OP-ED: Turning Watertown Square Daydreams Into a Long-Term Action Plan

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By Mark Pickering

The Watertown Square study process offers a once-in-a-generation chance to begin to make the changes that we only daydream about now. If we follow a long-term plan, we can transform the square into a place we can point to in pride a magnet for recreation, entertainment and congregating.

What I have heard people saying during kitchen conversations, official presentations and workshops is that residents want the area to become more like Davis Square, Somerville. Perhaps not exactly like that bustling Somerville square, but more like that.

So, I’d like to lay out some of the ideas that I’ve gotten from listening to others at various Watertown Square meetings. Some of the challenges include that Watertown Square has a dearth of parkland, publicly owned property and transportation infrastructure.

That being said, no publicly owned properties in the square, whether land or buildings should be turned over to developers of any kind.For its part, Davis Square came to life starting in 1984 with the extension of the Red Line, the addition of more greenery, and the creation of a robust path/parkland for biking and walking. These public investments brought in new businesses and helped nurture existing ones.

To become more like Davis Square, Watertown needs:

  • An extension of the Red Line, admittedly a long-term goal. However, it’s helpful to recall: Back in the 1980s, the MBTA delivered reliable service and had a vision for the future.
  • For the near term, the derelict-looking Watertown car barn could be turned into a central depot for Watertown Square and take on the servicing of the electric buses that the group TransitMatters advocates for.
  • To complete the consolidation of bus lines at the Watertown Yard, a pedestrian bridge could go up over the Charles River. This could be attractive and make it more convenient to get to the Newton side of the Charles River.
  • The current bus turnout for the No. 71 and others would then become parkland that unites with the existing town common and the river walk.

(A possible futuristic alternative would be to acquire the properties behind the current MBTA bus turnout in Watertown Square.)

Like many New England communities, Watertown Square and its commons has been overrun by traffic. My hat’s off to city planners for taking this on. There’s no easy solution.

At Watertown Square study meetings, planners said that one-third of the traffic through Watertown Square is going to the Mass. Pike. That could be an undercount.

In recent years, the city has added hundreds and hundreds of apartments and condos. (Just to note: This has not sparked a makeover for Watertown Square.) Now one of the key attractions for the new housing, I imagine, is easy access to the Mass. Pike.

As for myself, I commuted on the Mass. Pike to get to a couple different jobs for a good chunk of the 21 st century, including to Boston’s South End. Similarly, I commuted for a number of years along the same route as the Route 70 bus down Main Street into Waltham. The bus was not an attractive option at the time.

For Watertown Square to become more like Davis Square, the incentives to drive need to change.
What the Watertown area needs is an attractive consolidated MBTA transportation hub that offers good prices and reliable service. Also, the square needs more greenery in general.

Mark Pickering is a veteran of the local news business, having worked on the business desk and the opinion pages of the Boston Herald.

2 thoughts on “OP-ED: Turning Watertown Square Daydreams Into a Long-Term Action Plan

  1. Thanks for your comments Mark, I remember when Davis Square was just that, Davis Sq. in the 70’s. Your right the Red Line changed Davis back then. One thing left out was the skyrocketing real estate prices from that point forward, the late 80’s, after the construction was done, it became a hip & happening place in Somerville. All I remember was people wanting to move there and couldn’t believe the cost. And yes transportation and the old car barn being turned into the charging/repair station makes a lot of sense, the buses have to be stored somewhere and the MBTA already owns the rights. Let’s see how much of a Herald guy you are, Joe Fitzgerald every Saturday in his sports column quoted, “Goodnight Mr. Fuji wherever you are!”

  2. Mark and Dennis, you are right to be encouraged by the level of resident participation in the charrette process. It was clear that many residents do not think revitalization of Watertown Square should depend on the pre-conceived notion that it become a high-rise, high-density, high-rent housing repository. Somerville has managed to install more people per square mile than Boston, though few buildings rise above four stories. Brookline’s town meeting recently approved a proposal to comply with the MBTA zoning law that capped height at four stories on Harvard Street. Watertown Square and the residents of the city deserve better than five-over-one or six-over-one any-town, big, bulky, bland buildings. Unfortunately, the Zoning Board of appeal in October gave conditional approval to O’Connor Capital Partners’ Main Street project, thwarting the intent of the City Council when it appropriated taxpayers’ money for the Watertown Square Study, which most reasonable residents who were involved in the lengthy review of that development, did not think meant taking a defining block of Main Street out of the study area, and confirming what many residents believed from the beginning — that the fix was in for O’Connor Capital Partners’ development.

    Most people who participated in the charrette process said they want a vibrant Watertown Square. Well, a healthy Watertown Square business climate likely is one in which people can afford to pay for decent housing. Renters represent about fifty percent of Watertown residents, but a significant percent of those are rent-burdened. If rents are too high, it limits how much renters can spend in restaurants, grocery stores, and other retail businesses.

    Approval of housing and commercial development must not be guided by stale thinking, expediency, self-interested biases, or the inclination of approval granting authorities to assist a result. Business and real estate lobby groups have for decades warned that linkage fees on commercial development, designated for affordable housing and job development would be anti-business. The development pipeline did not go dry. Recently Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville have approved home rule initiatives asking the Legislature to give them the authority to implement local rent stabilization, making the argument that rent control is pro-business. Real estate interests and other deep-pocket lobbying groups are issuing their usual gloom-and-doom warnings about rent control and Boston Mayor Wu’s proposed transfer tax on multimillion dollar real estate sales to build affordable housing.

    Despite the real estate and developer lobbyists’ hue and cry, there is no credible evidence, except for their own research, that rent stabilization inhibits developers from building new housing projects because rent stabilization exempts new construction. It comes down to a struggle to balance private profit and public interest. When push comes to shove, the question for Watertown residents and public officials is do they have the vision and courage to engage in fresh thinking and to use all the tools available to improve Watertown Square as a “treasured community gathering place” (2023 Comprehensive Plan) or not?

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