By Linda Scott
These are my opinions, based upon hundreds of conversations, attending numerous City meetings, and making thousands of observations over the past few years. I hope that they can stimulate conversation and help busy Watertown folks focus on some of the current issues. Things to be on the lookout for in 2024, if these City resolutions are not taken to heart by our City Councilors:
1 – Expect the assault on residents’ quality of life to continue:
Short-Term Rentals. That’s where your neighbors are allowed to run an informal hotel business out of their homes right next door to you. (And the City gets to collect a fee). The current proposed plan is to allow as many as 10 … yes 10 visitors per visit at some locations. Actually, the number is inconsequential, because nobody in the City will be monitoring this activity in any significant and meaningful way, except to collect said fee.
So once again residents will be left struggling to deal with a problem that is of the City’s own making, find parking in their already cramped neighborhoods, and deal with potentially large out-of-town parties of people who are away from home, some with the attitude. “What happens in Watertown, stays in Watertown.”
And once again, who will “pay” for our Councilors’ decision in this matter? It’s the residents who will have to confront their neighbors and the Police Department who’ll have to clean up the mess, our own little version of “The Hunger Games,” while the City sits back and collects a fee.
Here’s the Jan. 30, 2023 Watertown Committee on Rules and Ordinances discussion of the
proposed Short-Term Rental enforcement with Gideon Schreiber, Assistant Director of Planning,
I recommend starting at Councilor Gannon’s question about enforcement and putting stress on neighbors, going on to hear Gideon Schreiber’s response (1:02:19 – 1:07:19). Even if the owner of the unit is supposed to be there, as the newest version of this proposed ordinance states (a hard thing to prove and enforce, by the way), Gideon says, “as is the case for all zoning, we have to rely on the people who are there at night” (also known as residents). Does Gideon’s answer fill you with confidence or dread?
We’ve already had illegal short-term rental incidents in the City where the police have had to be called numerous times and necessitating people being removed from the premises. Just the formula for stable neighborhoods!
2 – Expect residents’ needs to continue being ignored at the expense of large developers:
The Broder Company (a large, family owned development firm who’ve made their name developing luxury hotels and apartments) bought the Cannistraro site a few years ago. They are making their first foray into developing a bio lab. This lab, operating 24 hours a day, is a towering building and will be located just across the street from a densely populated Watertown neighborhood of small residential homes.
Their property is located in the the Pleasant Street Corridor District (PSCD) where the zoning rules allow for increased building setbacks to be requested or imposed (30 feet along Pleasant St and 50 feet along all other roads). Instead they intend to build just 20 feet back from Acton St. During the Planning Board meeting on Oct. 11, 2023 it was requested by neighbors that they move it back further to lessen impacts on the neighborhood. It looks like from the new December 5th drawings, that request has been ignored. The next opportunity to see how Broder is responding to residents’ concerns will be on Jan. 10, at 7 p.m. at the next Watertown Planning Board meeting. See the agenda here https://watertownma.portal.civicclerk.com/event/5601/files/9428
Or perhaps they’ll feel that they don’t need to address our concerns? Residents are not allowed to attend the initial pre-application developer meetings with the DCDP anymore. They used to be allowed to attend. In these meetings, the residents had no right to speak but could listen to plans, making the process more transparent. This is a meeting where, as one resident experienced in these matters says, “agreements could be made with the City.” It would help residents to have a little more faith in the process if they could attend some of those initial meetings.
We asked for an environmental impact study at one of Broder’s community meetings … a flat “No” from Broder. I was relieved to hear at least one member of the Watertown Planning Board speak of the value of such studies.
Here’s the experience that neighbors across the river from us in Newton are having with our Pleasant Street labs, just down the street from where Broder intends to build. They have made calls, sent letters, reached out to the State Department of Environmental Protection and attended our City Council meetings by zoom and in person. After all of these efforts, they’re still in noise hell.
This is their testimony at the November 14 City Council meeting:
http://vodwcatv.org/CablecastPublicSite/show/2871?site=3 (0:1:37 – 0:5:50). Do you think that
these people are unreasonable rabble-rousers?
I recently contacted one of those residents to see how things were going. She shared her latest
response which she sent to the City:
“As we move into the New Year, I’m sad to share that the noise from 580 is still constant. There’s a loud hum that comes and goes, often something I listen to as I try to fall asleep around 10 p.m. I can hear it now. The building seems to be at a low occupancy level, meaning that it’s us residents who hear it the most (or try not to, more accurately).”
“In addition to 580, the Charles River Automotive idles vehicles for more than an hour, often starting at 4 a.m. And of course there’s Arranta!”
“It’s frustrating that the Christmas holiday I’m excited to share at home with my family will be dominated by round-the-clock noise from across the river. Please help us make a change for 2024.”
We need an updated noise ordinance here in Watertown, not just for our sakes, but for the neighboring towns that surround us. A note: I was gratified to hear that Council President Sideris has announced that this issue will be assigned to a City Council committee this year.
Please be involved in this. Aggregate noise and vibrations from these labs and other activities is a growing issue, and scientific studies are currently being done on how this noise adversely affects everything from mental health, sleeping patterns and school performance.
3 – Expect the continued lack of transparency from the Watertown DCDP:
In an exercise conducted by the City and DCDP (the Watertown Square charrettes), and with a promise given by the City that residents would have a full say in the planning of Watertown Square (except for the O’Connor project at 104 Main St.), this emerged.
You might not believe this after reading this article, but I’m generally a pretty positive person who thinks the best of people. So when I’d heard that a developer was attending the Watertown Square charrettes, I naively assumed that he was there to see what Watertown people really wanted, and then …
A map of the Square was produced by the DCDP for us to use for planning where residents
would like to see building height. A strange thing was noticed on this map. Here’s a copy:
Let me point out what this map showed. Take a close look at Mt. Auburn Street. On the East (right) side of the street there were blue markings, indicating the possibility of medium sized buildings, but notice where Watertown Square Plaza is, where Dunkin Donuts and Subway are located. The map is all white!
We questioned this. It turns out that the developer in attendance had recently bought that busy Watertown spot for $12.9 million. When asked about his thoughts on that spot, he was thinking at least six stories! When residents recoiled at that idea, his charming demeanor changed significantly. All I can compare it to is a scene out of Jim Carrey’s movie “The Mask.”
We then asked Gideon Schreiber why this map had this white space which corresponded exactly to this developer’s property? He said that he thought that this was possibly a “printer error.” You be the judge. One word … transparency! Okay, two more words … accountability and truth.
Tomorrow…Part 3: And on the Bright Side