LETTER: Resident Optimistic About Future of Watertown Square

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When the conversation about Watertown Square began a couple years ago, I was not optimistic. How could this massive intersection filled with car traffic become a destination? While I was reminded of our wonderful library, our distance from the river, and a few small stores and great restaurants, I still could not imagine how this could be made into a unified square.

Over time, the process for recreating Watertown Square has impressed me. We have had multiple ways to participate and give feedback. Our local media has done a great job sharing these opportunities. It is clear that our perspectives as a community align in some ways and differ in others. But these differences have been clearly summarized and articulated, and the rationale for all decisions is presented clearly back to the public.

The planning team has also gone above and beyond to better understand the needs in our community. For example, several members of the blind and low-vision community were invited for a walk around the current Square to share their challenges. Jeff Speck has repeatedly mentioned this walk as shaping the current four-corners plan. Given the role of Perkins in our community, this is a critically important population that is being included in the design.

Over the past year, a picture of a walkable area filled with people and stores, a community center where neighbors can enjoy our natural and built offerings has emerged. When I wandered the streets of Amsterdam last summer, I loved seeing them filled with people walking, biking and lingering in stores. I loved seeing the apartments that were built into these active streets.  At the multiple forums on Watertown Square, I could see how we might have a little taste of that here in Watertown.

A large part of that vision requires more housing. We know that housing is limited and expensive. We know that more housing is needed to accommodate the needs of our community, lower prices, and create more affordable options as well as to meet the requirements of the MBTA Community Law. I hope that our city’s leaders will approve a plan that makes housing of all kinds easier and cheaper to build, and gives affordable developments the advantages necessary to significantly expand options for the many working families in our community.

Housing is also necessary to create the lively streets that are being envisioned. This will bring people into the square to patronize our businesses and participate in related activities, hence helping to sustain these businesses financially. As we have watched multiple businesses close in recent months (Taffer’s Tavern, Chit Cha Bubble Tea, and Garbanzo), the urgent need to bring in people is all the more clear. We do not want empty businesses filling the square.  I have no doubt we can fill the housing to keep businesses thriving.

I know there are many more challenges ahead as we implement our plans. But I believe in the vision of our manager and our team of planners, as well as their ability to listen and adapt. I look forward to the creation of a thriving district for our diverse and growing community.

Rachel Kay
Watertown Resident

Send letters to watertownmanews@gmail.com

7 thoughts on “LETTER: Resident Optimistic About Future of Watertown Square

  1. Thank you, Ms. Kay, for sharing your perspective on the Watertown Square re-design process. I’ve seen what you’ve seen and I’m particularly impressed by the team of consultants which our City Manager has assembled. I’m really excited for the future of our city center! By the time the changes are implemented (I guess it will be years), we will truly have taken our city center back from the traffic flows which now choke it. I love your analogy to Amsterdam, which I too visited last year. I saw the same vibrancy and this taught me that having more people in an area increases opportunities for social interaction, community and thriving small businesses and restaurants. Density is not a bad word.

  2. I appreciate the letter. I have a more realistic look at this issue (not to throw shade on the optimism of the letter writer). I would not use Amsterdam as a example of what Watertown Square should become. Like the commenters, I too have traveled extensively in Netherlands as well as Amsterdam. While Amsterdam is used to reference a vibrant community of good density, I offer some things to think about if you want to compare Watertown Square to Amsterdam. In fact last May (2023) Amsterdam launched their “Amsterdam, Stay Away” campaign targeting excessive nuisance. I believe that the residents of Watertown most likely don’t want an Amsterdam environment and here is why…..over-tourism, population density, and increased social problems like addiction and homelessness without the benefits of increasing revenue and culture.

    Like Amsterdam’s famous canals, we have bridges over the Charles, but Amsterdam has much fewer cars and lots of cyclists. The bridges that lead in and out of Watertown are congested choke points, but building more housing and stores will result in more cars not more bicycles; Amsterdam has an integrated bicycle culture while Watertown does not.

    Similar to Amsterdam, Watertown has pot shops, but Amsterdam wants to move the coffee shops and red light district away from the center of the city. One reason is because the Amsterdam locals (Mokumers) are sick and tired of their city reeking of cannabis everywhere and unruly tourists fighting and puking all over their city.

    Taffer’s Tavern, Chit Cha Bubble Tea, and Garbanzo closed not due to lack of people, but because they were not good. For instance, Taffer’s had expensive drinks, pre-made air fried food, and awful service – this won’t be ameliorated by more people. Shake Shack, City Works, Chipotle, Buttermilk and Bourbon, et al are generally busy, if not packed most nights, and the lunch crowd keeps them busy as well.

    It is disingenuous to think that Watertown Square redevelopment will bring an Amsterdam-like Utopia to Watertown; it won’t. Certainly, Watertown Square will benefit from a redesign, but packing in six and seven story, mixed-use, apartment buildings with huge underground garages isn’t going to bring the vibrancy that the writer thinks it will.

    A question to the good commuters of Watertown who use Galen St, Arsenal St. North Beacon St, Main St. or Bridge St to get out of Watertown and back….in the past few years has your commute improved? Has the new building on Galen St, the moved bus stop, and new stop light improved your trip through the Square or to the Pike?

    I am curious if, once Canastraro, Sterritt Lumber, Watertown Mall, and the Square have been redeveloped, the writers will still look at density as not a bad word.

    • Finally some common sense, I was getting somewhat tired of a different writer each week, it seems with a little story to tell, then the same points over and over again, more height, now their big on affordable. Yes, we are not Europe, they have a great rail transit system that works well. Thanks Chris

  3. I have to laugh at the idea the Garbanzo’s closed for lack of density. It was a poor business plan to open an ersatz Middle Eastern chain in a community that hosts some of the finest real Middle Eastern food in Eastern Massachusetts.

  4. Mr. Shepard – please do not distort the suggestions that I and others are making. No one has proposed a “wall of 6 or 7 story buildings” in the Square. In fact, I support 4-5 story buildings and start to get queasy at 6 stories. Watertown is not a tourist destination (obviously), so comparing the problems of Amsterdam to our city is disingenuous at best. No one expects a “Utopia” – please do not suggest that we are so simplistic. I, for one, want to take our city center back from the pass-through traffic going to/from the Pike. If that makes your commute a little longer, that is an appropriate cost to balance against the benefits, in my view. Take another route, outside the Square. And I, for one, would love to see the Canastraro, Sterritt Lumber and Watertown Mall sites redeveloped as they are eyesores now.

  5. I too miss Garbanzo; I want fast middle-eastern and the slow-cooked authentic stuff. I would also prefer more European style housing and streetscaping. I find most American design after the 18th century uninspiring. But these opinions are not as important as the the call for vibrancy in your letter. It’s a subtlety that always gets lost.

    Vibrancy is not just young people, even though that’s where Allston-Brighton derives it, particularly in the student ghetto. It’s connection, energy and life, and it has started to come back to Watertown. My own history in Watertown ranges from the 50s when my father’s family immigrated here to now. I have seen parts of Watertown hollow out and I have seen people like you and Adam and others come in to town and revitalize it.

    In middle aughts, people voluntarily left for the nicer sub-divisions of Waltham, the cul-de-sacs beyond and other tonier parts of the state. In my neighborhood, many residents were widows. It was not unusual for a handful of us to pick to someone up after they had fallen, redirect them back to their house after they have forgotten, or wait for the police when a car ran afoul. With new developments along Pleasant St and Arsenal St, the end of rent control in Somerville and Cambridge and the 2013 bombing, which unfortunately put Watertown on the map, this all changed. Now the neighborhood is a mix of elders and children, different economic situations and newer ethnicities. It is vibrant.

    Thanks for bringing up this very important point!

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