OP-ED: Truth or Consequences — The MBTA Communities Law

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By Clyde Younger
Watertown Resident & Candidate for City Council President

I prefix my comments by saying, without any hesitation, the Planning Department must be re organized. It is my firm belief the Department is misleading the citizens of Watertown. The change must begin at the top. I am not saying the Assistant City Manager/Director of Planning and Development should be fired; however, the Buck ends with this position. My recommendation is he should be laterally transferred into a different position within the administration.

The proposal to eliminate congestion and calm traffic, add new branding, along with existing established businesses, is something we can all support. However, it is not being negative to question a part of what is being proposed for the Square. That is, the consideration or feasibility of placing a Gables or Elan size building at the MBTA Watertown Yard at 20 Watertown Street and adjacent Watertown Square properties. (The Watertown Yard is 3.02 acres.)

Our Planners, representing us, should argue that we have met our quota with the new additions by the Arsenal and North Beacon Streets Multi-Family Units. The existing Law gives us this flexibility and options. Instead, the Planners are pushing for new construction without any discussion with the Community that there are options available in meeting the requirement of the New Law.

Consequently, it is no accident that the recent map drawn of Watertown Square, by the Planning Department practically engulfs a third of the land area of the city. Accepting or approving the map will bring future harm to the City. I assume the Planning Department has provided the Council the number of 24 Acres of Buildable Land within the City according to the State; thus 1,710 units.

Where would they find 24 acres of buildable land. And, if so, what would be the height of buildings to meet the perceived requirement of the MBTA LAW by our Planners. The MBTA Communities Zoning Law says that MBTA Communities must allow at least one zoning district of reasonable size in which multifamily housing is permitted “As of Right”; however, also stated is a minimum of 15 Multi-Families per Acre. Before moving ahead with any planned “As of Right” Zoning, the Department must state unequivocally that there is no other way of complying other than New Development, existing is taboo.

It cannot be overstated that the loss of control granted by the City to a Developer to “Zone As Of Right” would unleash future development of buildings five stories or higher in the Center of our City. It is time for the Planners to respect the defining features and feel of our neighborhoods starting in the Square. The Planning Department must acknowledge the rich history of Watertown in all future development.

We know and support growth when it is done in a rational and practical manner. Watertown is not a Big City. Thus, planning must be undertaken deliberate. There are recognizable unmet needs and interests of the community. It is also important to listen to current businesses in the Square and throughout the city. Watertown is not a big City.

Admittedly, there is a need for affordable housing; however, the new law does not address this issue, nor the effect of density based on this incongruous MBTA Law. Unfortunately, our Planners cannot tell you what is their level of density planned for Watertown Square or the entire City.

Our Planners state the added downtown housing of 1,710 helps local business; for example, they would have the capability of walking to the businesses. Has anyone asked, what increase in the customer count can be expected.

Letters to the editor can be sent to watertownmanews@gmail.com

21 thoughts on “OP-ED: Truth or Consequences — The MBTA Communities Law

  1. So Clyde spends a year trying to get the Main st. development shut down. First, he tries to get downtown rezoned as a “historical district”. That failed miserably and got zero council votes as it should have.

    Then he tries to get two changes made to the zoning code , both get kicked back to committee for “review” as a gesture of good faith to figure out what the changes should actually look like. As written, they were abysmal at best.

    So now the day comes where the Main st. project gets approved (after multi changes were made based on citizen feedback) and Clyde gets so frustrated that he pens this letter and tells everyone he wants to change all rules & departments so he can get his way. Then, to top it off leads with the most cowardly “I’m not saying if I get elected I will fire the planning department, I will just transfer them into the basement and make their lives miserable until they quit” attack on the current members of the planning board. Those comments alone make Clyde completely unelectable.

    Clyde talks about knowing that Watertown needs growth, but when he was City Council President the population dropped nearly 20% (36k – 30k) He talks about wanting to listen to the businesses in the square, which ones exactly. The 5 massage businesses that advertise sex online ? (that is not an exaggeration, I can count them on my way to take my kids to school each morning) The abandoned H&R block ? How about we ask the African Safari shop that in my 15 years here have never seen a customer inside of. How about the restaurants? Sure, let’s ask them if they want an extra 1k potential customers that live within walking distance and won’t need a parking spot. Their answer is not going to be “gee I don’t know, maybe the government should do a study first”, it is going to be how fast can you make that happen.

    The objective of the Planning board is not to do the absolute minimum to appease the MBTA law. It is to transform the downtown area into a place that people can live, work, eat, and shop. The newly approved development is another step into making that a reality. For me, this letter makes clear Clyde does not deserve to be anywhere close to the decision making process for those projects.

    • Could you please point out where the “cowardly, your word for word statement” is in this letter, somehow I don’t see it! Have you actually ever talked to Mr. Younger about his thoughts, which once again are his rights. Maybe you could explain your disdain for Watertown Sq. to him and come to an understanding that appeals to the both of you. Your statement above “makes him unelectable” only shows that you’re more unbelievable, by the misinterpretation of his actual statement or thoughts.

      • “I am not saying the Assistant City Manager/Director of Planning and Development should be fired; however, the Buck ends with this position. My recommendation is he should be laterally transferred into a different position within the administration.”

        That is a cowardly statement from the author. Real leaders do not accuse people of intentionally misleading the people they are meant to serve and then recommend they get transferred to some other department in some passive aggressive office politics move. A real leader would say with clarity that they should be removed entirely and present clear evidence to support that decision. To make those accusations right after the project decision as a threat of retribution for going against what he wanted is completely unacceptable from a person seeking elected office.

        • Have you considered that perhaps there have been events and discussions that you are not aware of?

          Perhaps you do not know the whole story but that does not stop you from making big accusations.

  2. Mr. York’s attack on Clyde Younger ignores that last spring residents filed two petitions urging the City Council to make changes to the zoning code. Approximately 600 residents signed the two petitions, expressing their dissatisfaction with, what one resident told me, “what’s going on in my city.” Conversations with petition signatories exposed that complaints centered on the Community Development and Planning Department’s lack of transparency, reflexive resistance to resident involvement, zealous guarding of public information from taxpayers’ access as if it were the nuclear codes, disrespectful, dismissive, and condescending treatment of residents at public hearings, and a prevailing and pernicious ” we’re professionals-and-you’re not attitude” toward the people who pay their salaries. Yes, they are paid by the taxpayers not to serve as shills and lobbyists for developers and as rubber-stamping enablers.

    Mr. Younger isn’t alone in thinking that the planning department is more concerned with self-preservation and top-down consultant-driven practices instead of fresh thinking and the embrace of grassroots neighborhood planning. The residents’ petitions prompted a collective mea culpa from the City Council. Each member thanking the signature gathers and acknowledging that they had underestimated the depth of residents’ discontent. The City Council approved $250,000 for the Watertown Square Study and $100,000 for a review of the zoning code. The petitions likely played a key role in initiating action.

    Most residents acknowledge the need for more housing, especially affordable housing, but understand that growth at any cost frequently results in built blunders and a car-dependent environment. Once the planning experts favored vertical neighborhoods for warehousing low-income, mostly people of color (Pruitt-Igoe, Cabrini Green). Now, developers and their planner enablers propose vertical neighborhoods for the rich (Alexandria and O’Connor Capital Partners). Many people think we need a lot more Louis Sauer high-density, low-rise housing with interestingly-shaped buildings, unique outdoor spaces, privacy, and great light and a lot fewer big, boxy, bland, behemoths a la Le Corbusier, and Yamasaki.

    Build-baby-build housing advocates stand before the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeal insisting that the “solution” to the housing affordability crisis is maximizing the supply of high-end housing (104 Main St.) which will eventually result in housing that “trickles down” with reduced prices to meet all affordability needs. That’s the principle of filtering. Build a new house. The family that buys it comes from an older house, which is purchased at a (lower price) by a new family moving from another (less desirable ) older house, and so on. It happens, but unleashing market forces that serve high income earners is likely to reinforce the effects of income inequality rather than tempering them as Michael Storper and Andrés Rodrigues-Pose from the London School of Economics argue in their paper available online. If the notion that building market-rate housing will free up lower-cost units were true, rents for units in my 18-year-old building wouldn’t increase steadily year after year with no unit upgrades and be on par with the asking rents for properties coming on line. The thing is that sometimes buildings increase in value as they age because it’s the value of the neighborhood that really drives the price of a property or the rent.

    Those who support building more market-rate rental units and pay lip service to affordability don’t say if they support the construction of accessory dwelling units, the subdivision of large homes into two-or three-family houses, and zoning reform to allow and promote the construction of mid-rise in-fill apartments around transportation hubs. The build-baby-build advocates do not say if they support changing zoning to allow a homeowner to have a basement suite and a backyard rental cottage. That would mean three residences on every lot, meaning 10 times the density per acre. The market-rate supporters don’t say they would support moving to a land-value tax program that taxes land values at a higher rate than building values. This taxing scheme will incentivize property owners to densify their land, providing more housing.

    When it comes to development in Watertown and elsewhere, it’s too late to reverse the consequences of decisions made recently and even decades ago. Unlike birds, wildlife, and wild places we can’t list buildings and cities as endangered. Reasonable residents understand and advocate for balancing old and new Watertown. They want to protect and preserve a place that holds deep meaning for generations of Watertown residents and for new residents attracted by and seeking the charm and intimate scale of Watertown Square and its neighborhoods.

    • Your rents go up every year because that is how inflation works (especially in recent years with the extreme levels of M2 money supply increases)

      I can’t speak for all the housing advocates in Watertown but I can at least speak for me

      1) I support ADU’s (I actually want to build one)
      2) I support basement units (my neighbor just built one so they can have a multi-generational home)
      3) I support land value taxes even though that will have real financial impact to me (I have one of the largest residential lots in Watertown)

      Does Clyde support any of those things? He wrote one letter here to announce his campaign with absolutely zero follow-up on where he stood on any of the issues. (after he commented that he would be publishing a series of articles outlining what he wanted to do as Town Council President.

      We are now 1 week from the election and the only other post I have seen from him is this affront on the planning department members when he didn’t get his way. Is this the kind of follow-up and transparency voters can expect from Clyde ?

      • It is not simply inflation. Our economic system has become so unequal that the spoils go largely to the upper quartile, the vast majority of hard working citizens struggle to stay afloat and the greatest of our societal needs go unmet. Not to mention that there is a burgeoning homeless problem in all major cities, which is partly due to the inequality problem.

        Many Watertown voters have issues with the way the Planning Department has conducted business, particularly with regard to public process. Mr. Younger is only articulating what many, including myself, are thinking.

        Glad to hear that the writer has one of the largest residential lots in Watertown. He should give more respect to those who are not quite as fortunate as he.

        • First, respect is earned not given.

          I literally just outlined how I support policies that disproportionately impact me financially than almost anyone else in the community to help with housing costs (Additional land tax revenue can go directly to the Watertown Housing Trust). I want to personally build additional housing on my property so that there would be additional options for people looking for under 1k sq/ft.

          I advocate for those things not because it is in my financial best interest but because it is the right thing to do. There is a homeless problem, because there are not enough homes. You know how you solve that ? You build more homes. You building them densely so that you reduce support infrastructure costs. You build them next to public transportation and business’s so that it is easy to get to work.

          So what was Clyde’s hope for the 104 project. It seemed to me he just wanted it stopped completely. What is his plan to increase housing supply in Watertown ?

          • I was taught that every person is due a certain amount of respect because they are a human being and they get that respect until they prove they are not worthy of it.

            The homeless problem is more complex than simply a matter of inventory. It is a matter of availability of affordable housing. It is a matter of inequality hampering the majority of Americans. It is a matter of lack of social mobility and resulting despair. It has to do with availability of social services and a lack of effective policies and treatment regarding mental health.

            Building high cost homes will do little in the short term to alleviate affordability problems and homelessness. That will take an outlook which tackles problems by putting community interests ahead of self-centered interests. It will require a political economy that is not decoupled from an ethical underpinning but rather informed by one.

            I do believe that the above commenter’s treatment of Mr. Younger has been patently and unwarrentedly disrespectful.

      • Mr. York, your glib response that high rents are the result of inflation assumes that big corporate landlords with rental properties all over the country raise rents to keep up with inflation. They’re not raising rents to keep up with the expense of shampooing common area carpets every five years or touching up paint on common area walls, and upgrading budget-line appliances. They defer maintenance and still raise rents. Why? Because they can. That’s why a 6.5 percent rent increase on a longtime elderly good tenant is tantamount to an eviction notice. That’s why tenants of a couple of national big-time corporate rental property owners are suing them for a price-fixing scheme.

        Nationwide, the share of renters who are considered “burdened” — spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities — has climbed to 47 percent; one in four renters — about 11 million — spend more than half their income on shelter. For many renters, the rent is the base number, which rolls in a percentage of the property taxes paid by the landlord. On top of the base number add the local water and sewer costs, which are billed to the rental unit by the building’s sub metering system. On top of that, many renters pay gas, electricity, garage rental, pet fees, storage locker fees, parking fees for guest parkers, and other nickel-and-dime assessments the corporate landlord thinks up and adds on.

        Meanwhile people make painful choices to keep their housing costs in line with their incomes. Some working individuals are sleeping in their cars at night in shopping center parking lots. When others find their home-buying savings can’t keep pace with the mortgage rates, they keep renting their run-down apartments. When a family-friendly three-bedroom costs too much, folks give up on having another child.

        Housing experts note that building more market-rate units (104 Main St.) would help wealthy families before it would help middle-class and low-income families. Real estate industry experts tell us that you’ll never target our most vulnerable renters by building only market-rate units. In one recent survey, just 30 to 40 percent of American adults said they believed that increasing the housing stock would slash prices and rents, a belief called “supply skepticism” which dampens residents’ enthusiasm for new construction. Countless Boston residents have witnessed events that confirm their distrust. The laundromat and coffee shop close. A big, boxy, bland, soulless five-over-one building goes up. Black and brown families are forced out of the neighborhood, and affluent, mostly white condo buyers or renters flood in. All the while, rents surge. That’s why development looks like a gentrification engine rather than an engine for affordable rents.

        The cheerleaders for O’Connor Capital Partners, Alexandria, and other developers can’t or won’t say what it would take to make Watertown affordable for workers who don’t have a college degree, render it accessible to families with kids, elders on fixed incomes, or let extended-family members buy apartments within a few blocks of one another. Why? Because we have no policy vision of how to make Watertown affordable for all, and no plan to get there except to build market-rate housing that requires developers to include a legally-required minimum number of so-called affordable units.

    • The Michael Storper and Andrés Rodrigues-Pose paper has been appearing a lot online in nearby towns . While on the surface it makes sense, it doesn’t account for complexities that don’t make the shifting of the supply and demand curve salient. Reading it as someone with a B.S. in Economics form Babson, I ask, what would a multi-factore regression analysis show, why are the authors reading literature regarding the European housing markets in which home ownership is not heavily subsidized, to which economic school of thought do they subscribe, etc. Then I came across this: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0042098020910330 and it answered many of my questions. So I don’t have much credulity in Storper’s and Rodrigues-Pose’s findings.

      And YES to “construction of accessory dwelling units, the subdivision of large homes into two-or three-family houses, and zoning reform to allow and promote the construction of mid-rise in-fill apartments around transportation hubs…changing zoning to allow a homeowner to have a basement suite and a backyard rental cottage… moving to a land-value tax program that taxes land values at a higher rate than building values” (but for nationalization of the schools, I would go farther and decouple school funding from property taxes, which are highly regressive) These are all good means to price reduction but so are new developments, more public housing, more tax subsidies for the low-income earners, etc.

      • Thank you for posting this article. Yes, those that cite Storper and Pose work are taking studies on super cities like NYC, London, Paris and trying to apply it to Watertown. Storper’s argument that upzoning doesn’t work in those kinds of cities because there is large foreign investment that will come in and buy up inventory which removes any downward pressure on prices.

        • You’re welcome! The study and a similar one are always popping up, especially on NextDoor in surrounding communities, like Newton. It just hurts my brain when the supply/demand curve is dismissed – my brain really hurt after the last ZBA meeting. Inside, I was shouting “you cant set a new equilibrium price w/o shifting supply or demand, and we need to shift one or both very,very far!”

          And thank you for your posts. I really appreciate them. They usually correct errors, provide clarity, call out bigotry, or all three.

  3. It seems that Mr. Younger’s entire reason for running for City Council President is to “punish” the Planning Dept. because his ego has been wounded. In this article, he actually calls for the person who runs it (as an individual) to be sidelined!

    LET’S BE CLEAR: HOUSING IS OUR STATE’S BIGGEST PROBLEM. Existing housing stock is insufficient to meet demand, which had resulted in artificially high home prices. In a free market, prices respond directly to demand; if supply is insufficient to meet that demand, prices go up. Unless you’ve studied economics, don’t even bother to dispute this point (many people refuse to invest the time and effort to learn, but still think they know everything).

    I want new housing to be built in Watertown, and I don’t want our city government to evade the purpose of the MBTA Communities Law by falsely claiming that previously-built housing fulfills the requirements. We need MORE housing, not the same amount. And we need BOTH “affordable housing” and market-rate housing. Every little bit helps.

    A couple more detailed responses to the OpEd:

    It’s simply ridiculous to say that “the loss of control granted by the City to a Developer to ‘Zone As Of Right’ would unleash future development of buildings five stories or higher in the Center of our City.” It’s true that city centers and major roadways on the edge of 1- and 2-family housing are good places for multi-family housing, but it would not be uncontrolled as Mr. Younger suggests.

    Also, it feels silly to point this out, but the Planning Dept. can not confirm exactly how many housing units will be built in an particular area because they don’t build the housing! They depend on independent businesses (developers) to build this housing. By the same logic, no one can predict the number and demographic mix of future residents in “yet-to-be-proposed” developments who will represent new customers for local businesses. Mr. Younger criticizes the Planning Dept for not having these answers, but it seems he either does not understand how things actually happen or he’s trying to smear our civil servants without justification. (or both)

    • I welcome Mr. Younger’s candidacy, though I don’t agree with him lock, stock and barrel. At least in one race the voters have a choice. The other eight councillors are running unopposed, which is a disaster for democracy in Watertown. This situation points to failure of our public process which should be examined closely.

      The Planning Department, in the eyes of many of our neighbors, has needed a reset for a long time. If Mr. Younger has helped make this point, I give him credit.

      Change with us with a new City Manager and Planning must reassess itself. The way business has been conducted in the past will not meet the challenges of the future. We should support a robust and open public debate of ideas. That, I believe, is what the Founders had in mind.

      • I don’t understand what some people think is wrong with the Planning Dept.’s past actions. Mr. Frazer is correct to say the logic behind that has not been revealed. As far as I can tell, the main complaint is that the Planning Dept. has facilitated a number of new developments of housing and commercial buildings (mostly for biotech companies) over the past 5 years or so.

        There’s a group in our city who have loudly and frequently complained about these developments, but never acknowledge the many benefits they brought to our city… including construction of 2 new elementary schools without raising property taxes! They also object to new 4- or 5-story buildings being built in commercially-zoned areas and along major roadways (which is the right place for them).

        And they’ve expressed that they are being “disrespected” and “unheard.” Those who attend city meetings have *heard* their points many times, but many of us just don’t agree.

        And let me add that some of these folks have *earned* a bit of disrespect by their own words and actions.

  4. It is unclear to me what is being argued here. It seems like the central point is to avoid building anything new and to do as little as possible to conform to the MBTA communities law? Why exactly should we be upset with the planning board? Because they’re looking to build more housing in Watertown?

    There are a lot of assertions and random statements like: “Accepting or approving the map will bring future harm to the City”, “Watertown is not a big city”, “There are recognizable unmet needs and interests of the community”, “support growth when it is done in a rational and practical manner”, and “The Planning Department must acknowledge the rich history of Watertown in all future development” yet I don’t hear any specifics about why those statements are true or what the implications of those statements are. What is the point of asserting that “Watertown is not a big city” TWICE if you don’t spell out what you mean by that? Is that supposed to be a dog-whistle to people who don’t want to see Watertown densify? It seems that a lot of people have more context here, but I honestly cannot really discern what Mr. Younger’s positions really are and it seems like he’s really just saying “stop all development” without using those words.

    The bottom line for me is that we are in a housing crisis and we need to do our part and enable many more people to live in Watertown. I don’t buy these excuses to not build. I’m tired of it and I welcome the increased density even if it is in my backyard.

    • Mr. Frazer, You say you welcome increased density. Well, O’Connor Capital Partners’ project provides that. It squeezes as many units as possible on the site, touting luxury urban living, while charging top-dollar market rents for units that ten years ago would have been larger than what O’Connor and other developers are typically offering today. The project will displace, at a minimum, 14 moderate-priced renters from the Cross St. rowhouses and the four units at 53 Pleasant St. Some of the rowhouse tenants are longtime residents. The developer with lofty virtue offers 21 “affordable” units in the development — not one more than is required under the zoning code. Hmm? Many reasonable people might rightly say that sounds like gentrification using an “affordability” fig leaf.

      To provide the pedestrian walkway or “art walk,” the developer destroys the two iconic 1900s-era storefronts (Bling and Crown Cafe) that are cited as significant in the zoning code’s overlay district. This despite the fact that the 2023 Comprehensive Plan and those working on an application for state cultural district designation stress the importance of the city’s historic context and its existing ground level retail to the revitalization of Watertown Square.

      Watertown is a city of four square miles, so reasonable people shouldn’t be faulted for wanting careful review of development proposals. Look at O’Connor Capital Partners. This company was founded in 1983 and made its bones in the regional mall business, the very type of development that produced suburban sprawl and bled the life out of downtowns across the nation. Today, they have thousands of apartment units and millions of square feet of commercial space under management. Many of the malls that devoured America’s downtowns have fallen on hard times, thanks to among other reasons, on-line shopping. By some estimates, an average of 1,170 shopping malls closed every year between 2017 and 2022. Ironically, many are being replaced by retail-to-residential conversions, which addresses the housing crisis, but not ghost downtowns.

      When the four horseman of development ride into town bearing gifts, it’s not unreasonable for residents to say, “hold on,” and want to take a good hard look at what is being offered and to ask tough questions such as what about jobs? In addition to the need for housing, is the need for jobs. The O’Connor representative, in all the public meetings, never revealed the number of union construction jobs the project will yield and how many permanent jobs — a significant omission.

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