City Manager: Next Watertown Square Meeting a Key One, Discusses How MBTA Communities Zoning Works

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The Watertown Square Area Plan meeting on April 4 will not be the last meeting in the process, City Manager George Proakis told the City Council Tuesday, but it will be an important point in the redesign of the intersection and the City’s effort to meet the MBTA Law requirements. Proakis also explained what the zoning changes would and would not do.

The next meeting in the Watertown Square Area Plan process will be held at 66 Galen Street on Thursday, April 4 at 6:30 p.m. Proakis said this will be the sixth meeting held by the City in the process and it will be a key one.

“This particular meeting is important for us. We will be presenting one idea for where to move forward on streetscape, one on where to move forward on zoning,” Proakis said. “This is not the last chance to address everything, but it is a key part of this process with the consultants.”

The streetscape portion will include how new developments will look and feel, Proakis said. Rather than having a zoning ordinance with numbers and tables dictating what can be built, they would have illustrations of what a building should look like.

“Much of that is having form-based design standards,” he said. “The benefits is a really clean graphical form-based zoning ordinance — something I worked hard on in the last two communities where I worked from which I think they really benefited.” 

The zoning part of the plan focuses on what should be allowed on which parcels of land in and around Watertown Square. The City intends to use the redesign of the Watertown Square intersection as an opportunity to also change zoning to meet the requirements of the state’s MBTA Communities Law. Each community served by the T has been given a minimum number of housing units that could be built within the zone by right. In Watertown’s case it is 1,701.

At the previous Watertown Square Area Plan meeting, possible zoning changes were shown that would allow up 2,631 units (mostly around the Watertown Square intersection), and up to 6,320 if the entire Watertown Square study area was included.

A map presented by consultants at the February Watertown Square Area Plan meeting showing the smaller MBTA Communities Law zoning in dashed lines and the entire study area in color.

Proakis said that that zoning capacity can be confusing, and that a plan that calls for a capacity of, say, 3,000 units does not mean that 3,000 units will ever be built.

“Zoning capacity is a measure of whether a district meets a requirement. It’s not actually a requirement to produce housing units,” Proakis said. “Nothing in (the MBTA Communities) Law, nothing in the guidelines that the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities has created, nothing in anything we create should ever be interpreted as a mandate to construct a specific number of housing units, nor as even a housing production goal of the City.”

He added that, “If you see a reference of a number for zoning capacity that number is part of a theoretical math problem. It is not that someone wants to or expects to build that many housing units.”

If a property has by-right housing zoning, any housing project could not be denied the City’s Planning and Zoning boards as long as it fits within the zoning rules for the property. The boards would still have input on the design of the building.

During the February meeting, the consultants showed parcels that would allow 3.5, 4.5 and 5.5 stories, and the half stories would 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.

If a parcel does not have by-right housing zoning a residential building could still be constructed, but the developer would need to have a special permit approved by the Planning and/or Zoning boards.

“If you are interested in providing more housing opportunities in the Square, a higher number of by-right units provides more lots where there are opportunities to do that,” Proakis said. “If you are interested in making sure the Zoning Board of Appeals continues to have their review of more projects, making sure there are more units by special permits and not as many are by right units. Our requirement under state law is we have 1,701 units that are by-right units.”

The public will be able to weigh in on the proposal at the April 4 meeting, and afterward online, Proakis said. The consultants will use the feedback to create proposed streetscape and zoning proposals to the City Council.

The Council will then have conversations about both about the final version of Watertown Square Plan and in the zoning for the area which would allow the City to meet the MBTA Communities Law regulations, Proakis said.

“I look forward to continuing to do my best to provide the best possible advice to the Council and direction in terms of where it might benefit and what the benefits and drawbacks are for different options,” he said. “But at the end of the day, in order to complete a plan, I need to put one option on the table. In order to have a zoning discussion with the Council, I need to put one option in front of the council to which you can amend that one option. It is my hope we move forward in that direction and I think it is important for anybody who is interested in this process to engage at that April 4th meeting or following up in the community process that we have going on after that.” 

The Watertown Square Area Plan project team will host a Public Forum on Thursday, April 4, 2024, beginning 6:30 p.m. at 66 Galen St. in Watertown. (note: this is a different location than previous public meetings).

The City also sent out the Agenda for the Watertown Square Area Plan Community Forum:

6-6:30 p.m.: Doors open to the public

6:30-8:15 p.m.: Presentation and Q+A

Presentation of the updated streetscape, urban design, and MBTA Communities zoning with live polling (please bring a smartphone if you have one).

Q+A Session with the City and Design Team.

8:15 PM: Wrap-up and concluding remarks.

The City asked those planning to attend the public forum in person to RSVP by clicking here so they can properly prepare the venue.

Learn more about the Watertown Square Area Plan by clicking here to view the project website.

11 thoughts on “City Manager: Next Watertown Square Meeting a Key One, Discusses How MBTA Communities Zoning Works

  1. Having grown up {maybe} in Watertown, that would qualify me as a “Townie” yes. Am I perfect, an expert or citizen of the year, none of them. But, I do know that a handshake was how a lot of business was done in the old days, a handshake to me is your word, your signature and it means a lot to me still today. As far as this process on the Sq/MBTA Act goes, a group of us of varied people, a contractor a small business owner, even someone who moved here from Somerville amongst others, we even interviewed the facilitator, who moved to the town recently, she did a great job and if anything ever was to be needed during her stay in Watertown, all she’d have to do is ask and I’m sure it would be done. Along with being welcomed at any of our doors. I’m glad that I participated, That was all about to change. This process has been skewed right from the get go to say it nicely. The op-eds really covered the faults in the “charade” as it been referred to, by outside sources. Wonderful thing about the internet, you want to be famous run your mouth, even better, “you say it, you own it” live and direct and it covers a lot of people and what’s been said, congratulations! One thing for sure is the numbers keep changing like a shell game, as stated here, along with “does, doesn’t mean” and “If you see a reference of number for Zoning capacity, it’s part of a Theoretical math problem” taken out of context. Does this mean that the 1701 number we need to meet to satisfy the Attorney General, who really doesn’t seem too Theoretical about not taking away funding from non compliance types and going to make an example of these people who know the town/city they live in? Make no doubt about it, I haven’t heard it said from anyone that I know or talked to, are against adding housing but very surprised by Theoretical math problem numbers. So, want to scrub the mission here and start over, the above board and honest way, because what I see I’ve seen is the same players from over in Newton, with the same blame it on the residents mantra that one spewed over there. Even the “Round-a-bouts”, the dots are starting to connect, the only piece missing is the developer and you all know that one right. You can send me your answer on the QR code it seems to be working fairly and honestly. I’ll stick with handshake crowd it’s a lot safer!

  2. Many responses on this topic in previous articles, so I’ll just review some data. The MBTA law requires 1,701 new units; the proposed Square redesigns allow far more (one almost four times as much). That is good or bad news depending on your perspective. I read many comments here that Watertown has become unaffordable, which would argue for more units; and I read many comments here that Watertown has become congested, which would argue for fewer. I looked us up in population density, and we rank high. Not Somerville/Cambridge high, but on par with Arlington/Lowell/Medford. If every unit of the 6,320 were built (I repeat if!), and averaged two persons per unit (a low estimate I should think), Watertown’s pop. density would rise to rival Revere’s and Brookline’s.
    How do we see ourselves? As extensions of our neighbors, Somerville and Cambridge; or as buffers between them and Belmont (2/3 our current pop. density) and Waltham (just over half)? Also, note that Watertown, only four square miles, is not zoned equally. Density will be concentrated in certain areas only, particularly the Square.
    I look upon the redevelopment of the square as a once in a lifetime (heck, two lifetimes, three) opportunity. It’s got the river, and it’s got history–and it’s got traffic. A crossroads once made a town; in today’s congested world, it can kill one. I often plan my trips to avoid Watertown Square. Imagine if it became a destination.

  3. One thing that has stood out to me from these meetings is that the presentation team are not just urban planners and designers, they’re a sales team, and they’re good at it. Fortunately it’s encouraging to see that many aren’t buying what they’re selling, myself included.

    Until the questionable voting issues are resolved, and other options and alternatives to the housing side of this project are put on the table, I can’t in good faith trust that these meetings are being conducted in an honest and unbiased manner.

    As far as my reading of Mr. Proakis ‘s response I understand that this doesn’t mean that 1,701 units plus the additional units will be built, but it does serve as an open invite for developers to come in and takeover the square. The 1,701 units would be “built by right”, as far as any additional units are concerned once the 1,701 mandate is reached, anything beyond that should be required to undergo the normal zoning process and approval that is already in place… no exceptions and no “special permits”

  4. up to 6000 new units in watertown square???? I am hopeful this means 1000 new parking spots and at least 1000 more cars a day because there really is too much time in the world to get from Main St. to the Pike…Hopefully more traffic lights and if possible would love those insanely huge LED billboards advertising Dr. TJ Eckleberg eyes as they stare out across the Valley of Ashes (ah-hem The Square)

    So excited…..and just so we can see properly; I think that dude who stands on the delta and waves the bastardized version of the American flag should get his own kiosk.

    • The 6000+ unit option included areas that most would not consider Watertown Square (I think that’s why it’s called the Watertown Square Area plan). If you look at the map in the story, you can see the zone includes Galen Street to the Newton line, Main Street to Lexington Street and Arsenal St. past Irving.

  5. Are people also aware that the area on Mt. Auburn St. that includes Dunkin, Subway, M&T Bank, etc. was sold a while ago and the new owner is hoping to put a 6-story building in that location? (That’s what he said at one of the charrette meetings.) I am hearing that Subway is already planning to leave because they can’t afford the rent increase recently given to them. This is just the start of losing businesses in the area of the Square! (They won’t be able to afford the high rents on the first floor of the proposed mixed-use buildings either.)

    So are we going to be a city with lots of unaffordable housing and without small businesses to walk to and support in this ‘wonderful’ plan to revitalize the Square?

    Belmont is now realizing that they didn’t plan well over many years. They focused on being a town of homes and not businesses. They are searching for businesses to come now to help reduce the high residential taxes now in effect. Their residents are panicking about tax overrides due to their financial problems.

    If we force more businesses out of Watertown with more development than we need in one area of our city, our residential taxes will probably go up again. We just got some relief in fiscal 2024 as the businesses are now paying higher tax rates. Don’t we want more and varied businesses so people can patronize them and walk or bike to work? That seems to be the mantra being told to us as they attempt to get us to give up our cars and walk or bike to everything we need. I’m getting mixed messages; Do you feel that way too?

    We all NEED to be at the meeting on April 4 at 6:30 p.m. at 66 Galen St. to express our thoughts and concerns. Only about 79 people voted in favor of these plans at the last meeting on their smart phones. Do you want only this small amount of people to determine the future of the Square and our City? Is that a true democratic process? (Be sure to charge and bring your cell phones with you to the meeting. Many people were caught off guard and weren’t aware of this part of the process ahead of time.)

    • Joan, regarding the meeting, why did the design team, or the people running the show, choose 66 Galen for a location? It’s only located at the worst, most congested point in the city and being held at the evening rush hour. Plus as they’re fond of pointing out, it’s not a very safe place to cross the street. Why not the previous location? Were no school cafeterias available?

      It’s also worth noting that no further info is given out: no mention of the garage, where to enter the garage, which doors to use to get into the building, what room the meeting is in? Even if they placed some signage, that building is immense and no one wants to wander around looking where to go, especially if the person has mobility issues or is elderly.

      As far as Subway and Dunks’, there are many in this community that despise chains and look down on both as being too working or middle class and would happily replace them with something more upscale, unique and expensive even if there were no plans to reconfigure the square.

      One final note on cellphones: make sure that it has a QR code app and you know how to use it.

    • Charlie, Yes, thank you, I received an email with the updated info a few hours after my post. Might I suggest that yoy put it on the front page for those that don’t get email notifications or returned to this article and read the comments?

  6. Donna, we weren’t told why they changed the location and many of us agree that the new one is not the best for the reasons you mentioned. The parking issue was raised by a few people and calls were made to city personnel. A pop-up notice came through on emails today from the city’s website with the information.

    Please see Charlie’s link above for the parking information. I understand they will also have signs and balloons to help direct people to the first floor location of the meeting.

    Let’s hope that a great number of people show up at this very important meeting to understand the process and goals and express their opinions.

    Let’s also hope that our voices will actually be heard and that the final plan will reflect our community as a whole and not just special interest desires.

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