LETTER: Looking Back, Moving Forward in Watertown Square

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We often talk about “The Good Old Days” and the nostalgia of how things were better in the past. While Watertown’s past had great things, “The Good Old Days” had the same issues we face today.

For instance, The Historical Society of Watertown has a fantastic resource: Watertown Newspaper Headlines from 1880-1941. Below is a sampling of 20 headlines along with the dates they appeared:

  1. 7/14/1880 “Galen St Dangerous for ladies after dark” 
  2. 11/8/1882  “What Watertown Needs Most – housing for rent” 
  3. 10/21/1892 George E. Priest said he had heard that the Newton & Waltham Street Railway desires to extend its Watertown-Waltham line to Mount Auburn
  4. 8/1/1893  “controversy between horse drawn vehicles and electric cars between Cambridge and Watertown” 
  5. 1/6/1893 “Plans for electric railway cars from Watertown to Newton up Galen Street” 
  6. 11/1/1901  “Cyclists warned not to ride between streetcar tracks, dangerous”
  7. 7/4/1902 “Horse and buggy accident between Mr. & Mrs. James Milmore and 2 men on horseback – Fred Rankins and Frank Haynes”
  8. 9/26/1902  “Another suggestion for improving the center (illustration and map of a proposed new Watertown Square)”
  9. 12/9/1904 “Save the trees”
  10. 3/17/1905 “Arsenal streetcar route extended to Scollay Square”
  11. 12/15/1905 “New Plans for Galen Street Bridge and Delta”
  12. 7/19/1907 “Watertown murder case: Charles Reed shot by Antonio Zeccolo”
  13. 7/30/1909 “10,000 riot at band concert near Watertown Square”
  14. 1/20/1911 “ Progress Being Made on High School Building (East Jr.)”
  15. 2/7/1924 “Common Street Widening meets great protest”
  16. 12/24/1933 “Town votes $135,000 for addition to High School, $35,000 for Main Library”
  17. 11/8/1934 “Subway tunnel proposed for Watertown Square (to relieve traffic!)” 
  18. 12/26/1935 “Arsenal Street most dangerous piece of road in town” 
  19. 9/4/1941 “ Watertown Starts to Abolish Worst Traffic Bottleneck (widening Watertown St. at Galen”
  20. 6/29/1945 “Mt. Auburn Street to be Relocated for 2 miles between Beacon Square and the Bridge at East End”

As you can see from these headlines, the issues we discuss today in Watertown are the same ones we were discussing last century (though thankfully, no recent riots with 10,000 people at a Watertown Square concert!). While these debates have remained constant, someone living in the late 1800s would likely be shocked by Watertown’s development and changes by 1930. Similarly, people who grew up here in Watertown between 1950 and 2000 are often surprised by the changes they see today if they have moved away and come back and visit. 

The “Good Old Days” from your youth, no matter when you grew up in Watertown, would seem radically different to someone whose “Good Old Days” came a few generations before you.

I have lived in Watertown for all 41 years of my life on both the east and west sides of town, and I don’t need to go back to the newspaper headlines to know these issues in the old headlines above have been contentious for the past 41 years as well. I would be willing to bet that no matter what plan we choose for Watertown Square, we will most likely be discussing and complaining about it in the future. Does that mean it’s futile? That we shouldn’t try to improve Watertown Square? Of course not, but it’s a reminder that it’s impossible to please everyone or make things perfect. However, we shouldn’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. We should strive for the Aristotelian golden mean.

I’ve been to several meetings for the Watertown Square plan. As we know, the state requires Watertown to zone enough properties to allow at least 1,701 units to be built by-right. I’ve heard some say we should not comply with this mandate, and others say that we should only zone for the minimal amount. I’ve heard others advocate for over 6,000 new units. Live polls at public meetings related to Watertown Square have also shown a wide range of opinions regarding how much new housing should be built.

At the April 4th Watertown Square meeting, one of the plans that was presented  would allow for 3,133 units (see slide 59) and a plan for The Four Corners redesign of Watertown Square (see slide 19).

I believe that both of these plans represent the golden mean. They won’t please everyone, because nothing will, but to me they represent a reasonable path forward that meets the current needs of more housing near Watertown Square, improved walkability/ traffic flow, and space for new businesses. It would do this without the 6,000+ units that might bring changes too fast and too jarring for some residents. 

I hope that we can move forward with this plan to make Watertown Square a more dynamic space with people walking around frequently and supporting local businesses, whether they be long-standing businesses like Demos Restaurant or China Rainbow or new businesses that will open once the Watertown Square redevelopment is implemented. I’m especially keen on Watertown Square having the population density to support a more vibrant nightlife with places to go listen to live music, dance, shop, play video games (hey, maybe we can bring back The Dream Machine!), and more.

I hope we can move forward with these changes and create a more lively Watertown Square. I look forward to, God willing, being alive in 50 years when people start proposing major changes to Watertown Square again, and I can tell them about how things were in the “Good Old Days” of the 2020s.

Teddy Kokoros
Lifelong Watertown Resident 

15 thoughts on “LETTER: Looking Back, Moving Forward in Watertown Square

  1. Thank you for this letter. I was pleasantly surprised when I got home from work today and read this very thoughtful point of view. The last letter I read was about members of HAW, and it was basically a “he said, she said” rehash of meetings and how HAW has “an inside track” to the city council. The council’s numbers and emails are posted on the website. Each district has a coucilor that a resident can talk to. It just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t care for that any more than I care for the Facebook groups in which a blogger is chanting “1701 and done.” He also tells people to give council the finger if they implement more than 1701. These Facebook groups and types of letters do not address the housing issue. They also do not provide agency for individuals. It is a doom and gloom scenario, and sometimes it me makes want to ignore it all.
    However, your letter is providing me with a lot to think about and hope. I especially like how you went through the records and recorded how people thought about housing throughout the years. You clearly know how to prove a point and demonstrate a lot of agency. This passage is great: “I would be willing to bet that no matter what plan we choose for Watertown Square, we will most likely be discussing and complaining about it in the future. Does that mean it’s futile? That we shouldn’t try to improve Watertown Square? Of course not, but it’s a reminder that it’s impossible to please everyone or make things perfect. However, we shouldn’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. We should strive for the Aristotelian golden mean.” I liked the plan that presented 6200 units but I could also understand how someone might want to be closer to 3133 units. I really don’t understand the 1701 argument because will not move the needle at all. It is not an attempt to make progress. It is status quo and should be labelled as such. I love the new square design and do hope that it adds vibrancy back to the square especially for the restaurants and other business. Watertown must have been a fun place when you were growing up. It think it is possible to make it so again.

    • Your statement: “He also tells people to give council the finger if they implement more than 1701.” is false. Maybe you should correct it?

      • Is there not a blog called *The Battle for Watertown* and does not the May edition tell people to tell the administration no more than 1701 units? And furthermore is there not a picture of the middle finger at the end of the blog directing people to make that gesture if they do not get 1701 units?

      • You literally put the image on your blog post of someone giving the middle finger as a response to town councilors.

        “Just pick up the phone or send an email to every councilor and the Manager and tell them you’re wise to the Big Shush and the only vote you want to cast and the only box you want to check is for:

        1701 AND DONE!

        If they ignore you or suggest that you get on the path to progress, their answer is essentially this: ”


        And don’t you dare edit that post after being called out for being a liar in this comment. Patrizia comment does not need to be corrected

        • nevermind, that is a very sneaky “their” at the end of your post.

          It is very strange to end your post by implying a middle finger as the councils response to not listening to your “do the bare minimum” request.

          But it does align to the NIMBY tactic of laying down an ultimatum and then playing the victim when you don’t get your way.

        • The image and the wording are there for all to see. The intended meaning is unambiguous to any unbiased reader, despite your interpretation. I have never edited it and I never will. Your misinformation and your name-calling cheapen the platform you’ve been given.

  2. while i don’t agree with 3331, it is furture looking and it is way better than 1701 or 0. thanks for the letter and laughs abot people in the 1880s!

  3. Thank you so much, Mr. Kokoros, for putting our current controversies into historical perspective. I know this took time to research, and I appreciate the effort. I particularly enjoyed the first headline about how ladies should not be out on Galen St. after dark! Your letter reminds us that our task as a city is to find compromise, not to smear individuals who are advocating for what they believe in.

  4. How refreshing to have read this letter!
    The added historical list was good evidence of the continued challenges we have faced.
    I have renewed hope.

  5. What an excellent letter! Funny and educational. Thanks for providing some historical perspective as well as some great thoughts about our present and future. We definitely need more moderation and the “Aristotelian golden mean” in our discussions. Thank you!

  6. The Middle Way in any philosophy is a good guiding principle but we should also remember the Delphic Maxim — Nothing in excess. Could Watertown’s infrastructure support such a large jump in population needs, roads, parking and public transportation, food security, entertainment, use of the parks, social services, police and fire, health care and low-income funding in such a short period of time? According to this article, the MBTA ($314/yr ironically funded by CAR-owners) wouldn’t be able to support this type of increased density as quickly as they are mandating for (that’s 1701). This doesn’t include the social stresses of that level of density (think 5,000 units in the 5 acre bus barn), termed social sink because quality of life decreases for those living in that degree of density. Building responsibly over time is the issue, with the supports in place to sustain quality living in Watertown for everyone, so we won’t have regrets for what we lost, to look back on.


    • I say yes we can! I was running around town yesterday, and it was fairly empty, and has been most weekends since the beginning of April. Everywhere I went yesterday had ample parking, zero lines and a lot of empty tables. In the early morning, I was by Brighton and then in the square. Mid morning, I was on the Watertown -Belmont line and then at Fresh Pond. In afternoon, I was by the Waltham line. The only place I saw any activity was at Aresenl Yards in the early evening. With weather patterns changing and many working from home, there is a lot of traffic Thursday and Wednesday nights heading north and south out of town. And this pattern is continuing throughout the fall even, especially when the winters are mild. There was even a time in the early aughts when people were leaving Watertown not for cheaper pastures but for more exciting ones.
      The square plan calls for more “by right ” zoning in the square area which means development can occur with a site review meeting vs “special permit” zoning which means additional meetings that can run on for two years plus. The re-zoning does not means that 10 five-story buildings drop in the square tomorrow or even next year. This is not the reality of developement. It means that when development does occurs over the next decade or two that it happens without a long lead time. Nothing in excess should, therefore, also apply to the zoning code and it excessive restrictions that create numerous meetings in which time and cost are increased, and the wheel is re-invented for the nth time.

      • The square is very empty at certain times of day and during certain days. I do not understand how the businesses there survive. Nor do I understand the infrastructure argument since Watertown has had higher population in the past. Plus there is so much underused land, unlike other parts of Watertown. Why not build in an empty business district? It would improve the quality of life there or more accurately, bring back life to what is essentially a dead zone. A resident does not have to drive through the square to get where they are going, if it does indeed become too dense.

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