What to Expect at Next Watertown Square Meeting, Manager Will Also Discuss Zoning on Prior Day

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The redesign of Watertown Square will be discussed on June 12. (Photo by City of Watertown)

The draft of the Watertown Square Area Plan will be discussed at a meeting on June 12, but prior to that City Manager George Proakis will delve into the topic of zoning during a live and interactive show on Watertown Cable.

Watertown Square Meeting

The meeting focused on Watertown Square will take place on Wednesday, June 12 beginning at 6 p.m. It will take place at the Watertown Free Public Library in the Watertown Savings Bank Room.

Present at the meeting will be both the City Council and the Planning Board, said City Council President Mark Sideris. He said it may be the first of multiple meetings on the Watertown Square Area Plan, which includes not only the redesign of the main intersection, but also where the City will allow housing to be built by right to meet the requirements of the MTBA Communities Law, as well as form-based zoning which will determine how future developments will look.

The room at the library has a smaller capacity than the previous locales of the Watertown Square meetings, but the meeting will be hybrid, Sideris said, so people can ask questions and make comments on the plan remotely.

“If we need several meetings … we will do that, and if we have to do them all with the Planning Board we will meet together until we get what the community will be comfortable with,” Sideris said at Tuesday’s City Council Meeting.

Proakis told Watertown News that since the April 4 presentation of the preferred intersection plan and zoning of by-right housing, officials from the City — including himself — have been meeting weekly with members of the design consultant team from Utile.

The draft that will be presented on June 12 will be an adjustment of the one presented at the last Community Meeting, Proakis said.

“What the document will include is a version of what we presented at the April 4 meeting, adjusted based upon the comments we received,” Proakis said. “So it’s the next iteration. We received 499 comments, between those handed in at the meeting, and submitted online afterwards. So what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to read those 499 comments, and understand them.”

Likely Changes in the Plan

The designers have also looked more closely at some of the areas of the plan.

“We’re talking through results, discussing things, there’s been a few offline meetings, there’s been some time spent with the street design teams trying to figure out a couple of the intersections, like the Pleasant Street/Cross Street/Main Street (intersection), which didn’t exactly clearly come together in the April meeting,” Proakis said.

The proposed intersection proposal, known as Four Corners, presented as the preferred option by designers on April 4.

Other areas that have been studied more closely include making sure the plan is flexible in some key sites, such as leaving enough space for the expansion of the Watertown Free Public Library if there is a need to grow.

Open space has also been a topic of discussion, Proakis said.

“How do we kind of bring together the design of open spaces to make sure they’re really high quality space, especially if you’re not having a lot of open space?” Proakis said. “With the individual development lots the shared common open spaces have to be really good. They have to be places people want to be. So, we’re working on those.”

The Housing Requirement

One of the most scrutinized parts of the plan has been how to meet the state’s requirement to allow at least 1,701 of housing units to be built by right in Watertown. The draft presented in April zones areas to allow more than 3,300 units by right, with other areas allowing construction of four, five or six stories of housing if a special permit is granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals or Planning Board (depending on which has the final authority).

Proakis expects the draft to be presented like it is a master plan, however he said there is still the “ticking clock” before which Watertown must add zoning changes to satisfy the MBTA Communities Law housing requirement. Those must be approved by the end of 2024 to comply with the state law.

A diagram of the proposed by-right housing zoning in Watertown Square to meet the MBTA Communities Law requirement. The by-right areas are outlined in a dark dashed line. (Courtesy of City of Watertown)

Explaining what the housing number in the MTBA Communities Law represents has been a constant challenge, Proakis said. Another area of confusion is what it means if a property is zoned for housing by right.

“(The MBTA Communities Law number) is not a production goal, it is not a production expectation. That is not, you know, thou shalt build 1,700 units or some other number — 3,100 units or whatever it might be,” Proakis said. “If you have a private landowner on a private lot, that is doing their thing, and wants to keep on doing their thing, and not develop it as housing, so be it — that’s that. Is it more likely some real estate developers could pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, do you want to sell?’ Probably, but that’s that.”

While Watertown’s proposal includes allowing four-, five-, or six-story residential buildings around the core of Watertown Square, other communities have used different strategies. Somerville has leaned on creating more three-family homes, for instance.

Looking at the types of housing developments built in Watertown, there are two main types, Proakis said.

“Our tradition in Watertown, on main street corridors, we’re used to getting big buildings, and then in the neighborhoods we’re getting two-families, and they’re very, very different,” he said. “There’s nothing in between.”

One thing he has heard from many people is that they would like to see more developments with owner-occupied units. Proakis said that state law does not allow cities and towns to mandate whether a project is owner-occupied or rental.

In and around Watertown Square, many of the lots are smaller and not owned by the same person or company. Proakis said that the lots could be combined to build a bigger project, or kept as smaller lots which could accommodate smaller projects. The plan, currently, remains neutral on that by not setting a minimum lot size so big that it requires lots to be combined, he said.

The State’s building codes can also play a role in what kinds of projects will be built, Proakis said.

“Like a four story building on a very small lot: I’ve got an 8,000-square-foot lot that has to have two egress stairs and all of these circulation systems that take up so much of the building,” Proakis said. “There’s an economy of scale, the larger you make the building, but at the same time there’s a character of those smaller buildings — it’s more consistent with our New England architecture. Finding the balance between those things is really tricky.”

Developing the Municipal Parking Lots

One of the areas that has been brought up, but not discussed in detail during the community meetings is putting housing and a parking garage on the parking lots in Watertown Square (including behind the CVS and the Watertown Library).

“In the February meeting, one of the questions I specifically asked was, ‘Are folks comfortable with the idea of doing development on the parking lots?’ Because it’s an on/off switch of sorts, right, like to do the rest of the plan and do that or not?” Proakis said. “I think that in terms of foot traffic created in the square, there’s some real benefit to doing it. But I also, I’ve spent 20 years focused on community process. I don’t want to fight the entire community on something, I want to kind of understand what people want and where they want it.”

An illustration of housing and a parking garage that could be built on the Municipal Parking Lots behind CVS, as well as the Library. (Illustration Courtesy of City of Watertown)

Another consideration for any development of that area is that nothing can be built on the Cambridge Water Supply main that runs through the lot.

If the Municipal Parking lots in the Square are developed, since most of the property is owned by the City, the selection of the designers and construction partners would made by City officials.

“I worked on similar projects in Lowell and in Somerville, but this this would be something that Watertown hasn’t done in a long time — selecting developer partners,” Proakis said, noting that the last major project led by the City was the redevelopment of the U.S. Army’s Arsenal. “So, if we decide we’re actually going to do this, we’ve got to be very thoughtful about how we set that structure up. I’m actually kind of leaning on our consultants to give me some suggestions of the plan of how we might set that process up if we decide to go that way. But, mostly I’m leaving on the Council to say OK, this is something we do or don’t want to do.”

Form Based Zoning

Another concept that will be familiar to those who have attended the Watertown Square meetings is form based zoning, but it has not been discussed in-depth at the previous meetings.

Form based zoning replaces the numerical zoning requirements that dictate things like the height and width of buildings, the setbacks from property lines, percent of open space. Instead form-based zoning addresses how the buildings interface with public areas, such as sidewalks and streets, and can include architectural requirements. The proposals shown at the Watertown Square meetings had the top floor of buildings to either be “stepped back” (pushed off the facade), or to have pitched roofs. Also, the frontage of the buildings would be broken up by either changes in building materials and/or colors, or with notches where the facade is pushed back at regular intervals.

Proakis said the plan is to change the entire Watertown Square Area (which stretches blocks beyond the main intersection) to form-based zoning. In the areas with by-right housing, the special permit requirement will be removed, but Proakis said projects will still have to have a site plan review in front of the Planning and Zoning Boards.

“Which I think is an important distinction, because there’s still there’s still hearing, there’s still a chance to discuss design, there’s still an ability to put conditions,” Proakis said. “What the special permit takes away is the ability to say ‘no,’ or really start whacking huge portions of the building apart to say, ‘All right, chop 30 percent off the building.”

An illustration of how buildings constructed using the form-based zoning could look like in Watertown Square between Arsenal and North Beacon streets. (Courtesy of the City of Watertown)

Just removing the special permit can have unintended consequences, Proakis said.

“There are a number of communities I’ve seen, they’re just removing the special permit on their existing zoning. And when they do that, sometimes they unlock less design control than they thought. It’s like they remove it without taking a step back to realize what the special permits have been doing for them,” he said. “The special permit is the only reason why I’m not getting XYZ, which we don’t like. … That’s, that’s why we kind of combined the pieces together to say, OK, if I’m gonna remove the special permit on anything, I need to make sure all this other pieces in place that is consistent with community values of what we want with where we’re headed, so that we can understand what it’s gonna look like.”

Zoning Meeting

Prior to the Watertown Square Area Plan meeting, Proakis will host a discussion looking more generally at zoning.

“It is not a discussion of Watertown Square, it is really a discussion of zoning, what we can do, what we can’t do,” Proakis said. “There has been a lot of frustration about this.”

The event will be a live discussion, but instead of doing it in a meeting room, Proakis will be broadcasting live from the Watertown Cable Access Television studios. There will be an opportunity for viewers to send their questions to Proakis so there can be a Q&A session after the initial presentation. The event will be recorded and will be replayed on WCA-TV.

The presentation will include much of what Proakis presents during the urban planning class he has taught at Harvard for many years.

“It’s a weird role for a city manager, but being that it’s what I’ve done for 20 years and taught classes on I figured, you know, I’ll do my zoning 101 class,” Proakis said. “I’ll share it with this community.”

Some of it will be familiar to those who watched the April 4 Watertown Square meeting, where Proakis presented a pared down version of his talk.

Watertown Square is not the only area of town where zoning will be changed, Proakis said. The recently-adopted Comprehensive Plan calls for making adjustments to zoning across Watertown, and the budget includes some funding to do so.

The time of the June 3 event has not been decided, Proakis said, but he said it will be in the evening.

21 thoughts on “What to Expect at Next Watertown Square Meeting, Manager Will Also Discuss Zoning on Prior Day

  1. The room at the library holds WAY fewer people than the Galen street buiding at which hundreds showed up. A better venue would be the school auditorium or the gym. Why such a limited venue??

  2. Are the results from the October Kitchen Conversations, November Polis survey and the February polls and surveys not being taken into account? At February, the possiblity of zoning for.6220 units was alive and well. All public meetings and surveys that generated results need to be taken into account. Audiences were very different at each. If the commitment is.to have meetings until everyone in the community is good, then fealty to commitment relies on the responses of everyone who attended a kitchen conversation or public forum or filled out a survey. Otherwise, feedback has been cherry picked .I am thinking 6220 units is pie in the sky at this point but 3331 has valid support as expressed in all the results taken since October.

  3. Thank you for this information. This a very detailed and informative article, and I appreciate it very much. I do hope all will be recorded since I won’t be able to attend the Joint Session. I am very glad the City Manager is providing a class on zoning. I understand some of the concepts more than others since I have a sibling who works for the city Boston in this capacity. Unfortunately, there are quite a few misconceptions being bantered about. By-right zoning is not a mere checkbox. It would not be distinguished from special permit if it was that. However, nuance seems to be ignored when people overreact and miss facts. The fact is that we have a severe housing shortage. It is so severe that prices and rents have more than tripled. A 1920’s house in 2000 that sold for 250k, just sold for 1,400,000, about 5.5 times the price 25 years ago. Between 1985 and 2010, a house would sell for 200k in 1988 and then 300k in 2010. 3331 units is not a large change particularly in the area that is the business district. When I read Teddy Kokoros’ letter last week, he described a Watertown Square that *was* very vibrant. When I a go through the square today, I don’t see that. It feels empty, is messy to drive in, and but for the river path, nothing spectacular to write about. The city council and planning board need to address the issue at hand, which is the housing crisis. Be the leaders that are needed during a crisis. Leaders would go above the minimum of 1701 units. Real daring leaders would go above the 3331 units!

  4. It’s refreshing to see that more meetings are planned and that more work needs to be done. There are several aspects that still need to be reevaluated and refined, and some that need to be crossed off the list.

    I’m not at all thrilled about or looking forward to eliminating or reducing ANY travel lanes, especially at the Galen St. bridge to reconfigure them for bus lanes. I can’t think of a worse place in Watertown to do something that foolish.

    Another proposal that needs reconsideration is closing off Charles River Rd. to traffic. It’s unfair to the residents of that street and will only divert more traffic on North Beacon St.

    As far as constructing a garage where the surface parking currently exists, is it really necessary? Is it more of a want than a need?

    But most of all, I’m dismayed, disappointed and peeved that setting the number of units to the required 1,701 hasn’t been put on the table for discussion and voted on. Residents SHOULD HAVE THE RIGHT and be allowed to decided on ALL available options no matter how many object to it.

    One thing I am in agreement with is that the venue is way too small to accommodate enough attendees. The last meeting at Galen St. was packed and the way this project is getting more residents attention, and the discussion is heating up, I would anticipate even more citizens showing up.

    • 1701 units is not impactful. That number will not address the housing crisis. Professional experts – economists, housing policy directors, city planners, etc. – are saying that impact starts to occur at 6,ooo plus units. I say 6000 plus because their numbers are different. Some say 6k something, some say 12k something, and some say everything in between. However, not one has said 1701, which was the minimum number calculated for Watertown when the law was published in late 2020. It is not news.

      1701 is not even half of what is needed for impact, and while 3331 seems to be the direction, it still will only be a drip of relief. It is egregiously disappointing that we can’t even approach those upper end numbers again, especially when the business district is one of last places in the city to rebuild. This really is a time for leadership because so many future and the future of the city do hang in the balance. It could be a lost opportunity or the great opportunity taken!

      In the meantime while all these meetings are occurring, people remain un-housed, over-housed and heavily rent burdened/cost burdened. By-right zoning allows for site review which is quite sufficient. It gives affordable housing developers a competitive advantage and permits relative heights increases to incentivize market rate developers to provide affordable units.

      These multitude of meetings will only hamper development. I am not saying there shouldn’t be meetings but at some point one has to fish or cut bait. What’s the end goal? And who is going to show up at these many, many meetings? Those not working full time jobs? Those not having to wake up at 5am to talk to the other side of the world? Those with one job? Those without young children or elderly parents? Those who do not rent? As they say in Latin, cui bono?

      • There is no number that will satisfy the “housing crisis”.
        The reason that prices rise in an area is the number of people wanting to live in that area keep rising. When I first moved here in the 1980’s more people desired to live in Newton or Cambridge than in Watertown. As Watertown is now modernizing if you will it’s schools and roads and buildings more people want to live here and this is driving up prices. To solve your housing crisis you would have to make Watertown LESS desirable. I don’t see that happening.
        I am for keeping the number of housing units a low priority and quality of life (open space, public and bike transport, art and food amenities and quality of housing) as the high priority issues.

        • More people lived here in the 1970s than do now, and there was no housing crisis. We accommodated about 40,000 then without the modern amenities. The seed of the housing crisis is are the very obstructive and very restrictive zoning laws that were implemented across the state in the early 1990s. The seed of the higher demand was the 2013 bombing. No one knew of Watertown before then and no one knew how close it was to Boston. Quality of life is very, subjective. The recent phenomenon of suburbanization in certain parts of Watertown isn’t appealing to everyone in Watertown, nor is the hollowed out Square.

          • In the 70’s, the population demographics were very different. Those were the peak youth years of the later Baby Boomer generation. Watertown was predominantly blue-collar families with lots and lots of children growing up stuffed in together sharing bedrooms in small single and 2-family houses. There were more children than adults living here back then who didn’t own cars and have get to work in and out of Watertown every day. What is being added now is more apartment housing for mainly many more adults. To put it perspective, residents should take a look at 73 Pond Street in Waltham and see what a 200-unit apartment complex looks like for scale. You wont have to look very hard, you cant miss it. The 6,000 plus units you want in the square would be about 30 of those with another 10 thousand or more residents. That would drastically urbanize Watertown without having the necessary public transit system in place to accommodate it.

          • Sorry Rita but some of your statements are just not true.
            The cost of housing was rising way before the 2013 bombing. Maybe you didn’t live here before then. There has been a lot of development in Watertown and other surrounding cities and this is what has and will continue to increase the price of housing. This and the increasing difficulty in building housing is the cause of housing price increases, not numbers of housing units.
            Nicer, newer housing is expensive and getting more so every year.
            I’m not clear what the answer is but more and more is not the answer.

        • Sorry, David, while you are of course correct, logic will not win this argument against moral sermonizing. As you can see, the name of their game is to keep repeating their talking points and to always have the last word. Nevertheless, your cold, hard truth-telling is valued by many of us.

      • Sorry Rita but some of your statements are just not true.
        The cost of housing was rising way before the 2013 bombing. Maybe you didn’t live here before then. There has been a lot of development in Watertown and other surrounding cities and this is what has and will continue to increase the price of housing. This and the increasing difficulty in building housing is the cause of housing price increases, not numbers of housing units.
        Nicer, newer housing is expensive and getting more so every year.
        I’m not clear what the answer is but more and more is not the answer.

        Been here a while, grandfather came in the mid 1950s. Cost of housing was going up prior to the bombing but the rate has been steeper since precisely because “the increasing difficulty in building housing.” The pricing of older stock is also up, what cost 250k 25 years ago is averaging 850k now. Same for rents. Finally, the law calls for changing zoning to create housing. It doesn’t only mean building new. It can mean conversion or additions. It removes the bureaucracy of special permit from the process so that more housing can become available more quickly. 3331 units are not going to appear tomorrow but rather over the next decade as opposed to over the next 30 years.

      • In the 70’s, the population demographics were very different. Those were the peak youth years of the later Baby Boomer generation. Watertown was predominantly blue-collar families with lots and lots of children growing up stuffed in together sharing bedrooms in small single and 2-family houses. There were more children than adults living here back then who didn’t own cars and have get to work in and out of Watertown every day. What is being added now is more apartment housing for mainly many more adults. To put it perspective, residents should take a look at 73 Pond Street in Waltham and see what a 200-unit apartment complex looks like for scale. You wont have to look very hard, you cant miss it. The 6,000 plus units you want in the square would be about 30 of those with another 10 thousand or more residents. That would drastically urbanize Watertown without having the necessary public transit system in place to accommodate it.

        There may have been less car ownership then but car ownership today in Massachusetts is the lowest in the nation, 87%. And if one only looks at renters, which are 50% of Watertown, then car ownership would be less than 87%. With the square re-design, traffic will flow better as it will be an actual square. What we have now is an octopus that few know how to maneuver. The rotaries from the 70s were better. Less children were born in the 1970s than in the 80s or 90s, but less children are being born today. However, birth rates and transit services are highly variable especially when investment changes.
        We are not zoning for 6221 units. All indicators point to a compromise of 3331. The city either split the baby or think there’s a silent majority of the 35,200 parked there. I know 6k plus is the long tail of the bell curve, but the minimum required by the law is the other tail. It’s not as long since it has an advantage of 30-40 years of networking but I doubt it sitting under bell curve.
        The law calls for zoning changes to allow for more units which can be new builds, conversions or additions. It removes the bureaucratic special permit speedbump out of the process for the Square. 3331 units will not appear tomorrow. We’re looking at 10-15 year horizon. All the law does is shorten the timeline so that more housing becomes available quicker. By then, the square will be a square and the MBTA could be providing the level of service it did in the early 2000s. It will have more of an urban edge, which Watertown always has had – it’s not Belmont, but it won’t make it Downtown Boston either.

    • And the rest us should have the right to have the possiblity of housing. These meetings are just a smoke screen to have a dicussion. One meeting to expaling thing and one meeting to answer questons is enough. Make them 3 hours each if you want. But anymore than that and it become pointmless because people are just going to say I want this x or I want y. Those calling for 1701 will never be satifisfied. I have been reading about this for several months now and I have attended some meetings and it is really clear to me. What I have obserbed is a a groupd who want to sabotage the whole process. Why give this space? Why? Yes I have seen 2 people who want less than 3331 units really open and curious or have a good question that was not brought up before, but they has not been typical. If the goal is whiltle down the numbers by watsing people’s time then that is not useful or producitive. I think the real conversation is where do we land in the 3000 to 5000 uits. theis is where people are talking about how do we accomodate strucutures next to structure that are lower in height or can some buildings be higher if set back more or if height provides afforable units often enough. THere are the serious conversartions. This is a good use of time. This is where people have respect for others who dont have enough housing.

    • @Ms. Leone – Please stop spreading lies. There is no proposal which involves “closing off Charles River Road to traffic” as you put it. The proposal is to change traffic patterns so that cars driving westbound must turn right at Arsenal St., i.e. can’t turn left, which improves traffic flows into the Square. There are other ways for drivers from that neighborhood to access Arsenal St. westbound, so it’s easy for drivers to switch. Before you object to this proposal, please try to learn WHY it was proposed and what the benefits are.

      IMPORTANT: Cars are not the only stakeholders in Watertown Square! Please consider the needs of other people who are not you: bike riders, children, elderly, blind people, families and others who want a safe, accessible, inviting Watertown Square. For too long, Watertown Square has been a pass-through to somewhere else. I want to reclaim the Square for Watertown residents. Drivers can simply find another way to get where they are going!

      • By definition, Watertown Square is a passthrough. It is immediately adjacent to one of a limited number of crossings to a limited number of accesses to the only nearby large scale road. You can wish it weren’t so, but it is all the same. “Drivers can simply find another way…” Please. We need serious discussion.

  5. Really disappoined and really pissed. 1. I am disappointed about the number being so low, 3331 units. Again, I get it I am at the upper end – 10,000 is upper end. Because I am a scientitatst I have been keeping a whiteoboard of hashes. Every time I talk to someone about housing, I mark it down. I have 238 hashes. The majority, frequnecy is between 3000 and 5000 (72%). I have heard a handful of times anything between 8000, and 10000. Then there’s 5000 to 6000 (17%), then 1000 to 3000 (7%) and then under 1000 (3%). SO I understand I am a minority. However, is the lower end under 3000.
    And this brings me to my second point of being pissed. I heardthe council president say we are going to have meetngs until people are comfortable. If it is to explain things and ask questios then fine. But if he is tryying to make the miniority comforfable with more than 1701. that will never happen. THey appear quite unreasonable. So instead of taking up city resources trying to make a few comforatable, bow about we work to make those unfortable with 1701 being too low or 3331 being too low because they don’t have the ocmfort of enough housing? The rest of us should have to be put out to keep the few comfortable. City council do better, please!

  6. Those who’ve argued against every development for the past couple of years will never be “comfortable” because WE HAVE A DIFFERENCE IN MORAL VALUES. The City Council shouldn’t drag out this planning process in a misguided attempt to “make everyone comfortable.” Conflicting moral values can’t be resolved through more communication.

    I want new people to move to our city, and these folks simply don’t. Or they want only “certain people” to move here. (as they’ve suggested)

    I want to enable zoning by-right which could add between 3000 – 5000 of new housing units in the plan area. They want to restrict zoning to enable the bare minimum we can get away with under the MBTA Communities law. I’m old enough to remember when they argued last year that Watertown should defy that law entirely.

    I want our city to be inclusive, which in part means enabling more to housing for ALL income levels as well as diversity in other aspects. They consistently argue *against* new housing for those who can afford market rate rents and *for* new housing only for “working class” people. There is a lot of “anti-money” sentiment in their communication, I guess they don’t like money.

    These moral value differences can NOT be bridged by “more communication.”

  7. The cost of housing has nothing to do with the number of housing units.
    It has to do with desirability to live in a particular area.
    This is the basis of the border crisis. There are areas of less desirable housing, which is cheaper, and areas of more desirable housing which will be more expensive. In a good economy the more desirable areas will rise in value and become harder for people to move into. This is the facts and we have to look in a big picture way to solve these problems. It’s not solved by more and more people in a small space.

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