City Manager: Team Working on Watertown Square Study is Creative & Collaborative

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City of Watertown

Work on solving one of the biggest riddles facing Watertown, how to fix Watertown Square, will soon begin, City Manager George Proakis said this week, and the process will include some new approaches with plenty of public participation.

Proakis spent a significant chunk of time talking about the Watertown Square study during Wednesday’s State of the City event.

“One of the key goals that came out of the Comprehensive Plan is that we need to look at Watertown Square in a holistic manner,” Proakis said.

The study will not just look at how the main intersection operates for motor vehicles, but also buses, pedestrians, and bicyclists, Proakis said. The study will not just look at how to get through and around the Square, but also being able to “enjoy the space.”

Along with that, the look of Watertown Square will be considered.

“There has been a lot of discussion of what should be developed and what should be preserved,” Proakis said.

The plan will also have to incorporate the requirements of the MBTA Communities Law zoning, which requires communities to designate areas where multi-unit housing can be built by right near transportation hubs. City officials have targeted the Watertown Square and Galen Street area, where multiple bus lines converge.

The City has nearly completed contract negotiations with a consultant team led by Utile. Also included in the team will be Speck & Associates, STANTEC Urban Places, and Landwise Advisors.

Utile has worked on multiple projects in the Boston area, including a study of the village centers in Newton. In that study, the firm is focusing on how to prepare for the MBTA Communities Law, Proakis said.

Speck & Associates is led by Jeff Speck, with whom Proakis is familiar, having taught a class with him at the Harvard Graduate School of Design for years. Speck has also written books on redesigning downtowns. He has already taken a cursory look at what could be done to make Watertown Square a more calm and efficient intersection.

“Jeff Speck came to our Regional Chamber meeting a while back and proposed a plan for Watertown Square that was radically different from what we have today,” Proakis said. “Jeff Speck wrote the book ‘Walkable Cities,” and has the perspective of making places more vibrant and walkable.”

City Council President Mark Sideris added that the mockup for the Square included a double rotary. Speck said that he came up with the drawing after a quick analysis to go along with his speech at the Charles River Regional Chamber breakfast. He did similar drawings for locations in Newton, Wellesley, and Needham.

Watertown has worked with STANTEC previously, including on revision of the Comprehensive Plan.

Landwise, which is based in Watertown, brings together the economy and land use in its analyses.

“One thing that is great about Landwise is, let’s say you have a one story building you want to grow higher. You can say what happens if you have two stories, three stories, four stories,” Proakis said. “If you zone a property as three stories, Landwise can say it’s not likely to happen because there is not enough economic incentive to do so, but if you do four stories you are likely to get somebody who can finance a project here. They look at the finances of the market.” 

Proakis added that the project team has tools that will allow them to show people at a meeting how different size and style buildings will look on a particular street in an instant using computer mock ups.

For the purposes of the study, Watertown Square will extend well outside of the intersections of Main Street, Arsenal Street, North Beacon Street, Mt. Auburn Street, Pleasant Street and Galen Street.

“We want to look down our streets, down Mt. Auburn and North Beacon Street to where the old body shops are changing into new housing developments,” Proakis said. “Down Main Street past Halfway Cafe where you can naturally and comfortably walk in and out of the Square. And, all the way down Galen Street to the Newton line because I think that is a gateway that so many people come into the city.”

Sideris said that the leg of Watertown Square from Galen Street poses a particular challenge because the bridge over the Charles River is much narrower than the roadway on either side.

Proakis called the team working on the Watertown Square Study “very creative and collaborative.”

“One thing I want to emphasize is this group will walk with the community through every step,” he said. “They will go out and say what do you need, and come back with some response, (then) do another run. They will do multiple what I call feedback loops, try to refine it and see what can and cannot be done, try to run an economic analysis on that, and do another round of that.”

Proakis anticipates multiple meetings to be held this fall, and encouraged residents to attend and participate.

“If this is of interest to you, if you want to be involved … come out as much as you can and encourage your neighbors to come out,” Proakis said.

6 thoughts on “City Manager: Team Working on Watertown Square Study is Creative & Collaborative

  1. It’s great that Jeff Speck will be part of the team working on the Watertown Square plan. If we want the Square to be something other than a traffic interchange then he can help us get there by rebalancing the priorities for different modes – pedestrian, bike, bus and car. As it stands now it often feels like the entrance ramp for the Mass Pike starts on other side of the Galen Street bridge.

  2. As a lifelong pedestrian, the least safest I have ever felt was trying to navigate a rotary. Drivers and bicyclists are always more concerned with trying to seamlessly integrate into the traffic flow than about pedestrians.

  3. I’m also very excited to see Jeff Speck working on this. I recently read his book “Walkable City Rules” and I highly recommend it.

    I think the harsh reality we need to come to terms with is that if Watertown Square is to become a destination (instead of a pass-through) and a place that serves bicyclists and pedestrians, we need to seriously de-prioritize cars. I run through that intersection a few times per week and no matter how I’m crossing it, it’s awful. I’ve even begun literally waving my arms in the air like a crazy person as I run across Main St because cars turning right from Mt. Auburn St are so aggressive. It’s abundantly clear that Watertown Square is designed primarily to serve cars. There’s a slip lane to get onto Galen from Main St and cars zip through it while ignoring pedestrians only to be stopped in traffic 20 feet later!

    I exclusively use my bicycle to get around Watertown and I avoid that intersection entirely when biking which is unfortunate because it’s hard to get onto the Newton side of the Charles River bike path. Bikes have been relinquished to sidewalks that are entirely too small while cars get 5+ comfortably sized lanes.

    And what about the vast sea of parking extending from the library to Mt. Auburn St? It’s just another way that the design of Watertown Square says “come with your car and we will accommodate you”. I’d love to see a whole lot less parking in that area too and maybe do some infill development of the reclaimed space.

  4. Does Watertown Square get under 25,000 vehicles coming through in a day? If so, Jeff Speck’s single-lane roundabout design for Watertown Square could be a big improvement for vehicles and pedestrians.

    Another design imperative: a roundabout design must also include dedicated bike lanes. Without dedicated bike lanes, bicycle accident statistics are higher in roundabouts than in traffic light intersections.

    This video nicely explains why a single-lane roundabout could work for Watertown — if through-traffic numbers are low enough.
    Title: “Roundabouts Are Safer. So Why Does The U.S. Have So Few Of Them?”

  5. Coming from the isolated western US to graduate school in 1970, my first impression of Boston was Watertown Square (via Mass Pike and Galen Street) which to my eyes was like I had been transported to a beautiful ancient village, so much so that after grad school I bought a house here and stayed for 50 years and have had my practice here for 40. Watertown Square has always had that potential to inspire and charm. I am thrilled with the team of Utile and Speck, two of the best in my humble opinion and really look forward to their thoughts.

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