LETTER: Watertown Affordable Housing an Inside Story, Part Three

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Has Watertown already fully or partially complied with the MBTA Law? How can I get involved in making Watertown Square a more attractive and vibrant city center?

Watertown has been a leader, along with Boston, Cambridge and Everett in permitting more than half the multifamily housing units in the Greater Boston area, according to “Greater Boston Housing Report Card”…The Boston Foundation.

Watertown is cited in a 2019 Boston Globe article entitled “NIMBY? Not These Cities and Towns.” As a matter of fact, Watertown may have already complied with its housing zoning mandate for the MBTA Law, because, in reality, that is the point of the MBTA Law … to zone for more housing.

Cambridge and Everett have already been okayed by the State to use previous development and prior aggressive housing/zoning work to comply with the MBTA Law. How about Watertown?
Here, for comparison, is how the Cambridge, Everett and Watertown Departments of Community Planning and Development (DCDP’s) answered the same question on their State approved MBTA

Law Action Plans in January 2023:

Question: Section 3: Preliminary Zoning Strategies

To the best of your knowledge, which of the following strategies is this community most likely to use for compliance? (Select all that apply)

Cambridge: An existing zoning district or districts that might already comply with the Section 3A Guidelines

Everett: An existing zoning district or districts that might already comply with the Section 3A Guidelines

Watertown: The potential new base zoning district would be centered in the Watertown Square area. In addition to the area currently covered by the CB district, there are other areas nearby that are, or may be, suitable for multifamily housing at 15/acre. The Watertown Square planning process could recommend changes to base zoning that change the existing district boundaries and the requirements and current restrictions within the zone(s).

So, for those residents who think that the State is forcing 1,701 apartments into Watertown Square, I have paraphrased an old Pogo Line: “It appears that we have met the culprit, and he is us!”

Please see this link for all approved MBTA action plans: https://www.mass.gov/doc/submitted-section-3a-action-plans/download


Did the Watertown DCDP’s Director, Steve Magoon, even consider looking at the possibility that we’ve already fulfilled all or part of the MBTA zoning mandate, thus not forcing all 1,701 units into the Square? Did he explore this with the State, as these other municipalities successfully did? Or is the Watertown DCDP’s zeal to “support” big developers clouding the issue?

So, What Can You Do to Move Watertown Forward?

How can I get involved in making Watertown Square a more attractive and vibrant city center?

1) Call or write your Councilors and City Manager. (see below for their contact information).

Ask them what happened to the STR regulations? Ask when the Council will be voting on this. Urge them to ban these types of rental housing units.

Ask your Councilors to look into the decision made by the City (DCDP), without any input from residents, to restrict zoning for the MBTA Law (or 1701 housing units) exclusively to Watertown Square.

And ask these questions: What about the MBTA Law? Have we already fulfilled the whole zoning mandate or a percentage of it? Was that even looked at? What was the result of that inquiry? Can we see the DCDP documentation on this inquiry to the State?

Ask your councilors, at least for now, to uncouple the Watertown Square Study from the MBTA Law until the people of Watertown get a chance to weigh in, as is their right. Isn’t the aim of this very expensive Watertown Square Study to create the best ideas for the Square, and support our people and our small businesses, not create sweet spots for big development?

2) Fill in the survey for the Watertown Square project. (A heads up…it’s long):
Go to: https://www.watertown-ma.gov

Click on learn more and look for “Polis Survey” (It closes on November 17):

3) Come to the re-zoning meetings (charrettes) for Watertown Square…the ones that are entitled “Watertown Square Area Plan.” Help design the new Watertown Square using the “charrette” process. This is new to most of us. Here’s a little bit of information about this process:

The first two videos are explanations of how and why a charrette: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNRglaabeyw

This is an example of an actual charrette in action:

These are guidelines for conducting a charrette:

Come early and often to these charrettes, (it’s on a “drop in” basis). Because plans will change with time, you’ll want to be able to comment at the very beginning of the process on November 28th and then on the most recent changes as this process continues.

Watertown Square Charrette Dates and Times:

These will be held at 64 Pleasant Street, Watertown (the old Sasaki building) on:

Tuesday, November 28, from 5:00 pm to 8:30 pm
Wednesday, November 29th, from 9:00 am to 8:30 pm
Thursday, November 30th, from 9:00 am to 8:30 pm

My Opinion: In my opinion, there is a need for further development, but not in a knee-jerk, frenetic way that obliterates what it means to live in this very distinct and diverse small but densely populated “ecosystem” we call home.

If the planning and zoning for all 1,701 MBTA mandated apartments will be jammed into the Square, this will undoubtedly make the Watertown Square area even more “big developer friendly.”

Once that happens, the game is over. No more community negotiations and input will be possible. All small businesses in Watertown Square will be endangered. If developers are given the right to build whatever they want, they won’t have to listen to residents at all, and spaces affordable by our small businesses will disappear as large projects like 104 Main dominate the Square.

And what will our City’s response be? You’ve heard it before. “Sorry. We can’t do anything about it. It’s zoned that way.”

Make sure that your voice is heard, because the very nature of our community and the quality of our lives is at stake!

And, finally, I encourage you to comment on this issue, if you have any thoughts you’d like to share.

Thank you!

City Councilors (citycouncilors@watertown-ma.gov will send a message to all of
them at the same time).

Here are their phone numbers:
Council President Mark S, : 617-924-2699
Nicole Gardner: 617-835-4364
Lisa Feltner: 617-926-5344
Vincent Piccirilli: 617-924-0665
Emily Izzo: 617-894-6042
John Airasian: 617-308-4437
Caroline Bays: 617-894-0045
John G. Gannon: 617-393-9877
Anthony Palomba: 781-664-3525
City Manager: George Proakis: 617-972-6465; citymgr@watertown-ma.gov

9 thoughts on “LETTER: Watertown Affordable Housing an Inside Story, Part Three

  1. You’re trying to equate Cambridge and Everett to Watertown, yet you leave out crucial details. Cambridge has a population density of 18,500 people per square mile and Everett has 14,400 per square mile. And what about Watertown? We have just 8,800 people per square mile.

    To match the density of Everett, we’d need to add 22,000 people to Watertown. I’ll buy the comparison to Cambridge and Everett when we get even remotely close to their population density. Maybe they do deserve a pass… Cambridge is the 25th most densely populated city in the entire country and Everett is #52

    You pay lip service to building new housing by saying things like “In my opinion, there is a need for further development” but then you immediately go on to fear monger about re-zoning and development (using rhetoric like knee-jerk, frenetic, endangered, obliterates, “the game is over”, “no community engagement”). And then you also say how we should try to convince the state that we don’t need zoning changes for the MBTA Communities Law because we’ve already done it. Well which is it? Do we need to do further building or are we all done? It sounds like the all too common refrain: “I support building more housing, I just have a problem with every proposal”

    Maybe you can go into specifics about how you plan to add many thousands of people to Watertown so we can come close to matching the density of Everett and Cambridge? Or maybe your true intentions all along are to specifically avoid densifying while still trying to convince yourself that we did our part.

    “[did Watertown] consider looking at the possibility that we’ve already fulfilled all or part of the MBTA zoning mandate, thus not forcing all 1,701 units into the Square?” — we shouldn’t be looking for ways that we can technically fulfill this law without having to do anything else. People need places to live, not technicalities. In my mind it is unacceptable that our population density is less than half of neighboring Cambridge. We need to step up in a big way.

    “for those residents who think that the State is forcing 1,701 apartments into Watertown Square…” — The state is only requiring zoning changes. Nobody is “forcing apartments” into Watertown, it only enables developers to build what people already want. I guarantee you that any apartments built as a result of this zoning change will be rented or owned by somebody who will be very happy to live there. It’s also curious that don’t you use this rhetoric when talking about single family exclusionary zoning (“Watertown is *forcing* us to build only single family houses in much of the city!”)

    In fact, I think we should go well above the 1,700 units required by the law. We should densify Watertown Square but also change the zoning across Watertown to abolish single family exclusionary zoning. Enact a “people over parking” laws that gets rid parking minimums entirely. Densify existing single-family houses by allowing more ADU types. Develop the mostly empty parking lots in Watertown Square (more “people over parking”).

    • I find it interesting to examine where an individual is living and what they spout about online. Enough said about the hypocrisy. Unless the person is living in overcrowded quarters or are prepared to move into one of the new developments I will shut my mouth. I grow weary of those who tell those of us that living in a single home is exclusionary. My view of Watertown is it has always been an exceptional accepting and caring community. It has, so to speak, over the years opened its door to the broad spectrum of people while many suburban communities shunned doing so.

      • “I grow weary of those who tell those of us that living in a single home is exclusionary” — What I meant is that a good portion of Watertown (approx. 20% of residential land in Watertown by eye-balling the zoning map) is zoned for S-6 and S-10. If I’m reading the zoning code right that means that ONLY single family houses are allowed to be built there. That is what I mean by exclusionary. Much more of Watertown is zoned for two-family and that too excludes higher density units like triple deckers. I want to be clear: I have nothing against people living in single family houses, I just think zoning should be more inclusive of various housing types and less exclusive.

        S-6 has a minimum lot size of 6000 square feet and S-10 has a minimum lot size of 10,000 square feet. There’s a lot of potential there. Currently a developer cannot buy a house in an S-6 zone and build a townhouse. That’s missed opportunity for more housing. Even things like setbacks and minimum frontage seem a little high to me.

        In case it matters, I live in a townhouse in here in Watertown. I’m also advocating for changing the zoning where I live to allow for higher density. I welcome triple deckers and fourplexes being built right next to me if it means more housing for more people.

        I am no zoning expert by any stretch so if I’m misinterpreting our zoning code please let me know. I pulled that information from the Watertown City Code, Title XV: Land Usage, Section 5.01 (Table of Use Regulations)

    • Hi Scott,

      I hear you, and I seem to hear frustration for the current situation in your tone. Believe me, we’re all frustrated!

      Let me assure you that setbacks and lot size are not an issue for me. Where I live in Watertown, in the summer, when windows are open and I sneeze, my neighbors all say, “God Bless You!”

      If your major goal is to target the rezoning of the single-family zones in Watertown, I’d suggest that you bring that up with your councilors.

      I like the adu concept, but as in most things, the devil is in the details with this. One idea that was expressed by one of our councilors, I think, was to make adu’s (accessory dwelling units) permanently “affordable.” I don’t think that you’ll get many people signing on for this, since when they went to sell their houses, the new buyer would be forced to sign on to this concept.

      You compare Cambridge, Everett and Watertown in density. In the 2020 US Census, Cambridge had a population of 118,395 and Everett had 49,075. Watertown had a population of 35,333.

      Question: What’s your population goal for Watertown? How big is too big? Or is the sky the limit, because knowing that goal would certainly determine how you’d want to build.

      To me, the solution is just not as simple as “need housing??? Build, baby, build!!” We are four square miles. Every inch counts, and as Carolyn Gritter so rightly pointed out, the kind of building that is being done is putting even more stress on an already stressed group of people…renters.

      Watertown doesn’t exist in a microcosm. And “just build more” sounds an awful lot like the phrase attributed to Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

      For the record, the Watertown Planning Board asked for more “Affordable” 3 bedroom apartments in this project (something that developers don’t tend to do, because they can’t make as much profit off of them…note that I said “as much” profit, not no profit). In this project, we are now down to one 3 bedroom unit in a townhouse which will undoubtedly sell for a million plus. So much for catering to families who want to move or stay here.

      If you’re interested in providing for families, three bedroom units are much more practical and in demand. And, as someone pointed out to me, in the first part of the Affordable Housing Trust meeting, Brett Buehrer, from O’Connor Capital, tried to talk the Trust into calling small units that separated the bed from the rest of the living area by a half wall, to compensate for no window, as a one bedroom unit instead of a studio.

      And, where does Watertown stand on local preference for affordable housing or “right to return?” These are rules that allow economically stressed and displaced former residents to have “first dibs” on new housing. You might want to ask your councilor about this.

      As far as the deal falling through, it is my understanding that O’Connor doesn’t own this property and can pull out if conditions don’t go their way. This isn’t some sort of fantasy “what if.”

      For small businesses to succeed, before they build up a clientele, they need to commit to a rent in new construction that they have little chance of paying. Something that many diverse groups in this City can agree on is the value of these small businesses to Watertown. We need to nurture them, not throw them in the shark tank.

      And, by the way, have you been looking at the businesses in Arsenal Yards…hardly small businesses? I’ve heard that some of those merchants are complaining about their bottom lines. And, presumably, they have a bigger stash of cash on hand to let them survive for longer.

      As far as the vagueness of my remarks about rethinking our relationships with colleges, I tried to keep it vague, because you never know where the next good (and novel) idea will come from.

      Here’s something I’ve been thinking about: The State mandating that colleges have to get the info on students who have decided to reside off campus and pay some kind of “stipend” to the City for each student to be sent to the Affordable Housing Trust, etc. When college kids live in the community rather than in college housing, it takes the pressure off of the colleges and puts it on the communities.

      And, yes, Scott I agree that other communities need to step up to the plate more, but luxury housing isn’t going to do it.

      The basic question is: In this stressed economic environment, what does “progress” look like? You and I simply have a parting of the ways on some of this, but let’s keep talking…you never know where the next great idea will come from. Meanwhile, I intend to look into Marcy’s suggestion.

  2. The MBTA Communities Law is intended to stimulate the construction of NEW housing in areas served by state-funded public transportation. The city planning manager hasn’t responded to the idea of counting existing housing toward this goal for good reasons. As a citizen of this city, I vehemently oppose our city trying to “cheat” and count housing which already exists into that calculation. A thousand times NO! My voice should be heard too.

    • The one problem plaguing this idea is the state of our public transportation, which is decidedly third world.

      Transit oriented development requires high quality, reliable public transit. Currently we are falling far short of that bar. What can be done to improve transit frequency, reach and convenience for Watertown residents?

      • I completely agree. Our public transit system right now is in dire need of work. When people think of Watertown densifying their first thought is usually “traffic will become so much worse”. I think that while we are densifying Watertown we need to (counterintuitively) REDUCE the number of cars on the streets. Some people see the two as directly correlated: more people equals more cars. But this is not some universal truth. This will only happen if we don’t take bold action now to make it possible to live mostly car-free.

        We need to start reclaiming road space for bikes and dedicated bus lanes. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: We should not be prioritizing the storage of private vehicles on public space over the safety of cyclists. One of our most valuable assets is the width of the street and yet we just let people use 9 feet of street width to just store their oversized SUVs and this results in pushing cyclists into moving traffic and forcing us to ride in the dreaded “door zone”. And because cars are so space inefficient we don’t even get to store that many cars on the street!

        Busses should not be getting stuck in private vehicle traffic. People should be able to arrive at a bus stop during the day without checking the schedule and expect to see a bus in at most 10 minutes.

        As somebody who does not drive a car at all in the area, I can assure you that biking is a completely viable way to get around the city. All we need is proper bike infrastructure to make the risk-averse folks (most people) feel safe on the streets. Longwood, Back Bay, Kendall… all of these areas are about 37 minutes away by bike, and it’s a very consistent trip because you never get stuck in traffic and parking a bike is way easier. I know somebody’s thinking it so I’ll just say it: there’s absolutely no reason why people can’t bike year round. I do it myself with my kids and I see people doing it all the time.

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