OP-ED: Casting a Better Vision for Galen Street

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As Southside Residents, we are excited to see the Watertown Square Area Plan’s investments in our neighborhood. We appreciate the Watertown Square Area Plan’s focus on making this area a destination. That kind of investment is sorely needed—and the residents of this neighborhood deserve better.

Since the arrival of the Mass Turnpike back in the 1960’s, Galen Street has become an extended Pike frontage road for Exit 17, catering towards cut through commuters from Belmont and beyond, rather than Watertown Southside residents. As a result, Galen Street is overloaded with gas stations and tire shops, all oriented towards commuters. Its narrow sidewalks and haphazard parking make it unpleasant to walk down the street and makes it difficult to patronize the non-commuter businesses that remain. 

 From this context it’s exciting to see the plan’s planned public realm investments in the Southside aimed at residents — rather than already over-served commuters — mainly through rezoning to widen sidewalks and the consolidation of 5 bus routes at one hub near Watertown Yard. 

The bus consolidation also makes the Southside the most transit-connected neighborhood in the city. However, the proposed zoning unreasonably smothers that potential. The zoning laid out in the most recent plan needs dramatic improvement to take advantage of the new bus hub and allow Galen Street to incrementally redevelop. Our neighbors deserve safe and accessible sidewalks and businesses that actually serve us.

The proposed Southside zoning plans for new housing on the MBTA Bus Yard Site north of the bus hub, which is a prime location for dense housing. However, it fails to meet the needs of the neighborhood on Galen Street between Aldrich Road and Boyd Street. 

 The most recent draft rezones the west side of Galen Street to “Neighborhood Mixed Use” (NMU), which essentially locks in the buildings as they exist. The max height for the NMU zone is 2.5 stories— even though many of the buildings on the west side of Galen Street are already 2.5 stories or taller! As the city manager has said, it doesn’t make economic sense to tear down a two-story building to replace it with another two-story building. No one is going to do that. So, what we have—what was there in 1950, 1970, 1990—is what we’re stuck with in perpetuity. 

Blocking incremental redevelopment on Galen Street is bad for multiple reasons:

1 – The NMU zoning locks us out of infrastructure improvements, such as new, wider sidewalks on Galen Street.

Galen Street currently has narrow sidewalks, under 8 feet wide, that make for a difficult, unpleasant walk, and pit adding street trees against maintaining parking for businesses, since there is not enough space for both. The Plan solves this problem by increasing front setbacks to widen sidewalks to at least 12 feet wide, providing more space for pedestrians and street trees without sacrificing parking. However, the increase in sidewalk width is tied to redevelopment of the adjacent parcel. By blocking redevelopment on the west side of Galen Street through restrictive NMU zoning, the plan essentially blocks the addition of wider sidewalks on the west side of Galen Street, reducing residents’ quality of life and reducing foot traffic, hurting local retail stores.

2 – The NMU blocks adding housing in the most transit accessible part of the city, which is in opposition to our climate goals.

The Comprehensive Plan seeks to reduce VMT by 50% by 2050 and uses “Percentage of residents within a ten-minute walk (approx. half-mile) of a transit option” as a metric for success in reaching our climate goals. With the creation of the Watertown Yard Hub, the city has 5 bus routes (soon to be 7 with the MBTA Bus Network Redesign) accessible at the same stop, with the 70 bus not far away. However, the proposed zoning does not take the new bus hub into account. Most of Galen Street is a 5-10-minute walk (¼ mile) from Watertown Yard, and yet half of it is zoned NMU, which is not likely to result in new housing units. In such a connected area, we should be planning for denser buildings to take advantage of the numerous transit connections and bike paths, rather than locking in low density zoning across the street from a bus hub. 

This 6-unit condo building across from the bus hub at Galen Street and Aldrich Road would not be allowed in the NMU zone.

3 – According to the NMU Criteria, the NMU on Galen Street is Misapplied.
The City states that “the Plan has been refined to include a new NMU 2+ story district at key points where taller buildings would have the most impacts on existing single-family areas. (pg. 56)” While this may be applicable in other parts of Watertown, Galen Street and the Southside is a wonderful mix of different kinds of housing types and is not a single-family area. Only 8% of Southside residents live in a single-family home. Nearly a majority of residents live in multi-family (4+ unit) buildings. Almost as many residents live in three families as residents who live in single family homes. No part of the Southside is zoned for exclusive single-family use. Therefore, it is clear that any protection of single-family homes on the Southside prioritizes a very small slice of Southside housing stock and ignores the diversity of housing types that is the character and fabric of our neighborhood. Moreover, no other proposed NMU zone has the rich transit connectivity that the Galen St zone has, and it is irresponsible to lock in low density land uses next to the largest bus hub west of Harvard Square. 

Towards a Better Future for Galen Street and the Southside

To address these problems with the current Southside zoning in the Watertown Square Area Plan, we propose the following changes:

  1. The west side of Galen Street should be zoned WSQ1, as per the April 4th plan. The extra height (from 2.5 to 3.5 stories) should provide more favorable circumstances for redevelopment, which will deliver tangible infrastructure improvements like larger sidewalks and more space for street trees. It will also increase the housing capacity adjacent to the consolidated bus hub and close to the river bike paths, a location with more than enough transportation options to support modest increases in density and vehicle-lite/free households. There is already a 4-story building at 69 Galen Street, so there is context for the 3.5 story zone. Since these lots are also smaller than the lots on the east side of Galen Street, WSQ2 may also be appropriate to make individual lots developable, rather than requiring lot consolidation.
  2. The east side of Galen Street Should be zoned as WSQ2. This block contains several larger lots (¼ to ~½ an acre) in very close proximity to the consolidated bus hub, making them excellent opportunities for denser transit-oriented development. The height of the WSQ2 would serve as a comparable step-down transition from the 80’ height of 66 Galen on one end, and the 9 story Williams Street Condos on the other. WSQ2 here is also consistent with the already proposed WSQ2 zone on Water and Hunt Streets abutting Nonantum Road. 
  3. A TOD overlay should be established for the Southside lots in the study area within a ¼ mile of the consolidated bus hub, that would allow for by-right reductions in parking minimums. There is already plentiful parking in the area, as the 66 Galen/88 Water development has 435 public parking spaces in its garage and the current MBTA yard has a 200-space parking lot, so new developments should be encouraged to use these existing facilities, rather than building their own individual piecemeal garages, which will only drive up the cost of development and reduce space for more housing. 

Taken together, these changes will incentivize sorely needed investment in Galen Street and the Southside, providing new infrastructure while building up a customer base to support new businesses that serve Southside residents, not than pike commuters. 

As the Watertown Square Plan says more directly, “… brick and mortar retail establishments can only succeed when there is both a critical mass of households within a 2-3-minute walk and enough synergies between retail businesses that a walkable urban destination is created. As a result, the call for an increase in housing supply in Watertown Square is as much a place-making imperative as it is a response to the regional housing crisis. (pg. 7).”

None of these changes will happen overnight. There has been 70 years of pike-oriented development on Galen Street. It will take many years to reorient that corridor towards Southside residents. We believe this pace of change is a good thing, as incremental improvements over many years will reduce the impact of development on the neighborhood, and allow residents and commuters to adapt to changes, rather than experiencing large shocks like with redevelopment on the Pleasant Street and Arsenal Street corridors. 

Overall, we look to a future for our children and grandchildren where Galen Street is again the vibrant heart of the Southside, full of life and commerce, rather than a cut-through commuter frontage road with no possibility of change. 

Clara Bui
Amanda Ghilardi
Sam Ghilardi
Emma Jackman
Garett Kopczynski
Nadia Smith

4 thoughts on “OP-ED: Casting a Better Vision for Galen Street

  1. I agree with your suggestions! I am South Side adjacent in C-9. I often wish more was done to invigorate this section of town. The California Street side of the river is not in great shape compared to the Charles River Rd side. I know this is DCR territory but the land that surrounds it can be populated with much more housing and small businesses. I think the redone footbridge there needs a lot more foot traffic and/or an adjacent commercial row near the pool. Maybe one day we can have a school there again.
    I love the new bus terminal and the way car flows through the intersection there with the new stop lights. I feel much safer as a pedestrian walking there, and I don’t feel at standstill anymore when I am in my car. For years I took the 504 into Boston for work. I’d get off at Newton Corner and walk because by the time the bus got down Galen, I was 2/3 of the way home. I hope that has changed.
    I also think 66 Galen Street is a great addition. It is not overbearing and it adds the sensation that there is something there in that corner of Watertown; that it is more than a no man land between Watertown and Newton or offramp for the pike. I want to see an infrastructure re-vamp to widen the sidewalks and set back the business because it is hard to crane one’s neck to see the business signs. New Ginza, the pizzerias, home improvement shops and other stores need to be showcased.
    And it always great to have new neighbors who add to the community!

  2. Nicely expressed and I agree with these suggestions. Housing above businesses with wide sidewalks and trees create the same neighborhood vitality we often admire when we visit European towns! Would make a lovely walkable Galen St.

  3. 6 people, 3 pairs of renters, 2 pairs live on Derby St in one house, the other either next door on Derby or on Aldrich Rd. So what I gather here is you don’t like cars or anything associated with them. Along with your only supporting non auto businesses, the way I see it is the only business on Galen St you would support may be the Asian restaurant. Sidewalks are fine, probably standard width as throughout the City. Heavens forbid you should actually have to talk to someone or move aside as a common courtesy. Here’s the BIG question for you, has anyone of you or your friends applied for the new 160 Main St apartments, perfect opportunity to say, ” get in on the ground floor” or any other floor. This is what you preach, SOOOOOOO? Great time to move away from Galen St before all those automobiles you so despise are increasing from their commutes in the land of affordability out in Metro West!

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