OP-ED: Democracy Dismantled, One Poll and Survey at a Time

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A continuation of “When Bad Ideas Happen to Good Neighbors”

By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

A news article just came out on March 17, 2024 in a real estate publication, Banker and Tradesman.

Watertown is famous! Here’s why:

“In Watertown Square, consultants recommend zoning areas around the square for building heights ranging from three to five stories, with the tallest heights near the five corners intersection. The proposal could generate over 6,320 housing units at full buildout, compared with the 1,701 required by the state’s formula for Watertown.”

And here’s HAW’s official response in that article:

“You don’t hire those consultants if you just want to do paper compliance,” said Sam Ghilardi, a steering committee member of the Housing For All Watertown resident group that supports additional multifamily development. “We are thrilled with what has been proposed so far.”

So far? 6,320 apartments? … there’s more??

On November 30th, the last day of the three charrettes, (the public planning days for this project), the City had a work session called “MBTA Zoning.” The question to be answered in this workshop: How do we get to 1701? (Referring to the Watertown MBTA Law requirements of 1701 housing units). That was our stated goal by the City for this planning activity. Now, mysteriously, between the last charrette on November 30th and February 29th, the housing unit number had more than tripled to 6,320!

Our City Manager, George Proakis, is so proud of this news article that he’s attached it to his Linkedin page … “The City that George Built” … Georgetown … no, wait. That won’t work. No, but seriously, George, you choose to live in a city where the city center looks like this:

Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melrose,_Massachusetts

In fact, you were on Melrose’s Historical Commission for about 15 years, but you’re working to tear out what’s left of what’s historic in our Watertown Square area and Brighton-ize” it? When you took this job, you promised us transparency. This seems like a broken promise to me.

So, how did this happen? How did a community that signed three petitions in the past two years, totaling 784 signatures, signatures certified by the Watertown City Clerk’s office as registered voters, be utterly overridden by a bunch of surveys and polls? Let’s take a look:

Here’s how the “legitimate” (and very expensive) process that is touted by City Manager, George Proakis, where his friend and colleague Jeff Speck, Steve Magoon and his Department of Community Development and Planning and a whole bunch of outside highly paid consultants, have manipulated the public process.

Let’s compare the 784 signatures of residents, certified by the Watertown City Clerk. These legal petitions were residents sending a message to City Hall that they wanted:

  1. To save historic buildings in the Square
  2. To keep the scale of buildings in the Square to a moderate size (no more than 4 floors)
  3. To use judgment in scaling larger buildings next to smaller ones.

These legitimate efforts and residents’ opinions were dismissed out of hand by the City Council. Instead, the Council spent $200,000 of our hard earned taxpayer dollars to “study the Square.” I’m all for planning, but there’s planning and then there’s pseudo-planning, where the results are already pre-determined.

What should have been residents’ first clue was when Jeff Speck got up to show us his first thoughts for the Square at the end of the first meeting. He prefaced them with something like, “You’re not going to like this” to the residents who were there. His first thoughts bore a great resemblance to what they’re presenting now. Did they already have a plan in place without resident participation?

A flashback for me: when I worked at MIT, many years ago. I was a very young 20-something “nerdy girl” who went with a friend (an MIT student involved in a public road project) to a public hearing on the North Shore. I believe the topic was Rte. 128.

As one by one residents got up to explain their concerns and show their ideas, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “These people don’t know this, but everything has already been decided. We have the contracts and the people already in place. We just have to do this meeting as part of the required process.” I was too young then to understand the ramifications of this, but it has stayed with me ever since.

So, back to the present day. A week after the first Watertown Square Area planning meeting on October 17, 2023, the consultants conducted the Polis survey. This was a very long online survey, that asked the same questions in many different ways.

The Polis survey was: anonymous, easily manipulated, and could be voted on numerous times by the same “voter,” even if he or she was not a Watertown resident! Who “voted” in this survey Were there any controls to make sure that only Watertown residents voted? No. None at all! As a matter of fact, the Charles River Regional Chamber, which serves Newton, Needham, Wellesley and Watertown, provided the link to the Watertown Polis survey in their newsletter and encouraged people to vote, saying, “You don’t have to live or work in Watertown to participate.”

And yet in HAW’s March 6, 2024 letter to the Watertown Square Area Planning Team they refer to this survey as the definitive document, proving what Watertown citizens want:

“The Polis Survey demonstrated a supermajority of city residents support greater density in the Square,” the HAW group crowed in their March 6th letter, and added that this shows that “a clear majority of meeting attendees explicitly embraced Option 1.” If you remember, Option 1 is the “by-right” option that gives developers more power and control.

And to further confuse the issue, at the design charrettes, three all day planning meetings in November 2023 that were conducted by the City and the consultants, the same HAW groups of people were walking from table to table, repeating their talking points, again and again and again. They added stickie notes with their opinions to multiple tables.

The workshop questions developed for this process were open-ended enough to be interpreted in a wide variety of ways. These questions used during the workshop sessions lent themselves to such a wide range of interpretation to be practically meaningless, unless the group asking wants to have the power to interpret those answers any way they wish. It’s a “heads, I win; tails, you lose” situation. One of the workshops on November 30th was aimed at “Getting to 1,701,” meaning the goal was to work as a community to fulfill the MBTA Law mandate.

In the next meeting, on February 29, a high tech poll using a QR code was used. Many folks didn’t have a chance to find their phones for the beginning of the survey (not all people know where their phones are 100% of the time). That might explain why the first question of that poll
had a much lower voting total as compared to the last question.

The overall low percentage of people in the room answering the QR coded questions could also reflect how many people were looking for a missing choice, C: None of the above. Remember, on November 30th, the housing unit goal that the City told the public was 1,701. When they came back on February 29th with their plans, they had expanded the housing number to over three times that!

Here are the results of that QR code poll, taken at the February 29th Watertown Square Area Planning meeting, where anyone could walk off of the street, no residency requirement, etc. and “vote.” City Councilor Nicole Gardner, has distributed these results on Facebook:

I’ve got questions!!

Question: How can these results be seriously viewed as legitimate and definitive? The largest participating group on these topics is 129 people. Again, 129 choices expressed by whoever was in the room at the time, resident, non-resident, out-of-state developer, etc.

According to Councilor Anthony Palomba, who sent an email to Watertown residents on his list entitled, “Watertown Square Area Plan Moving Forward!” there were many more than 225 people at this meeting. Councilor Gardner said that there were 200. If we could get the official number of participants, it would be helpful.

Why so few “votes?“ If you compare Councilor Palomba’s and Gardner’s numbers, why did between 35% to 40% of the people in the room not respond? Did Watertown, a city that prides itself on being inclusive, not provide support for people who may be using a QR code for the first time or not even own a smartphone?

Or were the choices so onerous that people just decided not to choose at all?

Let’s concentrate on Question 5. You had two choices:

Option 1: Which had the capacity for 6,230 housing units

Option 2: Which had the capacity for 2,631 housing units

Where’s Option 3 (the one we gave input for): a capacity for 1,701 units?



Final Question: 129 (Watertown residents or not) versus over 784 legally verified signatures requesting very different results for our Square. Which is a more legitimate reflection of Watertown’s views?

We have already spent a lot of time and money on a process that is fraught with flaws, inconsistencies and built in biases. A legitimate vote is in order, with legitimate choices and legitimate oversight of who is voting. If we taxpayers can pay $200,000 for a survey that slants and negates the majority’s views, we should also be able to pay for an electoral process where all Watertown voters get a real say in the future of Watertown Square.

Please let your councilors know that you want a real process with registered Watertown voters!

Click here for the email and phone numbers of Watertown’s City Councilors

(Send letters and op-eds to watertownmanews@gmail.com)

63 thoughts on “OP-ED: Democracy Dismantled, One Poll and Survey at a Time

  1. I fundamentally disagree with the writer’s notion of democracy. In fact, democracy is dismantled when a group of people who got less votes (875 for Clyde Younger, in favor of limiting the development that the current government wants to do), think that they should have the right to decide the policy outcome rather than the group that got more votes (2623 for Sideris and staying the course).

    The group that got less votes are not bad people, but the group that got more votes should control the policy.

    • It is an error in judgement to consider the last Council election a binding plebiscite on the issue of development. Not sure how long the writer has been in Watertown, but there has been a long and tortured history of faulty process that has generated widespread mistrust in our community.

      One election–an election that did not provide adequate choices–hardly settles the many years of frustration on the part of many.

    • Both fine long time residents that care about their community, maybe they had different visions of what Watertown should be. That’s o k. Mr. Sullivan for some reason here, seems to keep calling out Mr. Younger for having a different view than his, along with the vote totals, I don’t understand why, in the name of Democracy, I think not. Having lived here [yup here we go] for decades, in my opinion Mr. Younger and his wife Mary are fine examples of Watertown residents and so is Mr. Sideris and his family, both have given their time away from their families over the years for the greater good of our Community. Both spoke openly and honestly during the campaign, no hidden agenda that I saw. Have to say a lot of integrity involved in both men’s character. So going back to integrity, you fail to mention maybe the fact that your an attorney employed by the Attorney Generals Office, who is in charge of enforcing the compliance of the rule, in the MBTA Act. If there’s any doubt about these men or anyone else who gave of themselves for Watertown, know this, it’s the long time residents here that got us to be where we are at, that made Watertown so attractable that you moved here a few years ago. Thank you

    • Mr. Sullivan, Yes, Mark trounced me in the last election. Does it matter if one loses if they raise the conscious level of people. If my comments or view point was irrelevant you would not have been prompted to write about my position regarding this critical issue. The decision made today is the most important decision the City’s leaders will make in Watertown’s recent History. Should we rush this decision and make the worst or deliberate or discuss other options for the best decision that benefits the entire community?

      By the way, when I first started with CDC’s STD Program in Los Angeles, we were taught interviewing techniques to obtain information that cases did not wish to divulge about their contacts and themselves. The manner in which a person answered told a lot about them.

      • Mr. Younger – I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have run or anything; I’m glad you did. It’s always better to have a competitive election based on the issues. And of course this issue is important!

        The only thing I have a problem with is this letter writer’s suggestion that it’s somehow undemocratic for the side that won to get its way over the side that lost. You and she and anyone else, of course, remain free to try to persuade us that you are right about the underlying issue. But you haven’t yet done so, and it’s not “dismantling democracy” to make decisions on the basis of the election results we’ve already had, unless and until you and Ms. Scott can persuade the majority to change their minds.

        • You aren’t in the “majority” except maybe in some Trumpian sense. Put a referendum on the ballot and have extensive and informed debate and I think that you will be surprised about how many of your townsfolk have deep concerns about what is going on.

          • What a great idea, let the people vote! Sounds reasonable to me! I could not attend these meetings and know that not many go or can go, we certainly should not be making a decision of this magnitude in this manner! I’ll write to all the councilors as this should be done much more inclusively with all of Watertown, a referendum would be the best vehicle! Thanks!

        • It’s the voting during the “informational” meetings that is being questioned – not the votes cast during regular town elections.

  2. So you don’t even present your plan in the follow-up article. Hopefully by the third installment you will present your well thought out plan for how Watertown should lower rents and build additional housing that will attract the people that you want.

    These posts are getting repetitive and present no new plans of actions. Its just a bi-weekly attack piece on which ever civil servant the author wants to attack.

    How about the next time you sit down to write one of these you start with the premise “How Watertown can lower rents by 10% (total the average rent is $3.3k so how do we get that to $3k?)

    Or maybe have the premise be, In the 60s Watertown’s population was roughly 39k, today it is 35k. How can we build enough new housing in Watertown to return it to its glory days of the 1960s?

    1) Do we build smaller units ? How many ? Where ?

    2)Do we purchase some private land and zone it for a new single family only housing ?

    3) Do we ask older empty nesters to consider selling their single family homes to a young family just starting and down sizing to one of the new condo’s in the area ? What incentives could the town provide them ?

    4) Should public tax dollars be used ? How much ? What qualifications should a renter have to get access to those units?

    Let’s give George and the rest of the Council/Departments a break from your rants for a week or so.

    • If you find the articles repetitive then don’t read them and respond disrespectfully. Many others find them informative.

      • I dont have an issue with the repetition, I have a problem with the low effort information and attacks on public employees / elected officials.

        What I want to see is real effort from this “build responsibly” group. You don’t like what the city official support, you don’t like what the developers are building, you recognize there is a need for more housing in Watertown and lower rents. So pitch your solution. Walk me through your plan. How many units, where are they located, where is the money coming from to building them, who will have access to purchase/rent them.

        You want any of that to happen you need votes and I am a voter. So pitch me on what your plan is. Don’t just attack people for presenting a plan that you don’t like without a solid alternative, that is just lazy.

        • Eric, I also would love to see similar questions posted in these letters answered, like: how our housing went up from 1701 to 6,230(I was aware of the 1701 but never heard of 6230). Given the large jump we should see the potential impacts on all of the services in town, schools, fire, etc. compared to the benefit(how would housing costs go down given we have built many over the past 10 years but costs just keep going up?). A referendum would be the best method to have true town input with real debates and articles.

          • Kate – the number 6230 potential units is only one option – the number didn’t “go up,” this is false. There are multiple options, depending on the zoning amendments we choose, and nothing is set in stone. The writer of this letter wants people to believe the “extreme situation” has already been chosen, but this is false.

            To those who have not been paying attention until now, please avoid jumping to conclusions. Instead, I urge you to review the materials available on Watertown’s website and attend the meeting on April 4.

      • What is disrespectful about the letter? Pointing out holes in an argument, or failures to propose any meaningful solutions, are part of debate; if you don’t like this, then don’t read the letters.

        • I agree 100% with you! When someoe questions something or points out holes it is a good thing. When someone calls someone disrepectful, watch out! Don’t fall for the “trust me” trap.

  3. Linda you bring up some good points, re: number of housing units we really need to comply with the MBTA mandate. From there I think we should build smart with a maximum of 4 stories (remember, HVAC is not counted as a story). I agree that over 6,000 units is too much. I do like the traffic flow redesigns they have come up with, however not so much the scale and number of the buildings.

  4. Unfortunately, the misrepresentation of last fall’s Watertown Square survey extends beyond loosely organized advocacy groups. A presentation(1) given during the city’s charette kick-off on 11/28/2023 touted that “1,076 people voted (based on logins or individual devices)”.

    However, within the chosen poll software (Polis), that survey would be considered ‘anonymous’ as users were unauthenticated (not required to log in). I’ve used Polis to run my own sample surveys, and viewed the resulting reports. It’s simple for one person to vote multiple times via the same device and be considered a new respondent each time. In an anonymous Polis poll, an administrator cannot ensure that participants are “individual” nor limit them to one vote per prompt.

    Polis’ documentation(2) is unambiguous: “Using an incognito window [within a web browser], participants could, if anonymous, vote an unlimited amount of times.” The same can also be achieved by clearing the browser’s cookies. This doesn’t require specialized knowledge; it’s something a 5th grader likely knows how to do.

    The “PRO TIP” quoted in the previous article (“Said it once? Say it again! And again. And again…”) thus gives me pause. I have no evidence anyone voted multiple times (intentionally or otherwise), but given how trivial it is to do so, no one should confidently state that “1,076 people voted”. All we truly know is: “1,076 browser-based poll sessions were initiated (though people may have voted numerous times)”.

    In late November, I emailed the city’s team regarding the accuracy of the participant count shared during the charette and included much of the above information along with a request for public clarification. I’ve yet to receive an acknowledgment of the issue.

    Given that the survey “results,” and those of the later QR code-based ‘straw polls’, continue to reverberate, transparency regarding the strengths and weaknesses of these online polling platforms, including their potential to disenfranchise less technical stakeholders, is overdue. Similarly, people should be careful to frame these participatory activities accordingly. Any suggestion that the responses are solely those of “city residents” is woefully unsupported.

    (1) See page 13 of this PDF: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/59e50be849fc2b3fd20a30cb/t/656773d601133f05d4a552b7/1701278682225/low+res+Part+1+2023-11-28_Charrette_Existing+Conditions+Analysis.pdf

    (2) https://compdemocracy.org/Identity/

    • If you’re talking about the poll where you could add your own comments and vote on others, here’s some evidence of people having voted more than once.

      I did.

      I did because the poll was so long that I had to stop for a while and return to it later. When I did, I was forced to start at the beginning. That was very frustrating. But I had added a few comments, and I was, after a long time of refilling out the survey, able to see based on how soon I saw my comments, which had gained some traction. That was kind of fun!

      So, I did it again. I wanted to see if my comments rose higher in popularity. I filled out the survey again, focusing on redoubling (retripling) my sentiments, positive and negative, on the comments that most piqued my interest and skipping over the comments in which I was disinterested or, frankly, found too confusing to respond.

      So yes, certainly anyone with the time and the desire to do so could easily stuff the ballots.

      I have developed several surveys in my career and I was appalled by how easy, albeit time consuming, it was to vote multiple times and even vote for your own statements. I was also appalled by the length of the survey and frustrated that people would have to dedicate so much time if they wanted to studiously complete the entire survey. Many people don’t have that kind of stamina. Which means only the first perhaps big, perhaps small chunk of questions will get even more attention than the rest, and many valid and exciting (mine, of course 😉 ideas may barely receive recognition.

  5. It is a fallacy that more housing means lower rents. More housing just means the wealthy will have more income sources. All this over development of housing in the central area along with a reduction of traffic flow will push the burden of traffic problems onto the areas surrounding the Sq. Look at the neighborhoods around the Sq. Winter St. is always a dilapidated St. without sidewalks along most of it. Fayette St. as well. Sidewalks and roadways in the greater down town area are already to narrow to handle the current traffic let alone more car or foot traffic.
    If we are saying that reducing traffic flow and more open space is a good thing then lets be consistent and say that conservative housing numbers should also be a good thing.
    A lot of new housing has come on the market in this area but I have not seen a reduction in rental prices, just the opposite.

    • Mr. Aitcheson – The reason you haven’t seen rents come down is because there is a DEEP HOUSING SHORTAGE. Massachusetts overall and Watertown are so far in the hole that it will take years to climb out of it. We need many thousands of new units, not a few hundred. They should not all be placed in the same acre, of course. But anyone who has studied markets or economics knows that increased supply brings prices down ONLY when there’s enough supply to meet the demand. Any delay in building housing simply extends the time we are in deep housing shortage.

      Unfortunately, in Watertown, we have many commenters who seem focused on criticizing rich people (“More housing just means the wealthy will have more income sources”) rather than thinking through feasible solutions that could actually be implemented.

      • 100% on the 1st paragraph. I think there would be criticism of anyone who didn’t fall into this groupthink because rich or poor doesn’t seem to matter from what I am reading here. There are so many things to question. It only took me a few keystroke to land on an inaccuracy, and then another, and then another.

  6. George Proakis has built nothing in Watertown other than continuing to construct a stellar resume for his next act.

  7. Perhaps someone needs to get a referendum question on the ballot for the next election – I have no idea whether it would matter, or would happen before the plans are set in stone, but it would definitely give the city planners an idea of what registered voters think (if they want to get out and vote.)

    These meetings happen at 6pm – how many people are able to get home from work and do what they need to do before running to a meeting? I know I often don’t have the chance to get to any 6pm meetings. Given the concern expressed above by the voting, it is one indicator, but shouldn’t be considered the final view of what residents think.

    • REFERENDUM is the only LEGITIMATE route to settle this matter, that would change FOREVER the nature and appearance of this “city.”

      • Mr. Clifford is absolutely right. When the plan is finalized there must be a referendum on the ballot, preferably in November.

        This is the only way to insure that the resulting plan has the support of the majority of our neighbors.

    • There’s no need since we had an election last fall. Current councill president for more housing, and other was not. People could get up off their butts and vote or they could ask for a mail in ballot. THere is zero excuse. IF people didnt vote then they are ok with what’s going on. You don’t get another bite of the apple because certain are unhappy with the result. You don’t. If you did then it’s cheating. Besides it was the big contested election. All one had to do is read up on this one. There were to debates. there were signs. Not too much to ask. Not too much to ask at all

      • This is a very disrespectful reply. The Council Election was in no way a referendum on development. To claim that it is smacks of something like Trumpism. Declare victory despite the facts.

        This is a complicated and very important debate. All voices need to be heard in detail. Mr. Clifford is right: The shape and appearance of the town will be transformed. Quality of life is at issue.

        Please learn to respect your neighbors. Otherwise you have no right to expect respect in turn.

    • The comment was insulting other commenters, so I judged it violated the commenting rules.

      COMMENT RULES: Commenters must sign full real names. No foul language. No insults, slights or personal attacks.

      • Ok. All I noted was we need people to vote no on everything because our. Current leadership no matter who they are or how they align are representing extremely small but vocal pockets of town. Maybe I referred to those pockets in a rude way?

  8. “How did a community that signed three petitions in the past two years, totaling 784 signatures….?”

    Even assuming these three petitions covered the same ground with the same proposal, there is a good chance there’s a lot of overlap in signatories. But even if we accept those 784 signatures as 784 individual voters, it is a tiny fraction of Watertown’s population.

  9. Hi Sean,

    If 784 signatures sounds like a tiny fraction of Watertown’s population, how does 75 sound? Because it was just 75 “votes” out of a room full of approximately 200 people who made this very important choice of a capacity of 6,230 housing units. That was 37.5% of who was in the room! We don’t even know how many of the 75 were Watertown residents.

    No, as Elaine Mello and others have suggested, we need some kind of referendum that assures that these are Watertown’s voices speaking!

  10. Hi Matt,

    You said in the “Bad Ideas” article that:
    “My position is that, in a democracy like we have, the mechanism to settle these kinds of disagreement should be at the ballot box. We ran that experiment, and the Sideris side won.”

    My only problem with your statement is that in a truly representative democracy, the ballot box is not the end of our choices. We don’t “elect” a dictatorship for a certain amount of years, for instance, and end our participation. Likewise, as Joe Levendusky commented on that article, the last election was far from a referendum on development.

    There are many important decisions that happen after the election is over that still call for residents’ “votes”. And if the process for these “votes” is flawed or manipulated, it means that residents’ true voices aren’t being heard.

    If you’ve read comments like Jill Connolly’s you’ll see that a flawed process continues to threaten our rights as a community. She showed in very specific ways how this poll could be manipulated and discourage some demographics of residents from participating.

    If you read George Skuse’s comments, which also gave a detailed analysis of these on-line “resources,” you’ll also see that our government was informed of the flaws-caveats last November.

    What happened since then?  The city’s consultants reiterated those same poll results, with no clarifying footnotes, during the Watertown Square meeting on Feb 29.

    If you listened to George Proakis’ comments at the last City Council meeting, even with this information, he has every intention of moving forward using the same flawed methods.

    George has a very polite way of saying, “we’re the experts, and you’re not” and “a number is just a number. It’s just the capacity number.”

    Many months ago, when Brookline was starting its MBTA process, (they actually did involve their community on where they should zone for compliance. Remember, more than one area can be used to fulfill this), I believe it was the Director of Planning who stated that these were very important decisions. He said that although this was being framed as just a “zoning exercise” (no building had to be built), he told the community not to be fooled. When zoned advantageously, the developers would come and actually build to capacity.

    Ah, transparency, straightforwardness and honesty! Isn’t that refreshing??

  11. An important detail is getting lost: The “number of new housing units” under each Watertown Square zoning option is just POTENTIAL. The Watertown Square re-design process is not a plan to build those units, only to modify zoning in order to allow development of new housing by-right up to those levels (and of course to modify traffic flows through the Square).

    The consultants have explained repeatedly that it’s highly unlikely that all those units would actually be built. Building them all would require a huge, unrealistic amount of capital to be invested in our little city center. As reported in a Boston Globe Spotlight article last year, it costs about $500,000 – $600,000 to build one unit of housing (that’s one apartment, not the whole building).

    Also, note that the Watertown Square re-design process invites participation not only from Watertown residents, but also business owners and other stakeholders who visit or use the Square (e.g. drivers, bicycle riders, blind people who may not live here, MBTA, Chamber of Commerce, etc.). Local residents are not the only stakeholders in this process!

    But many who write here communicate as if local residents *own* the whole city, that they have a right to decide everything that happens in our city. In the past, that sort of thinking has led to zoning actions which had the (intended) effect of “keeping others out” or “determining who is OK to let in.” That thinking is precisely how we got into this housing shortage over the past 40 or 50 years!!

    • Non-residents may be stakeholders in city initiatives, but that doesn’t grant them the right to vote in local elections, nor sign citizen petitions, initiatives, or referendums as delineated in our Home Rule Charter. While city staff is free to accept input from non-residents (property owners or otherwise) – and has done so in spades – that courtesy access remains a privilege. When relaying or summarizing such input, city hall should be transparent and accurate – councilors are expected to represent the interests of those whom they serve.

      Regarding potential units (capacity) vs actual (constructed), that detail’s far from lost; that line was repeated at several of the Watertown Square meetings. The city manager explained the same during the last council meeting(1, 2). Governor Healy made the same point during a recent interview with WBZ’s Jon Keller(3). Politicians, back on their heels given recent pushback in Milton and elsewhere, are underselling this rezoning to the point that some *might* be tempted to believe it’s an exercise in futility. If units aren’t even going to be built, then why even bother? But, as Keller rightly pointed out, by-right, high-density zoning “essentially … opens the door to developers.” Conjuring a 35-year-old Costner for a moment: “If you zone it, they will come”.

      (1) http://vodwcatv.org/CablecastPublicSite/show/3088?seekto=2475&site=3
      (2) https://www.watertownmanews.com/2024/03/28/city-manager-next-watertown-square-meeting-a-key-one-discusses-how-mbta-communities-zoning-works/
      (3) https://youtu.be/272DtGOSvvY?feature=shared&t=177

      • I was recently informed of an inaccuracy in my last comment and so I’d like to both apologize for any confusion and offer some clarification.

        Kevin Costner was actually 33 years old when he played the character of Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams. At age 35, he took on the role of John J. Dunbar, later known as Dances with Wolves, in the eponymous film.

        I’m confident enough to admit my mistakes and want to thank the person who brought this to my attention. We’re lucky to live in an age where such errors can be easily identified and corrected.

        Now, about that repeated claim that “1,076 people voted” in the Polis survey…

  12. Everyone needs to open the link to the Banker and Tradesman article referenced in the first part of Linda’s letter, and read it carefully. You will see once again that the MA MBTA Law formula requires 1,701 units for us, but Watertown is now showing the possibility of over 6,320 housing units, far above what we were led to believe was the goal.

    We know that often consultants are hired by governments or groups to get a desired outcome. Many feel that is what has happened in Watertown. Even Sam Ghilardi, a steering committee member of HAW (Housing for All) – a small pro development group, is quoted as saying, “You don’t hire those consultants if you just want to do paper compliance. We are thrilled with what has been proposed so far.” He may be thrilled, but that opinion is not shared by everyone here. Many residents feel the rug has been pulled out from under them.

    Other cities are setting different goals to coincide with what the state is asking of their communities. Look no further than Brookline and Arlington that have been working with their residents to address their situation. Unfortunately, ours took another route, which left most of our citizens out of the process for almost a year.

    Watertown residents know what they like about our city, what could be improved, and how much change they want to see. Sadly, many people, due to a myriad of reasons and life situations, don’t comment on these types of articles or participate in all the decision-making choices. Others don’t feel comfortable speaking up to authority. I hope that if you are one of these people, you will come forth now to voice your opinions. NOW IS THE TIME, IF EVER, TO SPEAK UP.

    Our downtown area has suffered much over the years from a mall development and increased rents for retail businesses that have made it difficult for retailers to survive. Ironically we are noticing a great turnover of stores at Arsenal Yards as well, even though they have housing there.

    We have a lot of issues that could be addressed. Many of us in Watertown would say changes need to be made, but in a small area like ours, those changes need to be made in more creative ways. Unfortunately, our city has one “simplistic solution” to revitalize the square – build tall buildings with maximum numbers of luxury units, not family-friendly housing.

    Where are the existing small businesses that are left going to go? Many of these owners have put all their money and time into them to make them successful. We don’t seem to care about our people any more. It’s all about building bigger and higher. We can’t even fill the luxury apartments that we currently have due to the high rents, and many business spaces are empty.

    You might not know that a high-rise parking garage is being proposed behind CVS next to possibly two new big residential buildings. As a woman I wouldn’t feel safe parking there for myself or my car. With the new traffic patterns and parking changes, many of our businesses will be bypassed.

    But enough about me and my preferences. This process is all about the future of Watertown’s downtown area, and we need to find a way to be much more inclusive in reaching out to the untapped majority of people who live here and want to stay here and have their voices heard. This is about having an inclusive planning process.

    The suggestions I’ve seen so far are for erecting large buildings for maximum density. In Linda Scott’s last letter “When Bad Ideas Happen to Good Neighbors – The False Promise of Trickle-Down Rent Reduction”, we see that this has been unsuccessfully tried for over ten years.

    Some solutions could possibly be to push back on colleges to provide their students with more housing and create 55 plus condos for seniors to possibly free up single family or even two-family homes for others. This is a very complicated problem and no one strategy will solve it.

    Also, would it be helpful if the Planning Department encouraged creating more reasonably sized condos rather than small apartments in the locations deemed needed for the 1,701 additional units? I know the housing market is cyclical. Sometimes condos are more desirable and other times apartments are, but couldn’t our Planning Department strongly encourage development of a balance in housing choices to encourage more people to put roots down in Watertown?

    This is a planning process that needs community input. We don’t need to unnecessarily increase the numbers of units to undesirable numbers, just build smarter.

    People need to feel that their voices are being really listened to and not discarded. I don’t think the charette meetings or the Polis surveys are the best vehicles. The online resources we are currently using are proving to be inadequate. We need to come up with a better and more inclusive plan.

    Would a referendum to let everyone vote be an option? That’s something that a few people have mentioned. Our downtown is an important part of our city and we need to get this right. IF IT’S OVERDONE, IT CAN’T BE UNDONE. Let our Councilors, Manager, and our Planning Department personnel know your thoughts and attend what could be the last Watertown Square Planning Meeting on April 4 at 6:30 p.m. at 66 Galen St. (Doors open at 6 p.m.)

    • The “IF IT’S OVERDONE, IT CAN’T BE UNDONE” is EXACTLY why this matter MUST BE judged by REFERNDUM. There are too and hands out for development coins to my estimation. I considered referring this “city” problem to the Attorney General…..but an inner voice said, “Will, you have got to be kidding!”

  13. This is a beautifully written letter that gets to the issues in a precise and thoughtful manner. Ms. Gumbleton hits on many critical points about small businesses and housing and the challenges of planning without participation in the early stages. What continually surprises me is people’s persistent belief that housing costs are simply a matter of supply and demand and “if we build more, the prices will come down.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Watertown feels like it’s on the verge of careening out of control and is trying to tackle too many problems at once. Unfortunately, many of us (myself included) have been unable to attend meetings in person, and having one survey distributed vaguely is not sufficient to capture the opinions of residents and business people who have been unable to attend meetings or simply didn’t know about them. So I echo the letter above and encourage whoever reads this to pick up the phone and call if you can’t go to the meeting. Only then can we know if our voices matter or not.

  14. I wrote a response to this “editorial” and it was not posted. Point taken, no details on the author. So try #2.

    Dear editor of Watertown News, can you put in 1/month rule for editorials please?? The constant regurgitation from the same author every other day is not news. By taking up all the air and space, the author gives off the view that the Watertown Sq situation is a calamity. To town people I talk to, they see it as a NOTHINGBURGER. The author clearly does not speak for the 36k in Watertown. How can she? The commentors on her “editorials” are repeats as wells. So now we are looking at maybe 10 people who support the author’s view, and that is not close to 36K.

    When I see Watertown, I see something more like Sommerville, Arlington or Medford. It doesn’t remind me of Belmont or Newton or even east Cambridge. It is more urban with pockets of suburbs, and the stats bear this out – 36k, average age under 40, half renter, apartment and condo residents, half of the graduating class is non white, a lot of non traditional family structures, different classes, etc. So where does this “leave it to Beaver” image come from? What I see is urban. Maybe it is the author and her friends living this other image, but a lot people by the squaredo not live that way. It is different from the area on the Belmont line or Waltham line or center. For 4 square miles, it has a lot of different images! So why can’t the square be the urban center since it already is!

    Why does this author get the bully pulpit? Editor of Watertown News, I bet, you can provide stories that are more fact-based not full of innuedo, circular logic, conspiracies and assertions that are false! After fact checking AHMA, it is not a cabal funded by the Koch brothers, not even close. Why has this bias been put out? I would rather read a paper full of stories by the editor of Watertown News, than this. Editor of Watertown News your stories would serve the community well, especially the community that lives here now and has a different view of Watertown.

    The comments about the 700 people who signed a petition are silly. That’s like 1% of the population. The comments about the Polis Survey are unfounded too because a majority of people signed with names. The anonyomous ones were so few. So the consultant know where people stand. The election comments clearly do not take the Watertown website stats into account. The candidate who ran for council president lost this year and the last time he ran. Turnout doesn’t matter when you keep losing. The candidate has not won since 2009. The people have spoken. How many times do they need to speak?

    To sum up, these letters are aggressiously unrealiable! Why pass it off as a standard bearer? In my personal opinion, such constant putting out of letters is like behaving like a child who has not gotten their way so they make noise until they do. It sad state of affairs because people should know better. I am very sad to see this! Very sad.

    • I don’t find myself very Religious, but more on the spiritual side of life. After reading this post, one thing that came to mind is the “Serenity Prayer”. There’s a shorter version that may suit this young man, if he doesn’t know it, I’m sure being the resourceful guy he is, can find it or ask someone. As to his “personal opinion, such constant putting out of letters is like, behaving like a child who has not gotten their way, so they make noise until they do” I say he would have to look no further than the face in the mirror!

      • The Serenity Prayer would better suited for the author since the”editorial” reminds me of my CCD teacher saying there’s a need of deep grace here. There are clear falsehoods, not just opinions, but actually falsehoods in her article. When anyone goes down the road of deception, they can’t be trusted. For some reason, there’s an intent to manipulate. Why?
        As for democracy, this town has manger-council that approves of members to boards, right? If people want a different form then they need to change it or go to another town because to do otherwise is to disrespect the current process. Also there are ample opportunities to vote. If people decide not to do, then those consquences are on them whether they like them or not, and they must respect the result. Otherwise it is chaos. Isthis the intent of these articles? And why? Seems something that a child would do?
        If all I had to was a few keystrokes to land on a falsehood, then this needs to be crrected? Will there be corrections? The information is unrelaible. This is suppose to convince me? For all I know these city councilor, consultants, planners and groups could be good, competent people doing their due diligence in best interest of the town. I don’t know. I do know that I cannot rely upon this article of the the one before it. There is something wrong about that.
        It makes me think that if the numbers were on the writer’s side, I highly suspect there’d be no questioning of any mechanism used to get those numbers
        You can fool some of the people some of the time…

    • I have not attended these meetings(could not) but a referendum on housing increase in Square of this size should be openly discussed and voted by the residents. Regardless of where you stand or the 7XX people or the 75 people. Let’s come out and talk about our needs for Watertown and our ‘wants’ for the future of Watertown. This large of a change should not be only voted on by 9 people.

      • Ms. Coyne – It is being openly discussed. Here is a history from my city councilor, and I’ve participated in almost all of the following:

        The City’s extensive community engagement process started in October and hundreds of people have participated.
        — A kick off meeting in October 2023
        — Kitchen Table Conversations held around the city, and facilitated by Watertown Community Conversations, in which small groups of residents brainstormed and shared their ideas and hopes for the Square
        — An on-line Polis survey, which asked people to vote up, vote down, or skip a series of simple statements about the Square. Anyone participating could add their own statements, which meant respondents weren’t limited only to the ideas of the survey writers
        — A community meeting at which an analysis of existing conditions, feedback from the Kitchen Table Conversations, and a summary of results from the Polis survey were shared
        — A 3 day Charrette (design meeting), covering the intersection, urban form, strategic sites, “destination square”, and MBTA zoning in November 2023
        — A public meeting sharing options, and soliciting input on Feb. 29, 2024
        — Community surveys after the meetings

        And there is more to come after April 4th. Both the Planning Board and the City Council will hold public meetings on this in the months to come. We are taking an integrated approach to the Watertown Square Area Plan and the MBTA Communities Act.

        • The survey was done terribly IMO it was a mess, i could not attend evening meetings on these dates but plan to come this Thursday. I went to the small house meetings where we had no discussions around large numbers of more units in square outside of State mandated 1701. Which is why i was surprised to hear any numbers greater than the 1701. Working, coaching etc can keep folks busy. Seems reasonable that we need more expansive outreach like a referendum to have debates and larger pool of residents opinions.

          • Yeah but you could provide feedback on the website. And I think you should read the website because the state didn’t manadate a number. The state said pick a piece of land near transit that is X big and have Y number of unit per acre. The state gave a formula. Now citizens here have expand the area, so when you plug that into the formula you get more units. In addition, people writing articles here are missing another point (I think it is onn purpose because they want to taint the process wth a bad name so that they get their way) are saying build. the law does not say build. It says create. So if there is a single family and it get put into a multi family zone, then guess what the owner can split current house into 2 units. Really, really read the website and the law. Don’t listen to the people who are writing these anti housing pieves. The writer accuses a pro-housing organization of being the AEI. If you go to the webssite, their policies say the opposite! That is a bold face lie on the part of the author. Why is she practicing to deceive?? Also, many of the commentors don’t live in the square like I do. So why do they get to dictate? If we build up the square then the “suburban” pockets of Watertown can stay that way and the sq can be the true downtown. By the way, Watertown is not a suburb. It is an out core city. Look up municipal definitions. Because this writer is so unrealiabe I have had to research and fact check her. I have a science background os I am skeptical by nature, but this article should really be in the library under FICITON.

    • I’m replying specifically to this claim:

      The comments about the Polis Survey are unfounded too because a majority of people signed with names. The anonyomous ones were so few.

      In the online Polis survey (conducted prior to last fall’s three-day charette), participants were presented with a series of statements submitted by city staff and other participants. For each prompt, they could click a response of ‘Agree’, ‘Disagree’, or ‘Pass/Unsure’.

      Participants could also add their own statements to the list (likely subject to moderation), through a small 140-character textbox at the bottom of the page.

      At no point in the process were participants prompted for their name, email address, etc… The UI provided no means to collect that information.

      As the survey link was shared widely by groups with readership extending well beyond city borders, I think the author’s question is valid: Whose voices are we hearing here?

      • It’s called an email address. You could log on with it or anonomously. And some the majority did identify using their email address.

    • Scott, there is only ONE qualified manner to ENSURE that the voice of Watertown is reflected, and that is called REFERENDUM.

      • It’s called Election Day. It happend last fall. Current councill pres Mark S was for more housing, and other candidate was not. If people could not get up off their butt, then like MarK S’s plan and/or are not concernd about what’s coming. Besides the school council, it was the only contest election. Clear and obvious choices. There’s no excuse for sitting on your butt, especially when some people like students have drive back to another county or state to vote. They even send ballots to your houses. Clearly, Watertown is with Mark S. But let’s re-vote and re-vote and change the procsss and change the process until we get the number we want.

  15. I’m calling out another “big lie” being spread here: that the city is doing its own thing without broad participation from residents. That is factually incorrect. In fact, I’ve never seen a process which so efficiently gathers broad input from those who may be impacted, with such professional and clear presentations.

    1. All the carping about “voting” reminds me of conspiracy theories about stolen elections. I don’t believe for one second that “rigging” changed the outcome of any survey. Just because a few people admitted to voting twice doesn’t mean the majority did. The thought never occurred to me before these people wrote about it.

    2. Every city resident and business owner has been invited to attend every planning session during the Watertown Square re-design process. There is nothing hidden. I suspect some have not carefully read the information that has been available. For those who don’t use smartphones or computers, that’s their choice but they make it difficult for anyone to solicit their input. It’s not the responsibility of the city to knock on their door and ask their opinion.

    3. I understand some residents are cynical because of past experiences. They keep telling us how many decades they’ve lived in Watertown and how they’ve seen bad things from city government over the years, implying that anyone who saw what they’ve seen would come to the same conclusions. WRONG. I would see the exact same behaviors and interpret them entirely differently, because I don’t have the same biases and past experiences.

    4. For those who doubt that supply/demand balance drives housing costs, you are simply wrong. I suggest that you are spend more than a few minutes learning about the real estate market. This is too important an issue for ignorance to drive decision-making. Our entire state’s economic growth depends on resolving the housing crisis.

    • Again right! I could only attend 2 meetings. And when I could not, I went to the website. Watched video during the night shift and posted feedback there. It is easy enoughto do. And I said before, the experience I had at 1 meeting was half bad and half good. First I was at a table of rude people, andthen I found a table of people wanting to discuss things.We didnt agree on every point but people were very open-minded. One guy convinced me of his proposal regarding the flow of traffic because he could provide facts. I think his dad was a traffic engineer. Anyway, some time the web thing is good because you don’t have to listen to the rude people or other going on about “extra sticky notes” and people moving from table to table. So dumb! I am for getting rid of parking requirements, and that was in report on the website. i didn’t express that at any meeting or table. I did on the website, and I think other people did the same. I did have some questions regarding the report, so I am gong to send in some feedback but first need to go and fact check some things, because this is what reasonable people do.

    • Ah the propaganda campaign continues! Before that we believe that building pell mell will bring down rents, real economists should study the scenario rather than folks with vested interests. The economic dynamics, both locally and regionally, are more complicated than many realize.

      Many residents have entirely justifiable reasons for their skepticism. And the skepticism is healthy. Open, democratic processes where residents have true influence are essential. There are too many examples of redevelopment efforts (Ed Logue, Robert Moses) have provided bad outcomes in the service of their planners egos. So far the jury is out. Jane Jacobs should be our guiding spirit.

  16. Getting the information out to all residents on these important meetings so they can truly participate is also a flawed process. Some people have obligations or other plans so they can’t attend. Some people are not aware of the meetings for a myriad of reasons.

    Some may not yet be aware of the opportunity to get news from Watertown News on line or may not have regular access to computers due to cutting the cord to reduce their expenses.

    Some people may not be aware they can get automatic email notices from the city’s website on important events and notices. (Maybe this process should be highlighted on one or all of the quarterly letters that come with tax notices. And landlords/owners need to share this information with their renters.)

    Some people can’t watch the Council and other Committee meetings on TV if they don’t have cable connections, again perhaps due to cost reduction measures.

    Most of us recently received a rather nicely printed large postcard indicating that there would be investigations of our green recycle totes in the next two weeks to be sure all items in there are acceptable. (Some people never received their card for whatever reason(s).)

    If we can do this type of mailing for trash issues, why can’t this procedure be followed for even more important ones like the Watertown Square Plan meetings? Again some people have mentioned we need a referendum to decide on the majority opinion on the final plans. Is that something you would support?

    You NEED to plan to be at the meeting on April 4 at 6:30 p.m. at 66 Galen St. to participate and vote ON YOUR SMART PHONES what your preferences are. (If you don’t have a smart phone, sadly you are at a distinct disadvantage in this process.) Don’t let just a few attendees decide the future of Watertown and our Square.

  17. Tonight is the meeting to decide on the final design. This has been a long process and a good one. There were many avenues to give feedback. If you are pro houisng please tell the consultant team, the planning dept and conctil that you want the Watertown Sq area to be bigger in size. It should cover Galen St and large parts of Main, No Beacn and Mt Auburn. If the size expand than you put more units in. TO be clear, it’s not building more units, it is creating. Making single family into multi. Converting a factoriy into housing. Don’t let the deceivers win. When people attempt to taint the process or ask for a re-do, they are cheating because they don’t have they numbers. They don’t! Not only are they cheating the current process but they are cheating the future of Watertown. They are hoarding space. That’s just low. Please attend, fill out the survey, go on the website. Dont let the the cheaters win. Let them kno wthey cant dictate to the majority. They majority wanted Mark S. They majority want a bigger Watertown sq in area and in number of units. If the miniority wins, then the next step is to go into their neighborhoods and change zoning there. Because that is what they are doing here. COming to the neighborhood where I live, run, eat, hang and telling me and my co apartment dwellers (because we cant afford homes because they have zoned so it is imppostible!) that we cant have the SQ we want. We are the majority. I don’t want your cul-de-sac. You an keep it but I need sq where I don’t need to worry about being hit by a car and myabe one day buy a nice little condo.

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