Watertown’s three-day design charrette will tackle a big, tangled set of issues known as Watertown Square.
The consultants hired by the City of Watertown have invited the public to come discuss what hey would like to see changed in the Square, and beyond, what they want to keep, and at the end of the three days will present some ideas for what the new square will look like.
Hundreds of people showed up at the former Sasaki building, 64 Pleasant St., for the opening meeting Tuesday night. The Design Charrette continues there Nov. 29 and 30.
The study areas include the business districts, architecture, housing, walking, biking, public transportation and of course traffic.
At the end of Tuesday evening’s presentation, Urban designer Jeff Speck addressed the elephant in the room, and also suggested that people might want to ignore it.
“Did adding lanes to Watertown Square get rid of traffic? Did eliminating sidewalks and killing trees get rid of traffic? Is removing lanes going to make congestion worse?,” Speck said. “You can have the downtown you want and the traffic will still suck.”
While the consultants will get input from the public on a series of work sessions, they have already done some research through an online survey taken by 1,076 people, and a series of 20 kitchen table conversations attended by 150 people. Loren Rapport, from the lead consulting firm of Utile, noted that the firm has done similar projects in other communities, such as Newton and Andover, and Watertown’s participation rates were “off the charts.”
Through the surveys, some trends emerged, Rapport said: 90 percent wanted to see more of a diversity in retail stores, shops and cafes in the Square, about half want Watertown Square to be more friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists, and about 30 percent who say that easy parking in the area is more important than the walking and biking experience.
Traffic consultants from Stantec took a look at auto traffic, buses, pedestrian paths, bicycle accommodations and other ways of getting around the area and they all converge in Watertown Square.
“Although it is a place where things come together, it does not feel like a place that works together,” said Ralph DeNisco of Stantec, who noted that the walking and bike paths end, or divert around the square.
The study found that one in three motor vehicle trips through Watertown Square went to or from the Mass. Pike, said Erin Cameron from Stantec.
A study of the new developments in Watertown found that about 1 million square feet of new office space has been approved or permitted, and some new residential developments are also coming to the area. This provides some an opportunity for bringing more life to the area, because employees in the new development will be going out to eat lunchtime or afterwork, to shop, and attend events.
The City will also have to tackle the requirements of the MBTA Communities Law, in which the state is mandating that Watertown designates at least 24 acres where at least 1,701 housing units can be built by right.
One of the decisions that Watertown will have to make is whether to have more dense, taller buildings in a smaller amount of land; or more spread out, lower buildings on more acreage.
City Manager George Proakis said that while the MBTA Law requires allowing developers to build residential properties by right, that the City can require having retail on the ground floor for some parts of the MBTA zone. Also, they City can create formed-based zoning, which can have some impact on what the buildings look like, and make sure “they are consistent with the values of the community,” Proakis said.
Find out more about the Watertown Square Plan Design and the Design Charrette at https://watertownsquareimprovements.com/.