And How the Heck Did We Lose Our Post Office??
By Linda Scott
Dear City Officials,
I’ve taken this opportunity to write this resolution list as a service to you, with explanations for each resolution. It’s based upon my observations and the hundreds of conversations that I’ve had with residents over the past two years. I hope that you won’t find this extremely annoying, but what can I say? I hope that you’ll also find it helpful and motivating for this new year.
I think that the sudden disappearance of the Post Office (after 80 years on Main Street, it is due to close its doors on January 26) is indicative of a much larger problem that continues to plague the City of Watertown. This is the City’s prioritization of the needs of mega developers and big businesses over the concerns of Watertown residents, small businesses and nonprofits. The lack of government transparency and accountability loom large in all of this.
One Watertown City Councilor in his annual meeting this year said it bluntly, when development concerns were raised by residents, “People don’t like change. When it’s done, they’ll just get used to it.”
Here are just some of the changes that Watertown residents have been “getting used to” in recent years. I’ve taken the liberty to write corresponding City government resolutions to go with them:
City Resolution 1: Excellent public services, with clear goals and transparent procedures makes as a more desirable and respected community. Regain community trust by improving public services.
We’ve seen substandard street repair and lack of City department oversight by the DPW and DCDP (Department of Community Development and Planning). I appreciate the one and only effort that I know of for the City Manager and staff to observe first hand what taxpayers have been getting for their tax dollars … substandard and dangerous streets.
I left the Highland Avenue street walk with the City Manager early, after two and a half hours and only half done, with residents still pouring out of their homes to express their concerns, showing damage to their properties and pointing out unsafe conditions for their children and families.
Kudos to Highland Avenue residents for organizing and standing up for their neighborhood. And kudos to George Proakis (our new-ish City Manager) for taking this journey with residents, walking boot and all. But, candidly, George, that effort will all be for naught if things aren’t actually done to fix these problems and prevent other neighborhoods from experiencing this all too frequent poorly managed and destructive chaos.
City Resolution 2: Take immediate steps to protect our kids.
Included on the Highland Avenue tour was a school crosswalk which within the past month has gotten school crossing signs, eight years after a little boy was hit by a car in that same dangerous school crosswalk. Don’t get me wrong. I really appreciate the signs, but common sense says that if children are being put in danger because of a public street condition, you fix the problem now … not put it in a “someday plan.” In the list of things that should rise quickly to the top in our City, child safety is one of those things.
City Resolution 3: Recognize the value of resident points of view.
Really listen, learn, and respond accordingly! Biolab buildings are being pushed through the system by Steve Magoon’s Watertown Department of Community Development and Planning and the Watertown Planning Board, ignoring the pleas of citizens for a closer look. These buildings (they number about 25 now, and that number is growing) have overrun the City, and in this economy are in danger of becoming obsolete before they are even built. We’re seeing the beginnings of labs being used for other purposes, even as more are built … more on that at another time.
City Resolution 4: Treat public safety as a non-negotiable.
Years of bio labs with with no (not one) biolab inspection or a qualified group assigned and hired to do them. We’ve had one serious chemical spill and one illegal lab (that we know of), and the DCDP and the Watertown Planning Board, in their infinite wisdom, allowed an old building to be retrofitted for biolab use with one elevator … one elevator for the public and bio waste and bio products all to share. I thank Councilors Gannon and Feltner for promising to look into the possibility of real biolab inspections to keep our citizens safe. And as always, I thank the Watertown BioSafety Committee for their efforts to develop questions and procedures that can be used by biolab inspectors to evaluate the safety of the 70 plus biolab companies that currently operate in Watertown.
City Resolution 5: Organize thoughtful, strategic approaches, not against but in coordination and cooperation with the community.
Rats, rats, rats everywhere! The former Health Department Director attributed this to Watertown residents growing vegetable gardens and leaving their trash bin lids open. Large scale development tearing up large areas all over the City was mentioned as an afterthought.
Taxpayers have been left to pay out of their own pockets for significant damage to their properties caused by rats, totaling in the thousands of dollars, only to have to make those expenditures again and again, because the City did nothing.
See the September 14th Committee on Human Services meeting (http://vodwcatv.org/ CablecastPublicSite/show/2742?site=3) to see what the DPW’s plan is for rodent abatement. In short, they require monthly reports from contractors, which they claim they don’t have the manpower to read.
Councilor Palomba’s comment, ”Not trying to be to critical, but you’re requiring monthly reports from contractors, who are relying on a pest control company, but you don’t have time to review them?”
By the way, untreated rat burrows have been identified on City properties as well. Are they growing vegetable gardens there too? Note: the new Interim Health Director, Abbey Myers, has done something excellent and virtually unheard of up until now in Watertown. She’s designed an actual comprehensive rat plan and is working with City departments, the public and Watertown businesses to follow through with it!
City Resolution 6: Get back to the basics. Give meaningful support to our small businesses.
With all of this large development and the high costs that come with it, the relentless and steady loss of small businesses that sustained this community and gave it a unique identity for years is a continuing concern to residents. How many residents are finding the increasing need to leave the City just to buy a pair of shoes, a gift, etc.? Now they’ll have another reason to leave … the lack of a post office. In the words of that Councilor, maybe they’ll just get used to it.
City Resolution 7: Respect Watertown as the valuable community that it is, full of hard-working, intelligent and diverse people.
Don’t sell us short! And change the DCDP’s “mission” as a taxpayer funded welcome wagon/ free concierge service for multi-million dollar companies who’ve proven that they are very adept at taking care of themselves at our City’s expense without any help from them.
Question: Through seemingly predetermined City decisions, disregarding citizen petitions with over 600 voter signatures from all over the City expressing citizens’ concerns, (or as Steve Magoon describes these efforts “just six people complaining”), are we becoming an anonymous city of biolabs and apartment buildings whose residents’ main retail resource is Amazon? (The focus is on constructing one or two bedroom apartments, by the way, since family-friendly three bedroom units are not as lucrative for the “big businesses” that are building them, and our City appears to be just fine with that). As a matter of fact, when a resident brought up a change that he thought would improve a large development plan, a DCDP staff member responded, “But the developer won’t make enough money that way.”
Watertown government has expressed a “commitment to business” but that commitment seems to be exclusively directed at BIG businesses. Witness dthe closing and relocating of Post Office boxes to accommodate a large developer’s plans without any thought for the people of Watertown who’ll be most affected … the small Watertown businesses and nonprofits that count on these boxes for their livelihood.
Please do not get this twisted. The Post Office has been put in this position by O’Connor Capital and the City of Watertown in its effort to support this large New York developer’s monetary interests. The Main Street Post Office has been in the same Watertown Main Street location since 1943 and did not want to leave.
City Resolution 8: Don’t blow smoke at Watertown residents!
As for the Post Office returning, that appears to be just a pipe dream aimed at controlling residents’ frustration and anger, deflecting from the question. So is the fact that there’s no indication anywhere that the Post Office is leaving (a form of crowd control, I believe.) What kind of city government supports the removal of a valuable government service in favor of a private developer?
Here are some glimpses into the mixed signals from O’Connor Capital, the multimillion dollar New York developer and our City who have quite literally forced the shutdown of Watertown’s Post Office:
First, let’s visit the October 16 Watertown Affordable Housing Trust meeting to see what Brett Buehrer (O’Connor VP) is up to there. It starts with Brett saying “We’re making progress with the Post Office …. We need to move them along.” He then asks for assistance from the Watertown Affordable Housing Trust to make this happen. Larry Field, City of Watertown DCDP senior planner, and some members of the Trust get fully on board with Brett’s request for help. Here’s a link to my Watertown News article delving into this “inside job” in more detail. (https://www.watertownmanews.com/2023/11/14/letter-watertown-affordable-housing-an-inside-story-part-one/)
At one point in this meeting, we hear Larry Field saying in response to Brett Buehrer’s request for help in moving the Post Office out, “Well, I think the purpose of the letter, as I understand it, is to facilitate the process. The Post Office has to make its decision, and it is in the best interest of the City and the project for them to make its decision on a timely basis….” According to the Senior Planner of the Watertown Department of Community Development and Planning, it’s in the best interest of the City for the Post Office to leave?
Now let’s skip ahead just nine days later to the October 25 Watertown Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, where Brett is discussing their dealings with the Post Office: http://vodwcatv.org/CablecastPublicSite/show/2837?site=3
This conversation starts at 38:44. Notice how at about minute 41:24 and again at 42:41 Brett slips in a reference to raising the Post Office’s rent to “Market Rate” rents and how the Post Office and the Federal government aren’t interested in paying the exorbitant rent (aka Market rate) that O’Connor is demanding.
It’s all very subtle. The Post Office has a lease that allows them to “hold over” for many years after their lease expired in August 2023, but they have to pay the rent demanded by the developer to do so. Here’s the corporate thinking: The Post Office doesn’t want to leave, and we want them to go (despite the effect on Watertown), so we’ll raise their rent so impossibly high that they’ll go. I guess hardball works even with the Feds.
By the way, if the Federal Government finds this rental rate onerous, how is any local Watertown business ever going to afford it?? And under these conditions, why would the Post Office return to that location?
For additional information, please see former City Councillor Angie Kounelis’ Watertown News Letter to the Editor: https://www.watertownmanews.com/2024/01/02/letter-finding-a-temporary-permanent-home-for-watertown-main-street-post-office-should-be-a-priority/
Angie, I believe that you and other residents that are demanding more of their City are making an impact. I’ve been told that people from the city government are now showing up at the Post Office for the first time, trying to ascertain a way to appease Watertown residents …. People, keep up the pressure!
It’s how the sausage is made here, people. In a city that claims to want to draw more people into the Square and reduce car usage, in deference to a large developer, they’re eliminating one of the main local draws to the Square, its Post Office, and sending Watertown residents elsewhere in their cars … how ironic!
Monday: My City of Watertown New Years predictions. What can we expect in the year ahead if our City doesn’t step up and support its residents? And finally, City Resolution Nine: Be Truthful, Transparent and Accountable