LETTER: Let’s Take More Time to Consider Watertown Housing Plan

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By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

Lately, I’ve been attending public meetings, and I’ve been speaking with citizens about their thoughts and feelings about development plans in Watertown Square.

The Watertown Square Plan and its Moving Parts:

As most of you know, in response to the State’s MBTA Communities Law, which requires Watertown to zone for 1701 new multifamily housing units, Watertown City Manager George Proakis and the Department of Community Development and Planning (DCDP) have been enthusiastically over-achieving.

First, they proposed zoning for 6,320 new housing units instead of the State mandated 1701. They justified this momentous decision to more than triple the housing units by referring to a straw poll of 75 Watertown citizens and nonresidents who chose the 6,320 option.

(See Democracy Dismantled One Poll and Survey at a Time, click here)

The choices that the City Manager and the DCDP gave the Watertown public for this vote:

6,320 housing units by right or

2,631 housing units by right

There was no option for 1,701 units – the number actually mandated by the MBTA zoning law.

By the way, 1701 is the goal that residents were told we were working toward in the many hours of City meetings and work sessions we participated in.

The planners extended “Watertown Square” all the way west on Main Street to Olney Street and east to Irving Street.

Fun Fact: The same day that a Banker and Tradesman article entitled, “Some Suburbs Roll Out Yimby Welcome Mats, Needham, Watertown May Exceed MBTA Zoning” was published (March 17, 2024), it was added to our city manager’s Linkedin page. (For those of you who may be unfamiliar with LinkedIn, it’s an Internet site that you can go to to establish a record of your career accomplishments and skills, often for the purpose of job searches). The article mentioned the number “6,320” and included a quote in favor of this number by a steering committee member of a Watertown group called “HAW.” For most Watertown residents, this was the first we’d heard about this.

As part of the plans for the 6,320 housing units (many that would not even be eligible toward the MBTA Law 1,701 number) was to replace the parking lot and stores behind CVS with a very large (essentially 4 to 5 story) parking garage and housing units as well as building an essentially five to six story building (use unknown) to replace the library parking lot.

Then the Watertown public as a whole got wind of these details. There was a deafening resident outcry. Mr. Proakis and the DCDP hurriedly pulled back the zoning number by half to 3,133 housing units. While a bit better, there was still no 1,701 housing unit plan in sight. Remember, 1,701 was the number of multifamily housing units that the State determined was what Watertown needed to zone for to do “our part” for this regional housing issue.

City Manager Proakis told the public not to worry, since these 3,133 units would not be attractive to families and fill seats in our schools! If that’s the case, are we truly meeting the intent of the law, which specifically states that “housing should be suitable for families with children?”

Meanwhile, Watertown taxes are generously paying consultants, friends and colleagues of our City Manager, who are self-servingly spreading “the word” far and wide, speaking for Watertown, a community that they are not a part of. They’re boosting their own business images while making it seem like Watertown residents are all on board with this plan.

In one such example of “public relations,” in which the consultants are credited, the City provided a graphic for an on-line article published on April 19, 2024, just weeks after City merchants and a landowner complained to the City that the publicizing of this concept could hurt their businesses.

Our Current Situation:

Since the last Watertown Square Planning meeting on April 4th, citizens are stuck in informational limbo. George Proakis, the DCDP and the consultants were supposed to make a new zoning plan, based upon more updated data from residents.

As of today, no plan has been shared with the public. No plan for 1,701 housing units has been presented to our community. And the only records that we have of citizen groups ever meeting with the City on this issue is a group called “HAW.” (See HAW memo to members dated February 12, 2024). According to HAW, “The Steering Committee and working group members have had the chance to meet with numerous City leaders over the past few months …”

We are also awaiting the scheduling of an informational meeting on the topic of zoning that the City Manager promised to schedule in May.

A Suggestion: Let’s slow down a bit. We are coming up on the summer, which is a time when most of Watertown is in a transitory mode. Even if the proposed Watertown Square plan is produced this week, it’ll still take time for folks to digest the details and give it the real thought that it deserves.

Let’s receive and sit on this plan for the summer, discuss, communicate, and then begin the real process with the Planning Board and City Council meetings, etc. starting in September. It seems after all of the chicanery so far, Watertown residents deserve that much.

The deadline for State approval is December 31, 2024. There’s time to do this transparently and correctly.

For another resident’s more hard-hitting reaction to how our City’s shenanigans are affecting our community, see: https://thebattleforwatertown.blogspot.com/

Tomorrow: A Chilly Reception

27 thoughts on “LETTER: Let’s Take More Time to Consider Watertown Housing Plan

  1. The city has led an eight-month (to date) public process that has included kitchen table conversations, two online surveys, a week-long community co-design process, and numerous well-attended public forums. Every step has been clearly outlined on the Watertown Square website and the decision-making behind every update to the plan has been well-explained in public and recorded. The process has drawn in many, many more resident voices than usual—which is good!—including residents who are often excluded from these types of important public discussions. This has been the single most highly engaging public process in city history.

  2. Yeah let’s slow things down and risk missing the state deadline. Never mind how open and transparent the process has already been. Never mind that we are literally in a housing crisis now. Let’s not rush anything!!

    • Paul,
      We need to meet and talk. I appreciate your point of view but….. Has anyone looked into the number of vacancies in existing housing in Watertown. Most have for lease signs that never come down year in and year out. Affordability is an issue. Does anyone care about affordability when making housing decisions?



  3. Definitely we should all think about this. Watertown is 4sq miles, possibly the smallest city in the State! We’re already quite crowded.
    It seems we went through this before. I believe we were told we had too many schools & the people who moved into all the new condo developments weren’t going to have children. So they closed at least 4 schools & sold the properties. Now we had to build 2 elementary schools & expand the third. Maybe we should learn from the past.

    • Hello Regina,
      I understand your concern. Housing type does have both direct and indirect impacts on population demographics in a community. Watertown reached its peak population during the baby boom generation school years. In 1970 the population was 39.3K residents and declined every decade until 2010 at 31.9K and then increasing back up to 35.3k in 2020. At is largest size, the Watertown school district had eight small neighborhood elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school that could only accommodated grades 10-12. Multi child family households were numerous with large families living in some very small homes. I think it is reasonable to assume that the number of multi-child households in Watertown right now is as large as it will ever be. Single family homes are being demolished and replaced by unaffordable duplex condominiums. Existing home sale prices are out of reach for most multi child families. New construction of any type of a detached dwelling is very rare and off the charts expensive. Apartment buildings are almost exclusively the only type of new housing construction. As a result, you can reasonably expect Watertown’s demographic will continue to shift toward greater numbers of single member, couples, and single child family households. The student population will steadily decline. Newton’s public school system is facing this problem now. Their student population has declined every consecutive year since 2018. Since then, they have declined nearly 10 %. They have over 1,100 less students and a lot of empty classroom seats. They like Watertown have built multiple new school buildings in recent years. Their school administration has recommended that they enter the Inter-district School Choice Program to enroll students from other outside school districts to help share their cost burden.

  4. The law was passed in December 2020 and I have heard about it since then in public meetings, in discussions and conversion all over town. Per the law’s formula, the number was always 1701 units for Watertown Square. If one didn’t know the number, then one could calculate it, given that the area was 74 acres. Per the law, “MINIMUM gross density of 15 units per acre” is one of three requirements. The number changed during the process in the fall from 1701 to 3300ish then to 6200ish and now back to 3300ish, based on feedback. These were well attended meetings, and the feedback was not limited to a handful of respondents. The team hired by the city took the feedback in. Plus, there are many was to communicate outside of the process that started in the fall. Meanwhile the housing crisis has been raging for decades and has not been ameliorated. At this point, there are only two choices; do more of the same or make an impactful change. Anything that is not impactful, is more of the same.

  5. Ok so it was nice break to see a variety of new people . And I guess it is this writere turnto come back in rotation. But, there is nothing new here. It is always no new housing or lers do the minumn or slow dwon. Again, I disagree 100%. For years the no people and let’s slow down peopel have gotten their way. And high cost and high rent is whre that road led. When do the yes people get their way? These people have gotten their way for years and now have big fat nest egg and others have not been able to get a foothold. So at this poitn and time, is the city going to make sure the people who have gotten their way for so long are comfortable, or is the city going to look out for the next group of people? Are they going to give others a chance? its so short-sided.

  6. What happened to Nancy Scott’s excellent letter? It was well thought out and factual.

    Did the Editor of this publication remove it?

    I call for it’s immediate return to these pages.

  7. Reply: Watertown: Divided We Stand.

    Many Watertown residents agree with Ms. Scott’s observation that the Watertown Square Study process has been nothing more than performative transparency bloviating around “substantive” answers, filling the air with planner-speak blah, blah, blah courtesy of the Proakis-Speck tag team, a pair so blinded by their righteous “expertise” that it doesn’t register with them when they condescend. And where is the long promised zoning plan, reasonable residents ask? Is it that the DCDP crowd and their HAW allies are willfully ignorant or profoundly uniformed about many residents’ concerns about displacement of moderate-priced renters (104 Main St.), loss of small businesses and affordable small business space, lack of prioritizing protection for historic buildings, and lack of truly affordable housing.

    It is way past time for HAW (Housing for All Watertown), a local version of California’s YIMBY “Yes in My Backyard” movement to answer some tough questions. California YIMBY is propped up by Big Real Estate and Big Tech money. HAW and YIMBY are wedded to their belief in trickle-down affordability, meaning building housing of any kind, no matter how expensive, and including a few “affordable” units mandated by zoning law, will reduce the cost of housing in the long run.

    Residents of Watertown’s Square and East and West End neighborhoods seem to be targeted for large luxury rental developments. There’s some indication that South Watertown is next. The tonier central Watertown, with its historic district protections, is not as much at risk for destruction. HAW seems unconcerned that plunking luxury buildings in and around Watertown Square drives up all rents and destroys the fabric of the community, replacing it with Teslas driving into underground garages.

    Studies by Zillow and Harvard found that developers overwhelming build luxury housing and very little affordable housing. Meanwhile, homelessness is increasing as is the number of rent-burdened residents paying most of their income for rent and struggling to pay for food and other necessities like health care and heat, let alone $4-dollar lattes. Reasonable people know that housing is much more than a place to lay your weary head. Where we choose to live nurtures the community and feeds the basic human need to belong and to be supported. HAW’s cheerleading for the autocentric, big, bulky, bland 104 Main Street project, and it’s alleged surreptitious role in lobbying for the closing of the post office, and its opposition to protection preference for the two in tact Illife-built 1900s-era storefronts at 104 and 106 Main St. exposes where their true interests lie. What is the source of the money on which YIMBY and HAW relies? Why is HAW silent on issues such as the predatory business practices of Big Real Estate, rent control, housing justice, and “good cause eviction?” That proposed legislation would insulate tenants from sharp rent increases and would give them the right to renew their leases instead of being evicted when the lease term expires.

    Reasonable pro-growth, pro-affordable housing advocates readily see that Watertown is not going to build its way out of the housing crisis and provide a better future for all the city’s residents by advocating for the real estate industry’s trickle-down affordability. Clearly, many residents of this divided city are vigorously pushing back against HAW, DCDP, and others who seem to be shamelessly abusing the public’s trust by obfuscation, deceit, and conniving to engineer done-deal outcomes.

    • Instead of attacking a group and making many assumptions (many residents – how many?, very reasonable – really?), why don’t you propose something to slove the problem? Prettier houses and large setback and ample parking is not going to do it. SO do you have other ideas?? And why does HAW have go after predatory business practices of Big Real Estate, rent control, housing justice, and “good cause eviction?” That’s not the mission on the website. Why don’t you work on that? If you can write these letters, then why not start a group and do that? Clearly, HAW is successfuly at getting their message heard so they must be doing something right by focusing on a piece of the puzzle. And you keep saying divided like it’s the north and sourht or 50-50. How do you know? What if it is 80-20? Or 70-30? thats not divison, that’s majjroity minitory. ANd who deceitful? They state their position. They state fact. They state logic. That’s a stretch to call them deceitful. Like because you don’t see results now, they are lying? Also they said they wanted height bonuses with by right zoning for affordable developers to give them a competitive adevantage, and that was shot down. Like, why? Because people who want afforable housing dont want to give afforable devleopers the means to provide it. SO peopel tie the hands of the afforadable devlepoers and then blame HAW for “doing nothing” and lying. Kind of decitful, no? It the same for the small businesses. We want small business but don’t want to provide the ways to give them foot traffic. A lot of lip service here. And then you talk about belooging and yet the letter does nothing but attacks a group who disagrees with you assessment of things. So you can only belong if you agree with me and mine??? I don’t know that I want to agree to that.

    • Someone answered that above. The meetings in the fall showed feedback that want more than 1701. ANd then it went up to 6200 and now it is back down to 3300. Like the city iand consultants are listening to what people are teling them. 1701 was the state law and a minium. Some people want more. That’s very true. You cannot argue with that. I want more than some people but I am going to lose that fight. I am guess it’s probably going to be 4 to 5k. Zero is illegal. Some people want 1701. Some people like me want 8 to 10k. But the aveage is talke 3, 4, 5 6k so you can ask about 1701 but you might have to accept you are in the miniority jus tlike me. It’s not Dan’s who made 1701 go away. he got to vote. You got to vote. I got to vote but so did a bunch or other people.

  8. Hi Paul,

    My mother had a saying that applied in this situation: “Marry in haste, repent at leisure.”
    Let’s get this right! Besides, if everyone who wanted to weigh in has had a legitimate opportunity already, there should be no problem, right?

    No, this is too important to get wrong! Making these decisions during the summer, when many people may not be available to weigh in, just compounds the likelihood of an error.

    • If it’s important than they shoud not go away. And this has been going on for years as someone abouve said the law passed in 2020. So is it the fault of the city that people have tuned in? Yeah if it is importatn, people do their homework and show up. Not showing up is a vote. I don’t care mch about the school building committee stuff. They can do whatever. It is not a priorotuy for me. SO I can’t say wait, wait yu didnt get my opionon when I do go to meeting or read up on it. And what does marriage have to do with it? You are comparing chemistry with economic conditions? odd analogy.

  9. Hi Regina,

    Yes, history can be a good teacher. One thing that you left out was we sold the Parker School and just rebought it for administrative space. (A good idea, by the way, in my opinion).

    We can’t second-guess all of our decisions, but we can try to proceed cautiously so our mistakes are minimized. Buildings aren’t “mistakes” that can be easily corrected!

    We’re told that this is just a “zoning exercise.” But done incorrectly, this exercise will trigger a developer “gold rush” the likes of which even we in Watertown haven’t seen before!

    • What about when tons of zoning laws were rubber stamped in the 1900s? Those laws prevented a lot of buinding and has caused the housing crisis. Where was the let’s slow down crowd then?? Keeping things the way they is like through lighter fluid onto the problem. I am already seeing older aparaments, not luxury climb up in price. something last year that was build in 1980 wasrenting for 2850 and now is 3600??? nothing changed but the price!

  10. Why are so many people in this town pathologically opposed to new housing construction? The process has been fine, leave it the way it is.

    • I would like an answer to that one too. A real honest answer would be very helpful. I have not been involved in the process but there is a process. It didn’t happen over a month, and people have been using other processes like petitioning city hall to prevent more buildings before this process started. It seems a bit dishonest when people say the process is not fair or long enough or open to everyone when they are using petitions and sending letters and going to meetings to give their opinion. They are already using process. It seems the problem is not the process but disappointment in the result.

  11. Thank you Linda once again for standing up and saying what needs to be said. As you noted, at the meetings, NO option for capping the number of by right units to the required 1,701 was even offered for attendees to vote on resulting in all opinions not being fairly represented. To me this is UNACCEPTABLE and ‘the powers that be’ have an obligation and duty to address the concerns of all residents and shareholders… not just those of the City Manager, HAW’s and their supporters.

    However, it’s not too late to right this particular wrong. The current proposal will go before the planning board in May and then presented to the City Council in June. Both meetings will offer residents the opportunity to put forth a recommendation to do just that. Per the City Charter, this can be achieved by submitting a Citizen Petition of 150 registered voters to be certified by the City Clerk upon which the City Council has 3 months to hold a public hearing on the matter.

    In addition to meeting the requirements of the mandated MBTA Communities Act, The Watertown Sq. redesign is another issue of contention that needs to be reexamined much further before it’s presented to the City Council. The redesign will have a long lasting and permanent impact on the future of Watertown and should be left up to the voters to decide on *via a local ballot question* and not rest on the shoulders and decisions of 9 individuals… *elected or not*.

    If all residents are to have their voices heard and counted, then they should be addressed by a democratic process that genuinely represents *all*.

    • Excpet people who ate not city or HAW went to the meetings and voted too. The number of units is going up and down. That means HAW is not he only factor. Poeple in the middle and poeple like you are pulling the number down, but people in the middle are keeping it above 1701. So some people want more than 1701. Clearly not you, but you are not the 36k who live in the town. I ma not the 36k either. So rather than blame the city and HAW, accept the what the average awants. I have to. There’s nothing wrong with the re-design. It is so much betther thnat the mess that is there now. Plus the fire dept approve it. You don’t represent all the people here. I don’t. Like if you think the design now is great keep thinking that but don’t be surpised when other people say that is not great and yes I want 4000 uits in the square. Don’t asumme people see things your way because they do not. That is very true. I know because peoeol dont see things my way. But I ma not going to complain about process or this or that because that would be wrong.

  12. There is no rational reason to slow down the Watertown Square re-design process. The folks asking to slow it down simply don’t like where the process is headed, but they’re in the minority of people who participated so far.

    I want Watertown to allow by-right somewhere between 3000 – 4000 new units in the plan area (larger than the Square itself) up to 5 stories. I think I’m in the middle with that perspective. People seem to forget that the “number of units” is a maximum and unlikely to be built for many reasons (particularly $$$). Allowing a “unit capacity” of 1701 new units is simply not enough to materially impact the housing crisis.

    I want affordable housing too, but we can’t stand around doing nothing while waiting for someone to build it. We need housing at all levels ASAP. What one person calls a “luxury” apartment, another might call a “normal” apartment which meets their needs and their budget. I see so much class-envy in comments about housing!

    And I really don’t appreciate the conspiracy theories offered in one comment. There is no nefarious, big-money conspiracy operating “by obfuscation, deceit, and conniving to engineer done-deal outcomes.” What I see is mostly thoughtful residents using the brains that God gave them to reach different conclusions than this Commenter.

    • Hi Kathy,

      The State gave us this amount of time for a reason. I see nothing irrational about using the full time that we were given to make this very important decision.

  13. 100% agree!!!! You said everything I was thinking axcept for the luxury apartment thing. Because there are apt out there at luxury prices and they are not luxury apt. Like ther is no swiming pool or nice gym or modern appliance. They are old and have NO amenties. ZERO! Poeple just don’t get the math here. When they say not to devleopment, they make avg apt have luxry prices.

  14. Knowing that many more units will be developed in all areas of Watertown in the future, our population will grow more even if it isn’t in the MBTA zone. We need to take this growth into consideration also. Depending on what is built and where it is located, there could be big demands on the schools and other infrastructure.

    We should stick to the 1701 mandated plan for now. There are 11 other cities/towns that are pushing back on the state mandate. They have many of the same reasons we have of trying to maintain the character or their cities/towns and not overburdening their infrastructure. Why should we just accept the state mandate when many people don’t think that housing costs will be reduced with the increase in units? Let’s plan what’s appropriate for Watertown.

    Let’s see what the Massachusetts Supreme Court rules regarding Milton’s suit to see if the mandates are even legal. If we allow the state to overstep, that opens the door for more intrusion and control in our lives.

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