Options for Watertown Square Redesign Refined and Presented to the Public

Print More
Residents gave input about the ideas for redesigning Watertown Square during a meeting on Thursday night. (Photo by Charlie Breitrose)

Designers gave some glimpses of what Watertown’s center could look like if the City adopts a plan to redesign and redevelop the area during Thursday night’s Watertown Square Area Plan meeting.

Two main options for reworking the roadways in the Square were explored, both of which would add more open space to the area, and showed retail kiosks on the Delta. The scenarios also looked at how Watertown could meet the requirements to allow more housing to meet the MBTA Communities Act. Buildings with as much as six stories of residential units were shown in the illustrations.

The Two Options

From the two-day design charrette in December, a pair of options emerged: Four Corners and Mini Main Street. The designers from Utile refined the two scenarios to show the roadway layout, and possibilities for redeveloping properties in Watertown Square and beyond.

In both scenarios, retail spaces would be created along the Delta on Main Street, and on-street parking would be created on both sides of Main in that area. A 3.5 level parking garage was shown in both plans on part of the current surface parking lots behind the buildings along Main Street, such as the CVS. That would serve the current buildings, new ones planned in that area, as well as the Watertown Free Public Library.

Both designs also show the fork at Arsenal and North Beacon streets changed so that North Beacon makes a dogleg into Arsenal in the area just west of the Speedway gas station. Designers also envision having the 71 Bus cross the Galen Street Bridge on bus lanes and move the start/end of the route to Watertown Yard, which will have a bus turnaround. The 59 bus would also be extended down there. The plan also connects bicycle and pedestrian pathways in the area.

Four Corners

The Four Corners design for the Watertown Square intersection (Courtesy of Utile)

Four Corners creates a four-way intersection for the main crossroads in the Square with Main Street connecting with Arsenal Street in the east-west direction, and Mt. Auburn Street and Galen Street being used for north-south traffic.

To create the four-way intersection, Charles River Road is removed from the Watertown Square intersection. The plan calls for the roadway to make a T with Arsenal Street and vehicles on Charles River Road can only make right turns onto Arsenal.

Erin Cameron, a traffic consultant from Stantec, said that one in three vehicles going through Watertown Square are going to or from the Mass. Pike. To remove some of that traffic, from the main intersection, the Four Corners scenario takes vehicles coming eastbound on Main and Pleasant streets and turns them south along what is now the bus turnaround along the south side the Delta.

Mini Main Street

The Mini Main Street scenario. (Courtesy of Utile)

The Mini Main Street scenario creates a slower, pedestrian focused section of Main Street around the top of the Delta, and moves the main intersection slightly east so that Mt. Auburn intersects with Charles River Road at Arsenal Street.

Vehicles traveling east and west will have to go around the bottom of the Delta, along the current bus turnaround. That block of Galen Street will be turned into a two-way road and link with Arsenal Street. To go from the Galen Street bridge to Mt. Auburn Street, vehicles will have to drive a block east on Arsenal Street and turn left onto Mt. Auburn.

Riverside Road would be extended so that it makes a T with Arsenal Street.

Housing Development

Part of the emphasis of the Watertown Square redesign is to change zoning to allow multi-unit housing developments by right to meet the MBTA Communities Act. The goal of the law is to create dense housing in areas of transportation hubs.

The State is requiring Watertown to zone enough properties to allow at least 1,701 units to be built by-right. Utile’s Tim Love noted that the new law has been “a drama in several other communities.”

He explained that by-right means that the City’s Planning and Zoning boards could not deny a project if it fits within the zoning rules for the property, but they would still have input on the design. To go higher than the stories allowed in the zoning, developers would have to get a special permit approved by the Planning and/or Zoning boards.

Love noted that just because a property is zoned by-right for residential or mixed use (with retail on the bottom) developments, that does not mean that they have to be built.

“If a property owner likes what is there now, they can keep it there forever,” Love said.

Option 1

Two options that meet the MBTA Communities Act zoning were laid out by the designers, one which put a mix of 3.5, 4.5, and 5.5 story buildings in the entire Watertown Square Area (which includes stretches beyond the square on Main, Galen, Arsenal and North Beacon streets).

The half stories will allow a level of housing units, but would be “stepped back” several feet from the facade, or would have a pitched roofline under which the units could be built.

The red areas in the illustration above would be 5.5 stories, blue allows 4.5 stories and green 3.5 stories. Option 1 would allow for 6,320 units to be created, or 4,619 more than the requirement, Love said.

Option 2

The second option for housing used the same distribution of 5.5, 4.5, and 3.5 zones, however the by-right area was “collared,” Love said. The only area that would allow the developments by-right would be centered around Watertown Square.

The limited area would still allow Watertown to exceed the MBTA Communities Act requirements. It would allow for 2,631 housing units to be created, which is 930 more than the requirement.

The by-right area is shown outlined in dashed lines in the illustration above. Love noted that the “collared” area could be adjusted.

Design Standards

An illustration of some how buildings could be built using design standards shown on the block between Mt. Auburn and Arsenal streets. (Courtesy of Utile)

Along with the allowable height, the City will be creating design standards to layout what, to some extent, what the buildings will look like.

Some design standards are requirements and some are recommended, and the City will determine which fit into each category, said Watertown Senior Planner Larry Field.

Some of the suggestions of the designers include creating demise lines to break up the facade of buildings. This could entail a change in color or building materials. Other design standards could define how the distance a building sits off the street, the distance between buildings, the amount of open space, the parking per unit requirement (if any), and the design of features such as windows, awnings, and balconies.

The City seeks input about the proposals for Watertown Square, the by-right zoning, and the design standards. A survey will be posted soon on the Watertown Square Area project website, watertownsquareimprovements.com. The site also includes more information, documents, and details from previous meetings.

The next public meeting in the Watertown Square Area Plan process will take place on April 4 at 6:30 p.m. at 66 Galen St.

25 thoughts on “Options for Watertown Square Redesign Refined and Presented to the Public

  1. Just a few thoughts on the meeting there other night:
    1. The “four corners” option is better for the square (minus the structures on the “delta”).

    2. We need an Option 3 that only meets the minimum requirements of the MBTA Communities Act. The plans presented densify our city far too much. We have fought so hard to get open green space and there is not even a courtyard is shown between Mt. Auburn Street to the library.

    3. There should be no “by-right developments” adjacent to the river or within the riverfront area.

    This is a big disappointment created under the direction of our Planning Department that is out of touch as to what the city needs at this time.

    We should be able to do better, but that will need more voices to speak up against these two options.

  2. In my mind the meeting on Pleasant St. to discuss the two proposed plans for the redesigned Watertown Square was a flawed process and not a good opportunity for people to truly understand and react to the designs.

    I sincerely HOPE people will open the survey link for the Watertown Square proposed plans and participate so that your preferences are considered in this big decision for our downtown area. At the two meetings on Pleasant St. there were about 200 people in attendance for each. We should not leave such a small representation of our residents to determine what happens in the square.

    The presentations were difficult to see on the screen and to understand what was there. There were no street names listed and people were having trouble getting oriented and identifying the areas discussed. The charts with numbers were not readable from seats further back.

    There were no directional arrows depicting whether some streets were one-way or two-way and going in which directions with the options on the new plans. There were no street names depicted. People had to rely on the red bouncing laser pointer that was difficult to follow, especially from further back in the room.

    On the plans with the proposed building heights the street names were small and in gray print that was unreadable as you can see on the attachments in this article.

    There was no notice in the original meeting notice that people should bring smart phones with them to react during the meeting. There was no announcement in the beginning of the meeting that there would be an option to fill in a survey in the next few days after the meeting. People felt pressured to try to use their phones if they had one. Many people didn’t have smart phones, knew how to scan a QR code or were prepared to do this activity on their phones. There was not enough time to think about what was to be voted on so votes were missed.

    Gathering around the various boards at tables was difficult. Some people monopolized the positions facing the front of the boards, forcing some to stand further away at the end of the tables or with a backward view of the plans. It was difficult to easily step in to ask questions or place post-its on the boards. If you were at the end of the tables, the acoustics made it a challenge to hear the conversations. There was even a case where at least one individual left their assigned table and came to at least one other table to strongly convey their opinions. People were given ASSIGNED table numbers upon entering the meeting.

    We will all be impacted by the change in traffic patterns and the number of additional housing units and their heights that are being proposed in the two plans. In both plans they are far EXCEEDING the state’s zoning capacity of 1,701 units that the MBTA law is requiring. Do you want this?

    One plan proposes the option of an additional 4,619 units and the other offers an additional 930 units depending on the heights of the buildings, the size of the units, and the available parking.

    It was difficult to read the numbers on the screen. A lot depends on whether 3 1/2, 4 1/2 or 5 1/2 buildings are agreed upon in by-right zoning plans. If you have a preference on the size and location of the proposed buildings, now is the time to speak up.

    It appears that parking would allow .75 spaces per unit. That’s fine if people know up front that having a vehicle is not going to be an option before they sign a lease, but what if their job locations change and they can no longer use the T or their bikes to get to their workplace or somewhere else? They will then need a vehicle or need to move closer to their jobs, which could cause a revolving door in some of these apartments.

    In reviewing these plans one of them forces movement from Galen St. to Arsenal St. and to get to Mt. Auburn St., one would need to take a left from Arsenal St. on various side streets like Patten, Taylor or Irving Streets or other streets further down. This leaves the businesses on the west end of Mt. Auburn St. at a disadvantage. They will have less exposure to vehicles and potential customers that might want to stop there.

    With the other plan it’s unclear if the narrowed Main St. is only westbound in the expanded Delta area. And is Pleasant St. remaining as one way with two lanes or would it now be a two-way street going east and west?

    The goal is to divert traffic from Watertown Square and to move it onto side streets around the square. That will increase traffic in some neighborhoods that have not had it in the past.

    Watertown will still be a pass-through community to get from and to other cities and locations. If cars are diverted, will they circle around the Delta to get back to where they want and stop to patronize our small businesses? There are a lot of facts to be considered before any plans are finalized.

    Will the new increased proposed green space in the Square really be used by many people with traffic circling the area? If so, for how many months out of the year? Do we need expanded space there for farmers’ markets and other activities where we already have an adequate space in the Saltonstall Park? Will this space cause more confusion for people who aren’t familiar with the traffic patterns? Will it serve our visually impaired residents in the ways they need?

    I STRONGLY URGE you to participate in the survey and contact Councilors and Planning staff to address your concerns if the survey does not allow the opportunity to do this. There have been numerous changes and studies of the square in the past, and we all know there are no perfect designs that serve all needs, but your opinion matters. You may not even think either of these two plans meet your needs or desires. If that is the case, you should communicate that information to your Councilors AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. The city seems to have its plan, but the question is, is it yours!

  3. Thanks to the City for making the effort to share the possible designs with residents. The presentations were professional and easy to follow. We were very surprised, however, that there was little or no mention of sustainability and alternative energy in their plans. When I asked one of the architects why we didn’t see solar panels drawn on any roof, he didn’t seem to know that the city requires solar power for buildings of a certain size. He also didn’t realize that certain new apartment buildings need to include enough power cables, in their garages, to allow residents to install electric chargers at their parking spots. Is there a communication gap between the architects and the zoning administration?

  4. Letter to the Editor:
    On last Thursday, I really looked forward to attending the planning meeting for the future of Watertown Square. As we were ushered through the planning exercises with the consultants and Watertown staff, three things bothered me:

    1. Question: Are there only two alternatives for Watertown Square? It certainly seemed so, since we were only presented with two choices during the interactive part of the presentation. It seemed to me that both of these options had serious problems. No room was left for a third possible response – that neither of the planned options is preferred. Isn’t it useful to know what percentage of respondents don’t like what’s been presented? Maybe that means the plans need to be improved. And that is the segue to my second observation.

    2. The meeting broke out into large groups with a mediator presenting the plans. I hoped that, finally, this would be the opportunity for residents to submit suggestions and changes to the plans.

    There was the usual back-and-forth of opinions and thoughts. The groups were large and unwieldy, and it was difficult for all to see the plans on the table and hear others’ comments. Some of us moved aside to make room for others who were standing behind us to be able to see and make notes on stickies. At best, this process was an awkward exercise, leading to more confusion than to group concensus.

    3. Finally, I was dismayed by the extreme aggression and less than straightforward process that I observed.

    One woman, who was arguing so loudly with someone on the opposite end of the table, was hindering the cooperative planning process. I had not noticed this woman before, and I think she was not a member of the originally assigned group.

    I asked her to stop shouting. She continued, turning her attention to me this time, escalating to insulting and condescending language while gesticulating wildly. The moderator asked her to calm down. She loudly proclaimed she had a degree in economics. (Note: I worked in a research center for many years that employed a department of 20-25 economists, who often had polar opposite opinions on a subject using the exact same data. There was never an abusive exchange between them.)

    Yet another of the staff showed up to try to control the noise at the table. The woman left to join another table. The group began civil discussion again. And perhaps because of this exchange, I noticed two more people who were not part of the original table had appeared. One of them was holding an entire sticky pad! Note: these sticky notes were being used to gauge the level of importance that each group placed on particular details.

    What is so troubling about this to me? This is a form of “cheating.” It’s stuffing the ballot box, loading the dice, counting cards, sleight of hand. It left me disappointed and angry. Further, I noticed the exact same behavior during the charrettes last November 28-30. People that were not part of the original table planning group came in twos and threes and tried to dominate the conversation and add stickies that contained their ideas to our group’s shared process. That is basically “voting” more than once!

    While this behavior may be seen as a “strategic” move, I see it as an unfair tactic that skews results.

    My takeaway: A clean and honest process will be needed to assure all residents that any plan for Watertown Square will be successful.

  5. WOW, that “Housing for All” group sure did turn what should’ve been a Civil process into a three ring circus of their way or no way since the start of process. One of my favorites of them tainting it was, informing people to vote over and over again for bigger and more housing, imagine some of us played like adults and voted once! It seems to be like time to go back to the drawing board for a fair and honest approach to design of the Square, most people would agree it’s time for an upgrade. The approach being taken here now is being funded by outside forces, how much do these people benefit from this uncivil and dishonest approach? I would also like to know which Watertown Official that they quote in their newsletter “HAW has done more for the housing than anyone before” or something like that, feel free to correct me along with the name. If anything they’ve turned this into their version that should be called “HEE-HAW”

  6. I echo Leo’s, Joan’s and Anne’s comments. This time period in our history has eerie similarities to an industrial time in Watertown over a hundred years ago whose consequences we are still dealing with today, brownfields, closed garbage dumps and all.

    Back then it was rampant, rapid building with no thought to how factories, etc. would affect Watertown. It was “good for business,” therefore it was good for Watertown. We (and the river) have spent generations recovering from that frenetic time only now to repeat similar patterns. The solar panels, etc. notwithstanding, we are moving at breakneck speed, being spurred on by big money and developers’ demands, erecting buildings that remain unoccupied for years, but building more anyway.

    I observed similar irregularities at these meetings and beyond, where some citizens and city staff seemed all too eager to do the developer’s bidding in a dizzying succession of closed door decisions that will change the lives of people in Watertown for generations to come. I fear that in the same way our industrial past still haunts us, we too are leaving a mess that we and Watertown’s future residents will have to deal with.

  7. I attended the Watertown Square Update meeting on Feb. 29 and it looked very different from what most Comments here suggest. The presentations were clear and the meeting was very professionally managed, given the complexity of soliciting input from as many attendees as possible. The consultants/staff seemed sincere about gathering feedback and suggestions from residents. The tables were not “voting groups” (geez), just a way to diffuse the conversation around the room to facilitate collecting as many ideas as possible. The sticky notes weren’t “votes” (no stolen election here), just vehicles for attendees to provide written feedback. All those who attended the Design Charrette in Nov. 2023 and the Feb. 29, 2024 update meeting know that this has been the very opposite of a “closed door process” (200 people behind the closed door). Most commenters here simply disagree with the majority, which supports adding housing density to Watertown Square. That’s the real reason for 100 complaints and even name-calling.

    • Once again we have the newly arrived who claim to be in the majority without actually checking. Perhaps a majority of your peers, but certainly not of all your neighbors.

      There is a long history that has led us to where we are today. That history has engendered a lot of mistrust.

      Please respect your neighbor’s views and stop trying to minimize and dismiss them. Very few object to more housing, but rather are concerned about how it is done. It seems to be a popular tactic to misrepresent this outlook. These tactics undermine any good that is happening and builds more mistrust.

  8. Hi Scott,

    Just a couple of thoughts:
    You state that in Cambridge or Brighton you’d have to “get a roommate and live in a noisy dump which isn’t conducive to studying. Watertown is close to everything and the apartment boom has been great!”

    With unbridled growth how long will it be before Watertown turns into Brighton? Watertown suits your situation just fine right now, but many of us have been committed to Watertown for a very long time. We are not opposed to growth. Just more thoughtful growth than we’re seeing right now. “Build high…no! Higher” is not going to serve Watertown well in the long run.

    At the last Affordable Housing Trust meeting, a group that has quite a bit of say in how things get planned, a member stated that she’d like to see the Watertown Square housing overlay apply to the entire city of Watertown. Please stop assuming that you know the whole picture by seeing just one slice of it.

  9. All comments are welcome in this process, but grad students and other renters may not be living here a long time. They may be in the process of finding where their future jobs will be and once their search and/or education goals are met, they may move on. In the meantime they may be voting for permanent changes to what long-term residents don’t see as part of their vision.

    We have some wonderful renters in this community who have been here for many years, have truly made this their home and have contributed much to our city. We have many long-time home owners who chose our town/city because it met the requirements they felt were important in their lives. They were achieving the American dream of home ownership through hard work and a desire to settle in a place that wasn’t a big city like Cambridge or Brighton (Boston) and that wasn’t as dense and congested as those cities.

    Watertown has seen a lot of residential high-rise buildings being built on Pleasant St. and Arsenal Streets, in particular, in our recent past. With our little 4.1 square-mile city we have contributed more than most cities with increased rental units. Now the state is mandating to increase the units to a minimum of 1,701 in ONE area of our city, with increased heights that a lot of people feel aren’t comfortable with having in this area.

    According to the MBTA Law rules, our city had the option of making more than one area more dense, which would have had the effect of softening the impact on the whole community, but they chose not to bring the public in earlier for discussions about this as other communities did. This gave us little choice but to deal with what we were given. Other cities are fighting back against the state mandates.

    As I mentioned above, the goal seems to be to ultimately increase those counts by HUGE amounts. If that wasn’t the goal, those numbers would not have been presented. If we aren’t careful, we WILL BE Cambridge. Be careful for what you wish for. The grad student moved here because he didn’t like the accommodations there. Wouldn’t you think he would think more clearly about his proposals for us?

    Apparently he can’t wait for the old folks to die off, but he says he was being polite for not actually saying this. Right! In actuality if the city had allowed years ago to have 55-plus condo units at the location where Bell Tower is currently, that would have freed up many houses for other families to move into. We could still propose that type of housing if the same outcome is wanted.

    Watertown actually has a good percentage of houses owned by seniors and in the next 15 years or so, those houses will be available for new families. If developers and the city have their choice, they will knock them down to put more dense housing there also, thus eliminating the back yards children and families have enjoyed in the past and would like to have in the future. Then we won’t be a desirable city for families and they will choose another city for achieving their American dream and we will be left with new schools that won’t be full.

    With proposing the huge amounts of rental units with mostly studio and one and two bedroom units that many people can’t pay, seniors can’t afford to move into and others can’t afford unless they are in professions that pay very well. The only time those rental prices will come down is if we have a recession or depression or if the feds reduce rates to make it easier for more housing to be built everywhere.

    In fact, Congress is trying to initiate a bill that would prevent big investment individuals and corporations from buying up the existing single-family housing stock everywhere, which is pushing up prices for houses and rentals. If you think the developers who want to build these high-rise buildings in Watertown are here to better our quality of life, I have a bridge to nowhere to sell you.

    If some tables at the meeting were sparse and others were overcrowded, that was because people didn’t follow the rules. Table numbers were given to even out the numbers of people at each table, and the rule-breakers were the disrupters. Did they feel that their opinions mattered so much more that they needed to drift around and insert their ideas at every table? That doesn’t seem to be a fair process at all. The long tables didn’t facilitate the process either. Those people at the ends felt left out and couldn’t hear the discussions.

    If you feel that the consultants are paying attention to the people, good for you. Many people feel they are being herded to a solution that is not their choice but those of others with different goals. Hopefully more residents will provide their opinions on the survey so that we have a better representation of what the majority really wants.

    People, you have to complete the on-line survey by Monday, March 11. It’s important for you and your families to let your opinions be heard. We’re getting close to the end of this process.

  10. A comment came in asking: Why wasn’t the Watertown Square planning survey distributed to all residents? The developers already left us without a post office–why do we trust their planning more than the people who actually live and work here?

    Reminder to sign comments with your full name.

    • Suggest that commenter signs up for the Watertown Square Planning process email distribution list (on the city website). These emails have provided a ton of information!

  11. Thank you to 28-year-old Scott Bryant for having the courage to dispel some long-held myths. First, people who’ve lived in Watertown for 7 months have as much right to shape our city’s future as people who have lived here for 70 years. Second, it seems to me that most “old people” can relate only to what they’ve seen in the past; like a colorblind person, they can not see the future. They have some wisdom, and I respect that. But they often have blind spots and communicate as if only their voices matter. I say that ALL VOICES SHOULD BE HEARD…. young people, renters, highly educated people (frequently vilified as “elites”), and people who moved here recently. And that’s what the consultants and the Planning Dept. are attempting to do with these public meetings along the process of re-imagining Watertown Square.
    FYI Mr. Bryant, I do find the editor of this newspaper prints negative comments from “the usual suspects” more often than those from conflicting voices.

    • The comments that are blocked are those that violate the policies. Typically they have gotten “too personal” and are negatively directed at someone by name. They come in from all sides of issues, by the way.

    • Oh my. . .this comes across as ageist in its depiction of “old people”. . .”color blind”. . .”cannot see the future”. Pretty insulting and inappropriate.

      There is a certain faction in this debate that seems to deliberately paint a mischaracterized view of others. It is not a good look. It seems that they are trying to disqualify those who disagree with them by painting inaccurate pictures of other citizens.

      This dynamic creates and solidifies a lot of ill will. It does our city no service.

    • Being a Carpet Bagger myself, I have not seen my comments suppressed or censored. Whenever I want to speak up I do. Let’s not have victims where there are not one.

  12. One thing that history has shown – more housing does not lead to more affordability.
    When you look at a big city you often see a lot more housing, more intense and busy energy. Never do you fine cheaper housing. I would argue less affordability for the majority of the people. 20 or 30 years ago when I was living here and I would go to Cambridge and some people would ask me why I would want to live in Watertown. Hint Watertown was not seen as hip or cool. I would say it was quieter, slower, less crowded, easier for parking and most of all it was cheaper. I fear that all this “improvement” and emphasis on more and more housing will destroy the quieter, slower, less crowed and less expensive little town, now city, I have managed to make home for the last 30 years, I’m not so sure I would chose it again as it’s becoming far harder to see the same qualities that brought me here to begin with.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *