LETTER: A Resident’s Comments on Proposed Rezoning of Watertown Square

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To the Editor:

I’ve been impressed by Manager George Proakis’ initiative, effort and community involvement process for the Watertown Square Area Redesign. In terms of the streetscape, it’s terrific that the manager is trying to create a plan that insists that our Square is first and foremost the center of our community, not just an intersection to drive through as quickly as possible. It is in terms of zoning that the draft plans have led to more disagreement.

Unlike some municipalities, we are choosing to obey the new MBTA Communities law and join in the region-wide attempt to increase the supply of housing by changing the zoning in the Square. The need for more housing units at lower rents and/or purchase prices is clear. It’s the right thing to do on behalf of our residents and would-be residents, to keep Watertown and the greater Boston area an economically diverse community. It’s also the economically necessary thing to do to keep the amazing economic engine of Massachusetts in high gear.

The new zoning state law is an understandable but highly imperfect means to this end. It makes sense that if housing production is insufficient across the region, the solution needs to be regional, and it’s been proven by experience that few municipalities will do their part voluntarily. Unfortunately, as an article in the May 18 edition of the Boston Globe reported, the new law is unlikely to produce much affordable housing across the region. The reason is that while the law requires zoning changes with the theoretical potential to create a certain number of units, most of these units are unlikely to ever be built, as exemplified by Arlington’s plan to comply with the law. The article reports that, “Arlington’s plan theoretically makes room for more than 3,000 new units, but in reality planners there say they’ll be lucky to see 200 built over the next decade.” Further, the law limits affordable units to only 10% of the new units built. With a housing market that is regional, even enthusiastic embrace of the law by some municipalities like ours is unlikely to affect housing prices.

I believe there are two primary reasons that some cities and towns avoid meaningful compliance with the law. One is that many people who are currently homeowners or small landlords don’t want to see rents or prices reduced, even if they’re sympathetic to the need. The other reason, the one I’d like to focus on, is that the law largely eliminates resident input on the design a developer may propose for a new residential building in the new zoning district. In Watertown, greater resident input on new construction has been seen as a progressive phenomenon that many community activists — many of the same activists who campaigned for higher affordable housing requirements in new multi-family housing — fought long and hard to bring into our zoning ordinance. If anything, despite the opportunities that now exist for residents to review and comment on development plans, complaints persist that the city administration and Planning Board have not taken resident input into account sufficiently. The fear is that, given the developers’ imperative to maximize return per square inch of lot size, inappropriately designed, tall, massive and ugly Lego-block buildings will rise up in a part of Watertown which now has heights that are mostly three stories or lower, a mix of architectural styles and, for better or worse, an old fashioned feel.

Our city’s planners propose to address these twin fears — of inappropriate buildings and the exclusion of consequential participation by residents in the review of individual proposed structures — by creating certain design mandates, not just guidelines, for the form of new buildings, depending on the building’s height and street frontage; so-called form based zoning. The idea is to have resident involvement occur at the earliest possible moment, when the zoning ordinance for the district is being written, rather than at the last possible moment when developers are trying to get individual buildings built. The theory is that planners and residents together can create design requirements and limitations that satisfy the aesthetic sensibilities of the community without being so constricting as to discourage developers and investors who are in it for the money.

It’s difficult, I think, for most people who aren’t architects to envision an assortment of abstract architectural design requirements that will achieve a pleasing and non-uniform visual result while still allowing for innovation. It is really hard for most of us (myself included) to participate in putting together a design ordinance other than by reacting to design professionals’ ideas and to really understand what we might be agreeing to, or equally important, understand what’s left out of the ordinance that might result in a collection of structures we might prefer more. I also suppose that, absent a right to evaluate projects on a case by case basis, some people will find it hard to sufficiently trust the city’s professional staff, consultants, volunteer board members and elected officials to come up with a form based zoning ordinance that has the result they want.

But one design feature that most everyone can envision is height. We all know what a five story building with mechanical equipment on the roof looks like. It’s for that reason I believe that the degree of acceptance by the public of the city’s plan to be put forward in the coming days is likely to depend largely on the building height maximums in the plan. My sense is that most residents who are concerned about heights would accept the tradeoff of a larger district subject to the new law in exchange for lower heights.

It is also worth noting that our city need not, and should not, do nothing more than rezone the Square to encourage more affordable housing. We can also cause more affordable housing to be built by direct city support through the funds of the Community Preservation Act, Watertown Housing Trust, and Watertown Housing Authority. Through CPA funds and the Housing Trust the city has the chance to get affordable housing built if the right land, developer, state contribution and loan package can be brought together. The Housing Authority has the chance to make a real impact with the Willow Park proposal, but again only if sufficient city and state support is granted.

Lastly, it may be that more housing can result from a careful reexamination of our whole zoning ordinance, such as by thoughtfully considering changes to the rules around alteration of non-conforming uses and buildings and on lot sizes and setback requirements for pre-existing structures, subject to special permit approval. If preferential treatment can be given to adding a unit to an existing home, rather than tearing it down and substituting a new structure, that may help preserve the appearance of our residential areas while increasing the housing stock.

And of course none of this will work unless public transit improves to the point that the people who would live in all the additional units can readily and dependably connect to the wider region. Perhaps that’s the next thing the manager and our state lawmakers can tackle.

Jon Bockian
Watertown Resident

10 thoughts on “LETTER: A Resident’s Comments on Proposed Rezoning of Watertown Square

  1. I am trying to decidie if this letter is a “throw the baby out with th bathwater” or “kick the can down the road” one. I mean it start off well intentioned but in the end it uses the same tropes that those who are anti housing use. Like there’s no infrasturcue or working bus/subway or other town aren’t doing it why do we have to, aka the regional problem, or the law is flawed.

    The MTBA will work again. You had a governor who ignored it for 8 years. He’s gone. Sewer and streets are currently being fixed. Yes it’s a regional problem but it’s also a town problem. And finally perfection is the enemy of the good. All these points lead to the “let’s throw up our hands and do nothing.” Nothing could be worse. Secondly, the minimum would make no difference. So it too is a let’s throw up our hands again”

    There is some honestly in peopel wanting to keep prices and rents high but even that’s a small faction of the anti-housing. The aesthetics argument is even hardest to swallow. One because it so subjective. Does the concept of relativiity mean anying. A 5 story building is not that much different from a 3 story one. We are not talking 30 stories here.Also some people like height and some people like boxy. And some people could care less. Here’s what so gross about this argument – there’s more concern for asethetics than actual human beings. Read that again. People care more about the look than the people who need housing. Either people are totally a-holes or it’s a ruse to hide behind. WHich, I don’t care? My suscpiscon is that there is a third reason, peopel don’t want certain kinds of peope living in Watertown. People will deny it but there is a reason why access is retricted and often it’s about controlling who can do what and live where.

    The is quote made me laugh, “inappropriate buildings and the exclusion of consequential participation by residents in the review of individual proposed structures ” One because inappropriate is so subjective. Like what is a work of art to one person is a piece of trash to another and viceversa. But two, it recreates the problem that lead to this in the first place. Let’s have as many meetings as possible so that people can interfere in situation in which they have zero expertise. let’s muck up the works. Its one thing when someone has a legimate improvement or thought because they really do want to improve something. It’s another thing when they want to stop it. They will never say that out loud but their actions speak louder.

    Finally, who is the town causing disgreemnent between me and the let’s do the minimum group. Is it because we’re the loudest? And so what? Disagreemnt is healthy, especillay amoung 36k people. There is no way that everyone agrees with me, mr. 12k! There is no way everyone agrees with “but waht about the 1701” crowd either. I think the town saw most want somewhere in the 3000 to 5000 range. I hear that when I talk to peopel and two letters that talked about the middle ground got a lot of responses from different peope. It was not the same 7 or 8 from either of the groups. That says something.

    To me, i hate to have to compromise because I don’t think 3k is going to do it. We are going to have to build the 3k and then come say oops we were wrong about that number and build more. But I will take the 3k! So is the let’s follow the law crowd gong to tdo the same? Because if they don’t then the look like the one who can’t compromise because of asethtics. That’s a bad look during a crisis. You really need to take a look in the mirrior and see if that is the legacy you want to leave behind. At least I can say I took 3k and then tried to get more. I didn;t wash my hands of it or hemed and hawed over perfection. Nor did I lie about why I reallly don’t want more housing.

  2. This was the most nuanced and rational take I’ve seen yet. I whole heartedly agree, developers are looking to maximize profit by any means necessary, style and shadows be damned.

  3. I was very dismayed after reading this letter. Initially, the letter displays great sympathy for those who cannot obtain housing, and praises those who are actually working on the problem day in and day out, the city administration. Then it nosedives into a discussion on the importance of design. However, the discussion does not examine design for safety or design for connectivity or design for moving about, but rather design that appeals to eyes.
    The letter then proceeds to argue against height which is crucially needed for affordability and argues for sprawl. The real fatal flaw, however, is the argument that there’s no resident participation or enough of it. There has been resident participation. It may not satisfy everyone’s definition of enough, but I would argue that current zoning laws, especially special permit, have baked in a certain type of participation for over 30 years and frozen out other types. It benefits those who have lived here for decades like the incumbent in a political race.
    And while I am looking forward to watching the Zoning 101 Zoom by the city manager, I feel a lot of it will fall on deaf ears. I think it will get into site review and form design which will address this idea of the city allowing “ugly” buildings and stemming participation. It will not assuage the the fear of those who have had their power entrenched for decades. The city manager should do it anyway because for the few with open minds and genuine curiosity, it will be a valuable use of their time.

  4. I’m disgusted by swarms of residents nit-picking developers and insisting that property owners conform to their personal idea of “good taste,” as I’ve observed in this city over the past couple of years. First, I don’t agree with your taste, based on how some of your homes look. Second, if one takes >30 seconds to think about it, these kinds of arguments are EXACTLY WHY WE HAVE A HOUSING EMERGENCY IN MASSACHUSETTS. When everyone fancies themselves a “design consultant,” the entire process gets bogged down and eventually wears down those who are trying to build new housing. We need an entirely different approach which puts LIMITS ON RESIDENTS who will always find reasons NOT to building housing in our city. Just because you live here doesn’t mean you have a veto power on new people coming to live here!! Onward from the 1950s….

  5. I love how the author of this first say the quiet part out loud with

    “One is that many people who are currently homeowners or small landlords don’t want to see rents or prices reduced, even if they’re sympathetic to the need.”

    and then proceeds to just skip examining it and focus on how the real driver is residents aren’t allowed into the design process of these new buildings.

    Because you know the real reason there is so much pushback is color/material choice and not it has the potential to reduce the rents I charge or will reduce my resell value. 90% of understanding human behavior is understanding incentives, especially financial ones. Anyone telling you this has anything to do with design choices is just trying to distract you from the financial impact new housing would have on them.

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