LETTER: It’s All About Control and What Our Community Wants

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I recently read the article in Watertown News, dated May 16, 2024, entitled: What to Expect at Next Watertown Square Meeting, Manager will Also Discuss Zoning on Prior Day.

The meeting at Watertown Middle School auditorium (68 Waverley Avenue) on June 13th at 6:00 p.m. that is highlighted is an important one. More to come on that.

Let me quote Mr. Proakis in that Watertown News article: “(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.”

And more from that Watertown News article:

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).”

My Note: The reason that these parking lots have not been discussed is that by law, these areas, which are owned by the City, cannot be used to comply with the 1,701 for the MBTA Law. Any housing built on that land would be “additional units” and will not count in the MBTA housing number. The approximately 175 units at 104 and 166 Main St. do not count as well, and as such will be counted as “additional units.”

Mr. Proakis again: “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.”

To my surprise, tucked into page 47 of the 58 pages of this Watertown Square Area Plan was a term that we’d never heard used before regarding the parking lots: “The most effective strategy for pursuing such a partnership is to first create a redevelopment authority and then request that the City Council transfer the lots to the control of the authority.”

In point of fact, there has never been a full public discussion of how to utilize these spaces … parking (lots or garages), housing, open space, green space, etc.

Proposing a redevelopment authority presupposes that our community has made a decision to build on these parking lots.

What is a redevelopment authority? Here’s how the town of South Hadley explains it:

A Redevelopment Authority, as an independent body politic and corporate, is not an agency of a municipality and therefore, does not answer directly to the chief executive. This affords the Redevelopment Authority more autonomy in planning and implementing redevelopment and revitalization projects.

Redevelopment Authorities have the power to:

◦ Establish rehabilitation and design standards;
◦ Assemble and dispose of land, including the taking of real estate through eminent domain;
◦ Relocate businesses and residents occupying urban renewal sites;
◦ Demolish and/or rehabilitate substandard structures;
◦ Participate in real estate development and commercial revitalization;
◦ Issue bonds, borrow money and invest funds;
◦ Seek and receive grants and loans;
◦ Accept gifts or requests

Questions: Aren’t we putting the cart before the horse here?

Has the decision already been made to develop the CVS parking lot without a detailed conversation with the residents of Watertown? (Not just a quick question about people’s preferences).

Was there an advertised community meeting about this? If the answer is “Yes,” when did that occur?

I don’t recall a Planning Board or City Council meeting where this was the topic of discussion, never mind decided.

Is the “plan” to just rubber-stamp a very important decision to transfer great power like this on June 13?

To our City Councilors:

If you vote for transferring power over Watertown public land to a redevelopment authority, you are offloading a significant part of your responsibility to a group who does not answer to the voters of Watertown. At the same time, you’ll be disenfranchising those same voters who put their trust in you to make these important decisions for our community.

To Watertown Residents:

I cannot say it more strongly than this. Please show up at the Watertown Middle School on June 13th at 6:00 p.m. This is no ordinary meeting. This is a hearing.

And, without you, decisions like this could be made that night that could change some of the best parts of Watertown (our diverse small businesses and our independent voices) forever.
For copies of the Watertown Square Area Plan:

On-line: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/59e50be849fc2b3fd20a30cb/t/6658f191df7a9243b7111661/1717105044583/Watertown+Square+Area+Plan_Report_2024_0530_CCPB_DRAFT.pdf

Printed copies are in the Library and the Senior Center. Call first to make sure they haven’t run out. More copies can be made. (Library: 617-972-6431; Senior Center: 617-972-6490)

Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

22 thoughts on “LETTER: It’s All About Control and What Our Community Wants

  1. Linda, the last time Watertown had a redevelopment authority, it was to decide what to do with the Arsenal property.

  2. Linda,

    I know that you don’t come out and say this exactly, but is it, or is it not, your view that “some of the best parts of Watertown” include vast amounts of effectively wasted downtown real estate in the form of hot, ugly surface parking lots? In my view, it is not.

    • Right, this writer has expressed character, characeter, character. Where is there chracter in a parking lot??? The writer cannot have it both ways. Why complain about builindgs having to be beatiufl but then wanting to keep rotten old parling lots?? And they are rotting and steaming hot during the summer. I have walked those lots. There are terrible.
      It’s a shame that the writer fails to grab on ton consistent and loigical arguments.
      However, the truth is that it’s an emotioal plea that the wrtier keeps making. Time and time again the article from this writed have used fear to prevent this re-zoning and desing from happening. It really is a lazy way to make an argument and often times the facts in the articles are not correct. The worst part then is that people beleiveing this. The writer doens’t quite graspt the idea that a municapal lot means they city can do whatever they want with it. It is not subject to zoning laws and it is not subject to her control and wants. It is not. The write quite ofen forgets that she does not speka for the 36K just because the writer can attend all the meetings. Just because someone doesn’t attend doesn’t mean they don’t have a voice or opinion, far from it! And to the writer’s surprise that opinion is very very very different from the small piece of Watertown that she represents.
      If you have poured over the reports, it easily shows that a majority want zoning for somewhere between 3000 and 5000 units. That is what the majiority is saying. I don’t know how big this majority is but I bet 1 million dollars that it is larger than the 1701 crowd – hands down! I know it is bigger than my small group of 8000 and more. I know that. So I am not going to try and control everything and tell the city this is what the community wants. Because 1. it is a lie! and 2. it ignores a bunch of people so that a few people can be comfortable. That is so wrong on both accounts. It is really sad when there is this big problemn and people who are don’t care to fix it try to grab control from the experts who can fix, the planners and city council who seet the prolbeme and are willing to try or the majority who live the problem. Not only is the writer telling people to ignore the problme but she is also telling people to tell others who want to solve the problemen to doing nothing. As the expression goes, who died and made her king?
      Matt, thanks for pointing out the major flaw in the article, one of many. I wish this was labeled the opinion of one person right on top, and not some sort of “take back your community” action. It really makes serious problems look like things that can be taken for granted and ignored. It really should be labeled ” I got mine, now shut the door.” This really only serves a select few, and that is not what being in a town or city is all about. The writer will not even compromise. It is 1701 or the highway. Really, really sad and wilfully wrong. I just don’t get it the sense of entittlement. I don’t!

  3. There is a big push by the City for people to walk or ride bikes to the downtown locations (current and proposed) and for the City to create more spaces and bike racks for the bikes near businesses and in convenient City locations. (This was mentioned in the recent Bike/Ped meeting.)

    I question whether that will actually benefit new businesses if older people, families with children, disabled individuals and other residents who can’t ride bikes and need cars decide not to visit downtown as frequently if their needs aren’t considered, but that’s a discussion for another day.

    If the City is planning to reduce vehicles in Watertown by 50 percent by 2050 as outlined in the Comprehensive Plan, a parking garage may not be needed if this goal is actually achieved. Leaving a parking lot in place allows more flexibility to add green space, trees, outdoor seating, etc. if a garage is deemed not necessary in the future, while still meeting any possible growth in businesses’ needs. (That is if the new first floor spaces proposed actually attract tenants and customers.)

    If we spend huge amounts of money to build a garage and force local businesses out of the space behind CVS and the Library and it doesn’t end up being needed, look at the money wasted and the space being locked up for something not needed or desired.

    I personally am not in favor of parking garages in these settings. As a woman and a senior I don’t feel comfortable or safe parking in them. They are often areas where there are many times that you are alone on a floor and feel helpless should a person with ill intent be hiding or waiting for a victim. Also, cars are often damaged in these tight spaces and there is no recourse for people who have damages. (I went into the Roche Brothers garage once and now I won’t go back to shop at that store if I can’t find a surface parking space. It was eerie to be alone on one of the floors, especially if you are trying to unpack groceries from a cart.)

    At this point I can’t see any benefit for having a Redevelopment Authority making decisions for us that can’t be controlled by our elected leaders. We are adding to the DCDP Staff with excellent salaries and benefits, and they should be able to make appropriate decisions with the approval of the City Manager and Councilors who can be held accountable for their decisions.

    I strongly urge all residents to attend and participate in the Watertown Square Plan Meeting on June 13 at the Middle School at 6 p.m. This is IMPORTANT. Once the plans are in cement it will be too late. Let your voices be heard now. Don’t let a few hundred people speak for you. Be a part of the decision making.

    • I am in complete agreement with you about parking garages. I feel unsafe when I’m alone at night getting into an elevator or walking up a stairwell to retrieve my car after shopping or dining. (Aside from being unsightly, they’re also usually pretty dirty!) Every scratch and ding on my car was done while parked in a garage. I no longer frequent Arsenal Yards, mainly because both Bond Street and Arsenal Yards Boulevard are really dangerous pass throughs to either garage. There are cars on both sides trying to back out making it nearly impossible to get through safely. (I think angle parking or parking on one side only would help.) When I go to the movie theater, I try to park in the Home Depot lot – much safer in my opinion. If the Watertown Square CVS parking lot is turned into a parking garage, I would likely drive to the CVS in Coolidge Square where there are lots of good restaurants or across the river to Stop & Shop and CVS and the many restaurants in Nonantum.

  4. Thanks, Elaine. That’s good to know. Do you remember the process used to decide to use a redevelopment authority for that land?

  5. Hi Matt,

    I mean exactly what I said…small businesses taken by eminent domain to get them out of the way of a short-sighted “vision“ of a select few and what used to be a Watertown City government value.. the inclusion of all citizen’s voices in decisions.

  6. Thanks to Linda for her informative and insightful notes about this project and process. I’ve been uncomfortable about the way these new plans have been pushed on the community with a feeling of inevitability. Yes input has been sought in meetings, but the decisions being contemplated are VERY LARGE AND PERMANENT and need the widest possible community involvement. The most democratic way is to have residents vote on a number of alternatives, not just the two presented to us. The voting should be also broken into segments such as obe for the idea of turning over the CVS etc. lot to a redevelopment authority.

    The multiple plans presented and voted on by residents should include 1 or more plans that meet the minimum # of 1,701 units. The plans presented so far greatly exceed that number and I for one do not want more crowding and traffic pushed upon us.

  7. I was thankful for the brief time when I didn’t have to read anti-Watertown Square Plan letters. This letter is a disappointment, and for many reasons. First, it is tone-deaf. It fails to acknowledge that a majority of people, in this town and elsewhere, are paying unsustainable rents and prices for general housing. In most cases, they are paying more than 30% of their incomes and sometimes more than 50%. The letter’s main focus is the municipal parking lots and their preservation. People have no affordable housing because the housing supply has been seriously impeded by crushing zoning laws that were enacted 30 years ago. What did people think would happen to prices/rents? What did this resident think then? Did the resident protest or support that decision? Given the context, It is so mind-boggling that the resident is showing more concern for preserving parking lots for cars over providing enough units to change prices/rents for people.

    Second, the letter is dismissive of anyone, be it a city employee or resident supportive of zoning for more than required by the law. Who are the voices in “our independent voices”? Are pro-Watertown Square Plan voices part of these voices or are they the “bought and paid for”voices? Are all those who could participate in the long process and then voted for the middle choice (3331 units) beholden to an entity that is not part of the town? Are the councilors elected by the majority of residents not empowered to make decisions that do not align with this resident’s opinions? And what are the small business owners that the resident groups in with the “independent voices” saying? I haven’t seen a letter or email from any business owners come out for or against density and walkability. And for this matter, what do the total of 35.2k living in Watertown, the majority of whom are under 40 years old, think? Unfortunately, we can’t know because this majority is raising children, working, taking care of parents, trying to find the next place to rent, etc. They cannot attend meetings at will, which is such a luxury. Are they not town residents? Do they count?

    Third, the letter has a conspiratorial tone. My understanding of zoning laws is that municipal property is not subject to them. I believe the city council, the elected body via representative government, can build a 20 story building, put in a Koi pond or completely seal it off. Yes, a Koi pond is ridiculous but so is the idea that any resident controls municipal land. The resident notes that municipal land was not included in the MBTA Communities Law, as if it was something the resident had discovered. It is very well known that municipal land was never part of the law, a law signed into effect at the end of 2020 – 4 years ago. The resident uses the word surprise and phrase “tucked away” to refer to the pages on parking lots. The plan is not a secret. Then the resident admonishes the council for having the possibility of handing over the municipal lots to a redevelopment authority. In representative government, there are many actions that the council can take without resident involvement. It is not a nefarious act, nor is an entity such as a redevelopment authority. This part of the letter is very problematic because it is bait to attribute an underhandedness to the council and plan, and I see one respondent has already taken it.

    For these reasons, I cannot take this letter seriously, and as a result, I cannot support any of its content. I hope the council and planners do the same, and vote on a map that will zone for three thousand plus units and leverage every piece of municipal land to combat the housing crisis. For way too long, many have and continue to painfully sacrifice while those with the luxury of time and without the concern for housing proceed to go about their lives unaffected.

    • I happen to be one of those folks paying an unsustainable rent, but be assured that this comment does not speak for me. I favor sensible development and doubt that building high rent apartments will make my situation better at any time in the future.

      This comment completely misrepresents the writer’s position. She is not in favor of “preserving parking lots”. She is in favor of maintaining community control over how development is done.

      The fact of the matter is that until very recently decisions about development were made in back rooms, boards rubber stamped them, and the public process was a sham. The result was a great number of low quality projects. Many Watertown residents still feel highly skeptical because of this.

      This comment misrepresents Linda’s letter entirely. Thus it is not helpful to the conversation. We all need to understand clearly what other’s positions are rather than react emotionally.

      We need to do a good job with the future of our town, not make reactionary decisions.

      • Too bad it doesn’t speak for you because Patrizia sounds far more intelligent and logical and sincere. I can’t say that about the writing that promted Patrica’s respnonse.

  8. The city is considering putting multi-story buildings where the parking lots they own now are? *gasp* How dare they!

  9. Frankly, the potential outcome which scares me most is this author having “control” over anything that affects me. This opinion piece is an example of inability to drift up to the “helicopter view” to see the whole picture of what our city is trying to accomplish. She seems mired in low-level detail like little sections on page 47 and implies that secret conspiracies are being employed to trick people (very FoxNews). Multiple ideas have been floated for what to do with that parking lot and no decisions have been made. These tangents and accusations distort the overall discussion. Come on.

    • Oh my! This comment is short on argument and long on personal attack and misrepresentation.

      Linda Scott properly points out that forming a redevelopment authority is a very strong measure, which has broad reaching implications. It is not something to take lightly.

      Look at the checkered past of the BRA, especially in the Ed Logue days which generated textbook cases of bad decision making. We certainly want better for Watertown.

      All Linda is saying is that creating a redevelopment authority is a very consequential measure. There are other ways of accomplishing the same goal.

      Don’t blow things out of proportion for effect.

  10. I’m not outright opposed to establishing a redevelopment authority, but I think the author hit the nail on the head when she rightly pointed out that a recommendation for such, at this point in time, seems premature. As the draft plan will be reviewed by the Council and Planning Board next week, these questions are entirely appropriate.

    Why must the city transfer control of the parking lots to the redevelopment authority before feasibility studies are conducted? Our MBTA zoning compliance isn’t predicated on these plots. What’s preventing the city, or the council, from commissioning feasibility studies without a redevelopment authority?

    Responses to the city’s Polis survey (Fall 2023) showed support for a number of options for the parking lots and, more broadly, for additional greenspace (I’ll include excerpts from the Polis survey at the end of this post). None advocated for an all-consuming, tetris-like configuration of buildings on these lots (as presented on the cover of the Watertown Square Area Plan draft).

    Commenters (both on previous articles and at public meetings) have highlighted the distinct lack of parks and courtyards within the plan area – esp. between Charles River Rd, North Beacon, Arsenal, Mt. Auburn, and Summer St. A redevelopment authority isn’t necessary to create a park; just look at the process the city followed for Walker Pond.

    But, let’s also not lose sight of the fact that the parking lot behind the Library provides easy access to the library, city hall, and Saltonstall Field. How will the loss of this lot affect these destinations? Will the feasibility studies investigate the potential impacts on library patronage or public meeting attendance?

    Ultimately, the draft plan, as submitted, is lacking. If the city or its consultants believe a redevelopment authority is urgently needed, then the recommendation in the plan should explicitly outline the goals, responsibilities, composition, powers, and expectations of that body.

    Relevant responses to the Polis survey:

    “I would be more likely to travel to Watertown Square if the large parking lot was a park/green space instead.”
    “Parking lots are underutilized and could be used for pop-up activities and events in Watertown Square.”
    “Behind CVS put parking underground; repurpose the surface area as a public plaza allowing for outdoor dining, large plantings and public art”
    “would like to see the parking area behind CVS to have some trees & bushes to soften the parking area. Just a parking jungle right now.”
    “YES to putting parking underground behind the square and using the parking lot for dining, art and green space!”
    “The parking lot behind CVS needs more trees.”
    “We need more trees everywhere in Watertown and the Square is a prime example.”
    “The MBTA car barn should be green space for all Watertown residents to enjoy rather than high rise housing.”

  11. Thank you Joe for always being so clear sighted. Many of my neighbors have told me they don’t go to meetings to offer their input because, “nobody listens anyway.” I believe that’s a very pervasive attitude and it comes from a long history of decisions made behind closed doors. For decisions about the future of Watertown Square as important and permanent as the ones before us now, the town needs to make a larger effort to reach all residents. Ads in the Boston Globe and announcements on social media only reach a very small proportion of residents. We need a mailing or a leafleting to every resident. The decisions that are being made now about our futures are virtually irreversible – no ‘do overs.’ Let’s get it right the first time.

  12. This hair-on-fire letter, starting with its title implying that someone is about to secretly take “control,” was blown way out of proportion. A redevelopment authority is an idea (only an idea) floated to solve a PROBLEM which this writer ignores: i.e. what to do with an ugly parking lot which absolutely should be repurposed, in a way that meets legal requirements. We should have municipal parking in our city center, and a garage is the best way to do this in a small footprint while opening space for other needs. (If you’re too scared to park in a garage, you won’t have to)

    From page 47: “Redevelopment of the parking areas behind Main Street businesses, requires a public/private partnership both to deliver the right mix of uses but also because the construction of a structured parking garage is the ONLY WAY TO CONVERT THE EXISTING PARKING LOTS INTO DEVELOPABLE PARCELS. A public/private partnership is also the best framework for exploring strategies for including affordable retail space geared to local small businesses in the new buildings and nearby locations. … The most effective strategy for pursuing such a partnership is to first create a redevelopment authority and then request that the City Council transfer the lots to the control of the authority.”

    Nothing is nefarious here. But this writer is attempting to turn readers against the City Council and the overall Plan by implying they’re secretly conspiring to “take control” of the municipal parking lot. That’s dishonest and inaccurate. It also fails to offer solutions to the problem the Plan is attempting to address on page 47. So let me recap: the letter creates fear while offering no proposals for how to solve the problem.

    • Kathi I agree 100%!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The only nefarous sutff happening is the anit-housing campaign. Everytime I read a letter from the people who don’t want any change or just whar the asks, i feel like they are tying puppet streings on me. I’d say it was manipulation but thart is too weeak a word. They use the idea of building character, reisdnet control and broken process and when all esle fail they use the boogeyman. I am having to move far from my programthan I am of “redevelopment authoriy.” – quikc get the torches and pitchforks!!!
      I dont agree with the prohousing people 100% becasue they are accepting this chickenpoo plan The final plan is because the city council got scared of the anti-housing people. They call people names, run smear campigns and then there is the stuff they post on Facebook – i saw that middle finger. So no surprise the city council turned tail. But at leaset the pro housing group is so reasonable. i get it accept the bird in the hand even if it a piece of birdpoo. I read their article and they offer very good improvements! Again they do it with reason, logic and no manipulation. There is a crisis and tha tis a facts! Somebody need to solve it and htat is a fact! Birdpoo plans don’s solve it adn that is afact! They give reasons why like this is unsustainable or this is hurting people or this causeing more unafforability.
      The anit ouisng group gives zero reasonss. WHy? Are their reasons bad? Like do they want to rain in the money when they sell? Do they want less college and young people around? Do they want more of one kind of people? Do they want pay more taxes so they get a write off? Do they want their car to be the only car in the parkling lot or on the road? Do they want to kil the MBTA? I have no idea but it does make me think that in they end they dont’ want to help others. They feel so entitled to this area like they have been here for centuries or something.. I don’t get it.

  13. It’s encouraging and I welcome that there’s still another meeting to come regarding this whole mess. The original timeline called for the Planning Board to vote on this in May and the City Council vote on it in June. It’s now the middle of the month and I get the impression that at least some City Council members are listening to residents concerns and are not 100% sold on the current proposal

    Both of these events tell me that there’s still more work to be done and more voices to be heard, and that there *SHOULD* be more meetings
    in order to work the bugs and shortcomings out. We only have one chance to do this and its critical that it be done right.

    However, it’s particularly frustrating that there are still those that have dug their heels in and stubbornly dismiss and refuse to accept *ANY* discussion or vote on the 1,701 units required by the MBTA Community’s Act.

    As much as I’d welcome further discussion, until an option for the required 1,701 units is presented, there should be no vote by either
    the planning board or City Council regarding any future plans of the square.

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