LETTER: Embrace the Opportunity to Revitalize Watertown Square

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Watertown Square needs an overhaul. For the almost 50 years, I have lived here, Watertown Square has been in decline. There is the Library, the Farmer’s Market, festivals, and a succession of destination restaurants that hint at the town center it could be. But it needs more. 

To thrive as a commercial district, Watertown Square needs to fill its storefronts and spaces with a variety of businesses, services, and venues for all times of day at a scale that requires lots more people and foot traffic. The MBTA Communities Act has given us an opportunity to plan for more people at the same time we plan for a more vibrant, livable and walkable city center. 

I had the experience just a few years ago of knocking on doors all over Watertown for the Community Preservation Act. I heard over and over again that housing was the most pressing concern – even from those who seemed well housed. I know that most of the people with whom I had front door conversations are not going to make the WS meetings or find their way to the many portals for comments. But I feel a responsibility to speak up for them and to bring the depth and breadth of this need to the discussion.

From my perspective planning for more housing, more pedestrians, bicycling, and transit and a better balance with cars and the natural environment are the keys to a Watertown Square rebirth. I have spoken up at public meetings over developments and city projects for decades. I have experienced being shut out and shut down. The Watertown Square planning process has been different. I have felt listened to and respected as I never have before. 

In turn, I have experienced a new appreciation for the many moving parts of any plan, the expertise that is being brought to bear and the difficult trade-offs and balances. There are lots of areas around design and balance to be discussed and debated, but let’s keep our eyes on the promising vision.

Deborah Peterson
9 Westland Road

32 thoughts on “LETTER: Embrace the Opportunity to Revitalize Watertown Square

  1. Thanks Deborah! Your comment, “more housing, more pedestrians, bicycling, and transit and a better balance with cars and the natural environment are the keys to a Watertown Square rebirth” really resonated with me.

    As somebody who does not drive, Watertown Square can feel daunting and uninviting. I feel like I’m in navigating a sea of cars, either parked or moving. I’d love to see more people moving about on foot, much more housing, livelier green spaces, fewer cars, and more bikes/busses. I envision Watertown Square becoming a destination instead of a place for people to pass through with their loud, polluting, and dangerous cars.

    Allowing for lots more housing is a huge part of this! I know people living in some of the newer apartments at Arsenal Yards. They are now our neighbors, friends, and positive addition of our community. I eagerly want to welcome more new neighbors into our great city

  2. Thank you Deb for supporting more housing in our community! And thank you as well for lifting up the voices of the many, many residents who don’t have the bandwidth to attend public meetings and forums. As a parent, I certainly find it a challenge to attend.

  3. Deborah … thank you for this letter. Once again, I find your comments to be thoughtful, insightful, and constructive.

    I too have found the Watertown Square redesign process to be something new and different … and good. I have a greater appreciation for the complexity of the situation, the tradeoffs that must be grappled with. Mostly, I just feel that the planning effort is energizing, grounded in reality, and guided by real expertise — all the result of an experienced urban planner who is now our City Manager.

  4. Deb, you are so right about what’s needed in Watertown. I really appreciate you calling out the process. I think a shout-out has to go to the city manager who obviously relishes and values interaction with residents. This is something many of us hoped for in calling for more transparency and accountability from city officials over the years. He has created a different atmosphere at planning meetings where we can feel part of the process and not just a public nuisance. I think it will result in a better city for all. Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful letter.

  5. THANK YOU DEB PETERSON! This letter is an example of what the community shoould be. I researched your background and you are a great example of your generation! I research because there are letters in this paper that are full of errors and purposeful falsehoods so now I need to factcheck. You have done a lot of things for Watertown, for the people who lived here 50 years ago and for people still coming like me. I’m a student and subletter, one step above homeless in some peopels opinon. You were also resposnbile for theat bikepath by Sofra, amazing!!!! Watertown ows you such a debt and instead of resting on your laurels you conitnue to make Watertown better! Thank you!

    On another note, editor please print more letters like this. I am just happy to here from different writers rather than one person who writes every two weeks or so and write long letters full of circuluar logic, errors and lies. I did one pass of that other letter by Linda Scott and found 5 errors already, and now she is going do a part 2. COME ON! It gives a perception that she is some sort of majority. Her agenda is clear! Again there should not be more than one letter per month from the same write. Also, you need to advertise to people how to get their letters in. I am so happy to have read Deb’s letter and to read about her. Please editor stop showcasing the same writer and showcase different voices. In a town of 35k plus there are differnt voices! People of Watertown be like Deb and send in a letter. You are going either live in Deb’s Watertown or Linda Scot’s Watertown. And you will live in it long after both of them are gone. In math, this is an inflection point and it is a point where you now have some power to go one way or another. Tell people to fill out the survey for more housing and write letters that support the Watertown Sq Plan that was presented in Febraury. That is the plan that makes sense for future generations. Deb understands that. THanks again Deb!

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    • I agree with Deb’s vision for Watertown Please vote to revitalize Watertown in Form Survey and kept up with the website. I am never able to attend so it my only form of contact. Don’t understand how we went from 6200 units to 3300 units and now people are calling for 1700 units. According to the charette presentation on the website, they started with a version started at 1700. Why the backwards movement? What is going on? Are people just throwing up their hands and saying forget it? More housing is needed and the square is needs to be redone. The 3300 units are not enough. This backwards movement is so very short-sided. It only thinks about the now. Deb, I don’t know you but thank you for thinking about the future of Watertown.

  6. Well said, Deborah and as a 25 year resident and homeowner in Watertown, I couldn’t agree more. However, I also have concerns about the here and now. Our roads are in horrible shape. The projects that have led to detour after detour — the pipe and infrastructure replacement on BELLEVUE and Common, the Mt. Auburn Street “reconstruction,” that may or may not be underway, streets that have been paved, dug up and then patched over, the Arsenal Street re-do … — all of this has created a complete mess of our streets and many neighborhoods.

    Can we focus and finish and PLAN to complete these projects before we worry about a dream that may or may not see the light of day?

  7. Scott I do appreciate your strong support for Debs letter and all that she stands for. I to. Want more affordable housing, a more walkable and bike friendly city, and a more vibrant Watertown center.
    I agree they this planning process has been outstanding – relatively inclusive, excellent sharing of info. The changes and vision put forth for the square thus far are exciting! I was one of those who liked the mini main streets option, but after the meeting last week I understand why the 4 corners option is the way to go.
    I just hope as many incentives for building affordable housing as possible are included in the new zoning.

  8. Hi Deborah.

    I agree with you, and I’m sure that I have spoken with many of the people that you have about their concerns for housing. I think your argument is elegant and finessed and gets to the issue of how do we provide housing in the appropriate way. I believe that two of the most important words in your letter were “design and balance.”

    Nature must be a major consideration while planning for growth. We must not make the mistakes of our industrial ancestors.

    We are a compassionate and welcoming city, but what I’ve seen from my encounters with concerned residents is how mindful they are of what can go terribly awry if we don’t proceed with care. Our City Manager mentioned one of those issues at the April 4th meeting…our very old infrastructure. We’re all learning as we go here, pioneering, if you will.

    I would hope that we would start revitalizing the Square before a shovel moves dirt. Here are some things that have been mentioned to me that may help the Square seem more welcoming and draw people there.

    Our library is a huge asset, with its variety of programming, day and night. Add more “experiential things” in the Square, like pop up art shows, music in the good weather (a “busker night”?), family events…perhaps a scavenger hunt?, and you’ll have people coming to the Square, walking past a shop and possibly going in to buy something that they see or going in for some food. We do need more shops and things to do at night.

    I know that there’s an app for your phone being developed that would allow people to hear about the Native American experience in the Square. Other cultural/historic apps could be developed (as long as we have any historic buildings left) that could draw families to the Square.

    How about a River Walk phone app that points out places of natural and historic interest? How about a small canoe rental at the dock? I know that George mentioned working with the gentleman who wants to provide a small boat service on the Charles.

    Here’s something someone suggested lately…the Otis building as a boutique hotel.

    Here’s an idea. The number of dogs is growing in this community. My neighbor told me about this: socializing with your dog. Apparently, there are actual bars now that allow the humans a chance to connect, while the pooches (only spayed or neutered can attend) get their social needs met. It’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever heard, but I hear that they’re very popular.

    When I think about revitalizing a downtown, I think of this story:

    My mother lived in Clearwater, Florida for many years. When I visited her, I’d always plan an afternoon in Dunedin, a sweet, sleepy little town close by. The buildings were old, the atmosphere sleepy and the people friendly. But Dunedin rolled up its sidewalks quite early in the evening, when the visitors left looking for a more exciting atmosphere.

    Years ago, I read an article in the Tampa Bay Times about a “Whodunit” story from Dunedin, It seems that in the cover of darkness, an artist was sneaking around this city, painting a single orange on random businesses downtown.

    It got to the point where business owners would come to work in the morning, wondering (and hoping) that they’d gotten an orange overnight. This simple (illegal by the way) act did something to this city. It revitalized this small city into a bustling nighttime as well as daytime place to be. What changed? It wasn’t the architecture. It was people’s focus, attitude, and civic pride. It was also a testament to the transformative power of art. Read the Tampa Bay Times article below to see what happened to Dunedin:


    While we’re working toward real affordable housing, let’s think about the simple things that we can do to make Watertown Square a more desirable place to be.

    • Here we go again. You are missing the point entirely Linda! All the tings you suggest will never address affordilbiily. They only reinforce the status quo. Short-sidendness will never get us there. And by the way you say the quiet part out loud when you talk about “concerned citizens” as a lot of peopel know, concerned citizen or concern this or that is a euphemism for status quo, NIMBYism and a lot of other negative things. Finally, you really beliie your intentions when you While we’re working toward real affordable housing, let’s think about the simple things” The time for working towad is long past due. As they say the chickens have come home to roost! Simple tihings will not cut it now. It’s like the patient is on the table and you need to put on a turnaicate but you instead you give him a tylenol to stop the bleeding. Please get serious like Deb.

      • Sir you need to learn to respect your neighbors, who have valid viewpoints, rather than serve as a cheerleader for certain interests. Your divisiveness will not serve the community well. Everyone in Watertown has a right to their opinion and many have reached certain conclusion with much observation and deliberation.

        Instead of accusing folks of NIMBYism, which is often a specious charge hurled by special interests, you should try to understand why your fellow townsfolk feel the way they do. Your short experience in town does not make you an expert. People need to work together to serve the best interests of the town and you are not the sole decider.

        • Respect is something people rest on when they can’t come up with a logical or factual response. The sun comes up every day. If you say it does not and I say you arewrong or the you are aligned with a non-scienific group, then I am not attacking you. I am attacking you assetion. Too bad you feel disrespected. I feel very disrepsected when people twist truth, gaslight, manipulate, present partial trusths, take up space so that other people get crowded out, say we need to fix something but then give ineffective means, give words of seriousness but then do nothing about it, telling me that they are not a duck when they really a duck, assume I know nothing and they know everything, argue from a privledged point of view while at the same time tell other they are not their equal becausl they have lived here long enough, filter out other different voices who have lived hear longer, act like the in group is the true resident and everyone else is bought and sold, etc, etc etc. Disrespectful is a matter of opinion. In my opinion anyone who lies to me (AHMA is not the AEI) is disrespectful. So call me disrespectful, divessive, special interest, a cheerleader. Names don’t bother me because I know it a way to undermine the argument or process. But don’t lie to me, man and tell me to bite my tongue. People do not like to be tricked, and when more them realize the window dressing being severed up on weekly basis in certain letter and articles, then the “disrepsect” will only grow louder. And if this is disrespectful, then so be it, at least it’s honest. ANd i think we need a lot more honesty in this world and a little less standing on ceremony. Maybe this problem would have been solved 20 years ago if there was more honesty then. All I see is more of the same by those only offer band-aids for this cancerous crisis. Nothing ever changes when it is about the comfort for the few over the welfare of the others.

          • Imagine that you have just walked into a room where a great number of people have been conducting a long, complicated and disputatious conversation. Being wise, one might learn something about the conversation, what has been said previously, what the facts are, what is at stake, before one chimes in. One might try to gain some understanding of the group who is conducting the conversation.

            Of course in the age of the internet, one really doesn’t need to know anything before speaking in the most confident of terms and claiming to have science on their side. One needn’t know anything or have life experience before defaming one’s neighbors.

          • Replying to below letter:
            Imagine that you have just walked into a room where a great number of people have been conducting a long, complicated and disputatious conversation. Being wise, one might learn something about the conversation, what has been said previously, what the facts are, what is at stake, before one chimes in. One might try to gain some understanding of the group who is conducting the conversation.

            Of course in the age of the internet, one really doesn’t need to know anything before speaking in the most confident of terms and claiming to have science on their side. One needn’t know anything or have life experience before defaming one’s neighbors.

            Dude, clearly it is you who is on the internet. If yu had read my previous replies, you would have known I attended 2 meetings in person, and have watched all the videos and filled out two surveys. The first meeting I went to was in 2023 and like I saiid, i ran into a table of nasty people and then I have an amazong experience with another table. I went to a meeting in February too and there was a lot of jr high high jinks at that one. People compalining about stolen stickies – these are the serious and concerned people that i am to have conversation with? And then the proghanda series of letters in the newspaper about how flawed the process is. I work a night shift at a lab and get to review a lot of things. Your protrayal of certain is for sure biased, but that’s ok. They are your side. I already see the headline write if the latest sruvey favors one side over another. “Concerned citizens are heard” if the survey favors your side. ANd “Another night of flawed process’ if it favors the other side. What I will say about the other who I really haven’t heard from until recently in the paper, is that when they write letters they include facts, a plan and they do not smear the other side (AHMA is the AEI!). They are sure better than I because I tend to call a spade a spade. And I can say is hope they do well in the survey, and even if they don’t, I stil think their ideas and plans are based in logic and not hysteria. And I hope the city leaders take that into condsideraton. Because in the end, this third surey which was an appeasement to the all the whining about the process. So yes, let’s reward the side that did all the scaremongering and worked up a bunch of other people but present no defintiely plan or any non circular logic. Sorry, I am not buying what you are selling. Not because of the way you act but because of what you present as a solution, which is no solution at all. It’s just kick the can down the road. Hopefully, the city “leaders” are not fooled either. Hopefully they recognize the smoke and mirriors and ignore it. Hopefully they lead the town into the future. We’ll see if we have lambs for lions.

          • First of all, I am not “dude” to you. And this reply is indicative of disrespect and a lack of thoughtful consideration and research.

            Hundreds of Watertowners have expressed dissatisfaction with the way development has been handled. Reach out a little more and get the history from folks who have lived it.

            I stand by every word that I have written.

  9. Deborah, like you, I’ve had conversations with countless residents, many of which sprung from the recent and proposed developments near Pleasant St. On sidewalks, doorsteps, porches, and in living rooms, coffee shops, and supermarkets, the two themes I heard repeated by both owners and renters were 1)our neighborhoods are under a constant threat of encroachment from an onslaught of outsized development, and 2)there’s no sense in trying to change things as city hall doesn’t listen.

    Without diminishing the need for housing, I’ll note that our activities themselves often shape conversations. As CPA funding can be used for affordable housing and recreational space (among other things), I appreciate that your discussions touched upon those topics. As my conversations centered around development, they mainly exposed other anxieties. Underlying both is a sincere shared concern for our city’s future.

    As you’ve mentioned, many of these people don’t attend meetings, complete online polls, or send letters to their councilors. I’m encouraged by the open, engaging process around the Square’s redevelopment. It certainly has the potential to shift public perception of the city’s responsiveness, though I’m concerned its outreach has been insufficient to fully capitalize on that.

    I agree with you: we have a unique opportunity to revitalize our square. Meeting our mandate for a capacity of 1701 by-right units is part of that. In your letter, you mentioned “venues” – I’d love for restaurants and bars to have live music, though it seems some existing ordinances related to entertainment would need to be relaxed to make that happen. Smaller spaces like Plough&Stars, Atwoods (now ‘Remnant Satellite’), and Sally O’Briens are consistent evening draws in Cambridge and Somerville; a similar concept in the Square would diversify programming and bolster the arts district.

    A new centerpiece park, funded through CPA funds, should be created to meet the needs of these new residents. If the city is to cede control to by-right zoning, then our ability to create such amenities as part of individual projects might also be lost. As Leo Martin commented on an earlier article, “Not even a courtyard is shown between Mt. Auburn Street to the library.” The city must be proactive to ensure that all available open space isn’t lost to development.

    Unfortunately, the designs proposed thus far invariably stoke the same resentment highlighted by my earlier conversations – especially the green, euphemistically-captioned, ‘3+’-story zones abutting residential neighborhoods on the outskirts of the study area. Neighbors I’ve talked to were shocked to hear that lots on Main St west of Waverley Ave, on North Beacon near Perkins, or on the Newton border of Galen, were being included in the “Watertown Square” study. Like them, my enthusiasm wanes as our definition of “city center” stretches to again overshadow neighborhoods.

    • George, you bring a good point when you mention smaller restaurants and bars and I assume you would include small retail as well. My concern is for the types of small locally businesses for which Watertown is well known. We have many unique places to eat that make our city a destination for the hungry.

      Watertown has been an incubator for businesses like Cha Yen and Red Lentil, to name only two, which have sprouted up recently due to their owners’ vision, sweat and toil and enriched our community and our palates.

      Many are concerned that ground floor retail created by national developers will be priced far out of the reach of small bespoke businesses that are started by local entrepreneurs. If Watertown were to lose its status as fertile ground for these unique businesses it would be a great loss indeed.

      Small businesses give our community a unique character. This is one of the things that long time residents fear losing.

      • Fact – small businesses need density to survive, and immediate density to thrive. If you disagree, that’s ok. But many business professors studying this matter have done the analysis, and numbers bear it. My cousin Mike in Worcester who works in the Affordable housing space provided this fact.
        For every neighbor you and Goerge find who have had anxiety about the design/plann or who think the process is bogus, I have found a neighbor who is like finally, they are going to adress the housing crisis. One regular at Starbucks on Mt Auburn cant wait for the square to be ripped up, She doesn’t know how people function with it or how business stay open. Another person I chat on my runs while he dog walks thinks the square should emcompass more streets and extend to the police station on Main St because that area is not what he considers rewsidential. He has lived there for 35 years and finds it dumpy. Another person who has lived in the Sq for 10 years thinks the process is fantastic. She’s lived in other towns , and this is heaven compared to those. A woman who walks on the river and grew up in Watertown, said she never used to wlak the river or galen st or pleasant st before the developemtns came along because those streets seemed sketchy. Now with all the apratment buidngings on pleasant and by galen, she feels like someone is around or some activity is going on and feels very safe. Then there is the older man in his 70s who I see at Dunks and he wonders why the process is taking so long. He too thinks the process is good. According to him it is opposite from previous administrtion which was a rubber stamp. He is very anxious for the process to finish up and start. He’d like to see the new re-design before he dies. He has been watching online and he’s really excited for it.
        So let’s be clear, some of your neighbors may anxieous or think it’s a flawed but process but some of my neighbors want to break ground already and are really satisfied with the process. Just like Deb. “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.” One of cousin Mike’s favorite quotes.

        • Again, misrepresenting the views of many–in fact the majority—of townsfolk is weak. It’s not enough to cherry pick the views of certain people you might speak with.

          It’s not about build or not, or change or not, it’s about the quality of the change. It’s about what is unique that gets lost. There is a long history very poorly conceived development that has scarred our town. That has set the stage for the tenor of the debate at the moment. Unfortunate, but undeniable if you know the history.

          My favorite quote: ” Don’t let the mediocre and banal be the enemy of the good.” We need to demand better than we have gotten.

          • “in fact the majority”? How do you know? Have you spoken to every resident in town? Have you talk to the average resident who is about 38 years year old and rents? Talk about misrepresenting, man! Cherry pick, um do how get to that point? I said I know people who are on the opposite side. I didnt say they were the majority. Sure they may skew toward favoring changing the square because most of the people I know aroudn here live in the square or very close. They are mostly aprartment and condo dwellers. Some own and some rent. I am sure I would a very different opinion on the Waltam line or Belmont line but thats not wehre i live. And if I got a different opinion,it doesnt mean they are the majority. I guess is only misrepresentation when you someone else says it, huh?

  10. You know folks, at the end of the day, there will only be two winners in this so-called revitalization of Watertown Square debate: The city manager, who will have some nice bullet points for his resume and, the consultant who will reap in loads of money.

  11. What endless slur Paul? The city council hired a guy with ZERO city management experience who had spent his career as a planner in places like Somerville and Cambridge. Watertown has afforded him the opportunity to learn the ropes of running a town/city and then he’ll be able to move to a locale which will offer him more money and opportunity. This isn’t going to be Mike Driscoll version 2.0. It’s about resume building nowadays and jumping off to new opportunities when they are presented.

    • George Proakis had over 20 years of local government experience, mostly as director of economic development and planning for two major cities, before he came to Watertown. Mike Driscoll had 15 years as a municipal skating ring manager and town treasurer before he was a great town and city manager. Neither one had managed a municipality before they took the job. And we know what “places like Somerville and Cambridge” means. The idea that he is using Watertown to simply build a resume is absurd. If you don’t like the policies, say so. But spare us the personal attacks with literally no truth to back them up.

      • Paul, this is not a personal attack. I have nothing against Proakis personally and unfortunately, you are reading things into my comments that are not there. Have a good day.

        • When you comment on everything the City Manager does with the opinion that he is only building a resume, as opposed to managing the affairs of the community as he best sees fit, with the direction of the City Council, what conclusion is one to make? Have a good day as well.

  12. Rather than using a ill-defined noun “density”, why do we not state new apartments or units. We squabble among ourselves and some that more apartments will drive down the cost of housing and make it more affordable. I say they are ignoring reality. Lets count the number of new apartment built in Watertown and examine if any of them drove down costs in Watertown. I know what the MBTA Law says and the administration is saying that we are mandated to fit a round peg in a square hole. Before we implement any development in the Square we must insist that our Planning Staff conduct an exhausted inventory of the units within the newly devised Pleasant Street Corridor. In addition, shouldn’t we examine what all of the 365 Cities and Towns have done in new building within the past 10 years and examine how Watertown compares to them. We do it for salaries, etc. Therefore, I do see a valid reason why we should not conduct this study.
    Why have costs gone up so dramatically and driven people out of town rather than affording them an affordable place where they grew up? If I could see a more positive side of development in the Square I would be all in for it. There are other sites that are less than a half mile to transit that could accommodate the need for housing. For example, the Sterritt Lumber Site and Russo’s. Can’t we agree that giving other options to meet short and long-term housing needs does not fit their agenda. As a former Federal Bureaucrat, a Comprehensive Plan centering on one area is not a comprehensive plan. It provides a signal. Can you guess who the wave is made to?

    • Typical big government bureaucrat thinking. When you repeatedly lose when trying to stop the project from happening the next avenue is to slam on the breaks by recommending countless studies and committee reviews. There is no actual point to these studies, the goal is just to win by attrition.

      No wonder it took Watertown 100 years to replace its crumbling High School.

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