for you!

          • Wow, the seven paragraphs above are dripping with arrogance, hubris and class bias. If I understand the logic, then folks like myself should simply shut up and accept the opinions of our betters and feel ourselves privileged to have their sage guidance.

            But I am fervently grateful to be informed that I am uneducated. I shall write my college immediately and demand a refund. But it is rather risky to accuse someone you don’t know of being uneducated. They might actually know more about a subject than you do.

            Housing and the growing inequality in our economy–which has caused a great deal of political and social unrest–are indeed complicated issues. We must examine why our market economy cannot provide a commodity that is most in demand–decent housing for a very significant portion of our population. Many other free market economies are able to meet this demand. Obviously there are deep systemic problems to be considered.

            No, this is not a simple problem. And spouting free market shibboleths or denigrating others’ education solves no problems.

    • Hi Jacky,
      I hope that at some time soon we can come to a meeting of the minds on this. No one that I know who’s involved in this conversation is trying to keep our beloved librarians and teachers, et al out of housing! I was a public school teacher for many decades, and I’m with you on that. We all are.

      Here’s the thing, just building expensive housing (like 104 Main Street’s “luxury” apartments) will take up precious Watertown space that will not be affordable to 120 of the people or families in the building.

      O’Connor (the developer) has another such “luxury apartment” complex in Fresh Pond. Rents: start at over $3,000/month for a one bedroom. Some one bedrooms in the building are advertised as $9,000/month. Is that going to work for Watertown employees?
      No. We need a better way!

      This is not an efficient way to house our people…20 (apartments) for you/ 120 for me!

      • How about our residents that are getting displaced due to 104 Main St. NOW! Go try to find something affordable, there isn’t anything available, I’ve talked to a number of agents recently trying to help someone, it’s pretty eye opening “the struggle is real”. So when some people are reading the scripted story that all sounds the same, try looking at the whole picture not just what’s in front of you. Maybe you’ll get more respect for yourself.

  2. Thanks for your overview, Linda. My big notice with the Comp Plan is that they have relegated the hard stuff to 4-6 years. The hardest thing is updating our zoning. It is way outdated, but they have put that on the 4-6 year schedule. For the past 20 years, as all this development has happened, Watertown has relied on piecemeal requests for zoning amendments. This has left us with a hodgepodge of development that undermines both the Comp Plan and the Design Guidelines. Updating these should be done ASAP.

    Likewise, updating the strategic plan is also relegated to 4-6 years. Will there be anything left to develop by then? Many are concerned that we are overbuilding lab space. Our current strategic plan encourages that. It needs to be looked at ASAP too.

    • Marcia,

      Thank you for this letter and your excellent input on zoom at the Council meeting last night!

      I just learned something new. I think that you’re right. First things first! The Comprehensive Plan is being reviewed by the Planning Board tonight. If you haven’t contributed those thoughts to the Economic Development Committee, tonight would be an excellent time to get this perspective into the mix!

      Thanks again for adding your very thoughtful viewpoints to the conversation!

  3. Linda, your comments are so EXCELLENT. So wish you
    could hold the office of Town Manager. The current manager
    is misguided in promoting administrative bureaucracy.

    Regarding biotech lab inspections of the 25 bio lab facilities,
    I could not agree more. Such inspections should be done by
    an OUTSIDE QUALIFIED vendor. And any inspections should
    be undertaken with no advance notice. Note to Town Mgr:
    we don’t need to add new positions to staff a Dept. of Lab
    Inspections (Director, Assoc, Director, secretarial
    positions and a public relations person). The current Biosafety
    Committee should not be tasked with this responsibility.

    In answer to your question regarding transparency and
    accountability I cannot be optimistic. A few departments are
    5 star while many others are no better than a double star.

    • Thanks, Robert, but I’ve seen that job, and Mr. Proakis is welcome to it! I think that we need to work with him as much as we can to straighten out things that, let’s face it, are not new problems.
      Many things, like adhering to deadlines for information going out to the public, can be approached sooner than later. Other things are a bit more complex and will require more effort. It’ll take all of us, not just the City Manager, but it can be done.

  4. Linda, thank you for taking the time to do your research and sharing it with us. This is a great summary of what is going on in Watertown now. There is a lot to absorb and a lot with which to get involved if people choose to do so. More residents need to contact Councilors and other city leaders and give your opinions, and more people need to attend meetings to see and understand what is going on here.

    After last night’s Council meeting, it is disappointing that both petitions did not get accepted. This was not unexpected as lawyers didn’t write these petitions. They were drafted by concerned residents who realized that a lot of people are not happy with the types of developments that are being approved by right with the current zoning rules and felt someone needed to bring these issues to the public light. Were the petitions perfect? No, but they expressed the frustrations of the over 650 people from all over the city who signed them very willingly.

    The petitions weren’t meant to stop the growth of new businesses or restrict profits due them. They were developed to have smart and thoughtful developments in key areas of our city and especially where these new big businesses abut residential areas.

    If two of the recent developers at the Cannistraro site in the west end and 104 Main St. felt they needed to have their oversized projects, why didn’t they present them that way in the beginning process? Why did they increase in size at the Community Meetings? Deception comes to mind, and that’s not a good way to enter into a community when they say they want to be good neighbors.

    Transparency is key to making government work well for the people. That was a word that was spoken many times at last night’s meeting. People need to be able to understand the processes of how these projects grow from one meeting to the next and how it seems that the developers seem to be the winners, not the residents.

    By not voting for these petitions, the Councilors reiterated that they felt zoning issues will be addressed in the Watertown Sq. study and the Comprehensive Plan and will include many of the ideas brought forth in the petitions. Some of them agreed that they didn’t realize the frustration levels that have been building in our city and said they should have reacted sooner to these concerns.

    We can only hope that the two petitions open up the development process to ensure residents that their voices are being heard and that our government leaders are responding to their concerns. As residents, you need to keep or get involved in the meetings that will be set up for the Watertown Sq. project and the Comprehensive Plan. Your comments are important and this is your opportunity to have our city leaders back up what they said last night, that they are listening and will devote more efforts to rectifying the transparency and trust issues that exist now.

  5. Thanks, Joan.

    As always, you speak clearly and from the heart. Yes, the petitions weren’t letter perfect, but neither are our City zoning documents, as Councilor Palumba pointed out. If we insist on perfect, sadly nothing gets accomplished. And nit picking is just to another way to excuse inexcusable behavior. There was an opportunity for the Council to validate the thoughts and feelings of over 600 residents by at least sending these petitions to a committee to see how they could be helpful, but they couldn’t bother.
    An apt expression: “Wrong must not win by technicalities”.

    • For both Linda & Joan, your right and if anything was heard or learned last night, we’ll see if the 3rd floor comes up with a change to the zoning to protect the homes backing up to the other side of Rosedale Rd./Waltham st/Acton St. The property/properties as far as I know have not been sold yet, so there’s time for them to act and do the right thing. I for one sure am tired of history lessons, along with 650 signed petitioners, plus others that are also unknown. Or by some standards I should just be speaking for myself, never going to happen

    • The opinions of the 600 people who signed your petitions are NOT more important than my opinion, nor the opinions of all 35,000 residents whom you falsely and repeatedly claim to represent.

      • The opinions of 600 people are not more important than the opinions of one person. That logic seems to turn democracy on its head.

        Many more than 600 people are frustrated with how development has been handled in Watertown over the last decade. That’s fact. All you have to do is talk to folks outside your circle.

        I am tired of these false equivalency nonsense. Mr. Magoon tried to pull that one over Zoom. The Silent Majority. Now where have we heard that before.

      • Never saw or read or even heard anyone state that they represent the 35000 residents. Council president along with at-large councilors do that for the City. Farmers Market got any Fresh Peaches yet anyone know

  6. A few points relative to the Comments:
    1. The opinions of 600+ people who signed your petitions are NOT more important than my opinion, nor those of all 35,000 residents whom you falsely and repeatedly claim to represent.
    2. The dynamic balance of supply vs. demand is the primary driver of prices in real estate and other markets. It operates whether you believe it or not. The ONLY way to bring housing and rental prices down is to build more housing. (duh)
    3. Yes, developers are profit-making entities and they won’t invest unless they see a sufficient return on investment. They focus on building higher-priced housing because it’s more profitable and because THERE IS DEMAND FOR $3000/MONTH HOUSING.
    4. Please discontinue denigrating people who can and do pay $3000 per month in rent or more. They get to choose their homes. And they put the TIME AND EFFORT into gaining the education and skills to earn sufficient income to afford those homes – they earned it!
    5. Exactly no one has suggested that building more higher-priced housing will solve the entire housing affordability problem. Most people aren’t that simplistic, they understand the problem is multi-variate and requires multiple solutions.
    6. For those worried about municipal workers being able to afford to live in Watertown, you are pointing out a long-standing problem which affects every city and town in Greater Boston. This is part of the overall housing affordability problem – not a different issue.
    7. I’m very interested in having more “affordable housing” here in Watertown, but you can’t just expect for-profit developers to come and build it. It’s clear that building low-priced housing doesn’t provide sufficient ROI, as developers weren’t building lots of it when interest rates were near zero. I want to see some of my tax dollars to be put to use in subsidizing it.

  7. Sorry about the multiple comments!! Usually I try to make my point then go away. I mistakenly thought I had overwritten one, so wrote it again.

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