LETTER: Watertown Historical Commission’ Streamlined Process Should be More Transparent

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By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

So … is a Watertown City Council meeting hearing worth attending? I attended one last night on zoom … a shoutout to citizens who sat through it all for hours in real time in the Council Chambers.

So, is it a “done deal” by the time it gets to the hearing? Hmmm … It was all about a move by the Historic Commission to streamline its process. Not a bad idea. Thank you, Elise Loukas (chair of the HC), for spearheading this effort. We can all understand and appreciate what you are trying to do, but there’s just more to it.

The bottom line is that it sure seemed that some Watertown City Councilors had made up their minds before the hearing. NO RESIDENT who was at the meeting thought that this process was done. It was a hearing, after all. There were multiple witnesses of different ages, work experiences and sexes … who ALL said that this process needed more work or needed to be voted down completely. Let me repeat … NO community member who attended that meeting, in person or on Zoom, thought that this was a good idea as presented. I advocated for more transparency. (see my comments below).

The Council vote was 6 to 3 to approve this amendment. Thank you to Mark Sideris, Emily Izzo and John Airasian for standing with residents on this.

The reality is it needs more work, but it got passed. Score another point for large developers, who can wait out a two year demo delay more easily than residents and small developers. Are we becoming a conglomerate? Maybe. You think you’ve seen “big development” in Watertown? Check out the August 9th Planning Board meeting with Alexandria’s plans for the Watertown Mall.

These days I am constantly reminded of the schmaltzy movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Except, we’re Mr. Potter. (you young’uns, Google it).

My Remarks at the City Council Meeting

The structure of this amendment seems clear, but it is lacking important process details that will add significantly to the transparency of this city ordinance:

For instance, in Section 153.04 Preliminary Review by the Historical Commission, it would help to add the answers to these questions:

What criteria will be used to determine the significance of a building?

What documents will be used to determine the significance of a building?

What specific references to historic registers and local ordinances are left out?

What specific documentation of this process will be used and shared?

What kinds of buildings, if any, will be exempt from this process?

Are there districts (like the Mt. Auburn Street Historic District and the Watertown Square Overlay District) that will be exempt from this process?

How will a determination of damage and costs to repair be determined?

Should the developer’s numbers be used regarding the cost of repairs or some other, less interested source?

In Section 153.05 Commission Hearings

There’s a stipulation for how meetings will be announced to the public. Will decisions made about a building be shared with the public as well. If “yes,” how?

Should an architectural historian be contracted for any part of this process to review decisions, since we haven’t determined a complete list of historic properties in the City?

Is there an appeals process for the delay/no delay decision?

Why was two years decided upon instead of 18 months, which seems to be the area standard?

One more comment:

In Section 153.06 Administration, it states, “the Commission may proactively develop a list of significant buildings that will be subject to this chapter. Buildings proposed for the significant building list shall be added following a public hearing.”

Developing a Watertown significant building list, even after incorporating lists like MACRIS (the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System), seems like a very large but worthwhile task on a number of levels:

  1. When someone is buying the property, they know what they’re getting.
  2. It adds to the general knowledge of the history of Watertown.
  3. Once established, it cuts down significantly on a lot of the time and administrative costs that going individual building by building can necessitate.

I urge you to continue to refine this document for transparency’s sake. This is our City’s goal, is it not? This document, as written, leaves open all kinds of opportunities for the abuse of power.

Thank you for your time and consideration in this matter.

7 thoughts on “LETTER: Watertown Historical Commission’ Streamlined Process Should be More Transparent

  1. “ NO community member who attended …….thought that this was a good idea”
    Actually , there were many residents who support the changes who attended this meeting. And many support who did not attend.

    “ standing with residents on this…”
    In reality, all the councilors represented various perspectives shared by a wide range of residents, as we would hope and expect. None of us can claim to or expect to represent all residents.

    More importantly, I think we can appreciate that decisions made by our City Council, committees, commissions, and boards will consider many factors to determine what is best for all Watertown. Opposition and support by any number of residents who attend or don’t attend meetings/hearings is only a part of the various factors they will weigh.
    Jacky van Leeuwen

  2. I believe as it stands now that a building that is 50 or more years old would fall into the two-year review process. There are many buildings in the 50 to 70-year range that are definitely not historically significant. A lot of properties were built after WWII to create basic housing for returning veterans and some of them have declined with age and perhaps older residents could not afford to maintain them to current standards.

    However, there may be older buildings that have significance due to architectural aspects, important people having lived in them, etc. A comprehensive list of what factors are involved with determining a decision on a property should be formalized so the process can move forward efficiently for everyone’s sake and so people are aware of the details and feel comfortable that all is transparent.

    It was discouraging to see that most Councilors did not seem to want to spend a lot of time considering suggestions by attendees at the meeting. Small developers and residents expressed the negative consequences of having a two-year possible delay of projects. A delay in the decision may have been a better way to make sure the process works best for all.

  3. Thank you Linda Scott for your care and wisdom on this important topic.
    I hope to hear that action will be taken to incorporate your ideas.

  4. Thanks, Dennis. You certainly are. You were the only one to point out the public safety dangers of having a house sit empty for two years.

  5. Joan,

    I agree. From what I understand, this has been going on for a while. A second look at the details of this ordinance could have been helpful.

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