LETTER: Watertown Business Coalition’s Asks for the Watertown Square Area Plan

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To Our Neighbors on the City Council & Planning Board,

We are writing to you today on behalf of the business community in and around Watertown Square. The Watertown Business Coalition (WBC) considers itself a community organization, so the thoughts presented herein are a balance between what is best for all stakeholders (residents, businesses, property owners, nonprofits and more …) in Watertown Square.

The WBC has been actively engaged with the community since the Watertown Square Area Plan (WSAP) efforts began in Fall 2023, from holding WBC community events, kitchen table conversations, business roundtables, one-on-one meetings, and taking part in the several phases of planning run by the City.

A myriad of ideas and suggestions have come from this process to lead us towards the proposed redesign and transformation of the Watertown Square Area. Two themes that continue to dominate conversation are traffic and housing. Our organization is not here to solve for the traffic issues nor determine the correct amount of housing units to zone for. The consultant team has made it clear that we have traffic congestion now and we’ll have congestion after the redesign. We also understand that the maximum number of housing units allowed by this plan may … or may not … be built.

As a community, we need to make a concerted effort with continued planning and community input to make the reimagining of this area a better Watertown Square for ALL. With this said, the WBC has distilled this down to “5 ASKS” as the Watertown Square Area Plan moves into its next phase.

Housing & Zoning

In general, the WBC supports the zoning plan and the additional housing units that new zoning would allow for. Under the topic of zoning – we at the WBC have two asks:

1. “Become an inviting, supportive small business destination”

An Affordable Spaces Crisis for Small Business is developing right before our eyes! Generally, re-development only makes rents more expensive for business tenants. A great local example is Bow Market in Somerville, which is a unique collection of small retailers with affordable rents which draws from Somerville and beyond. As the City considers its final zoning plan – we ask that they save some space for unique small businesses which provide a regional draw to the Square – a space where people talk, sit, eat and play. Some concepts to consider include:

  • Small Business Innovation District
  • Area for affordable small spaces and pop-ups / kiosks
  • Economic incentives for small businesses
  • Bow Market example, “A collection of places and spaces”

This concept encourages family-owned, minority owned, women-owned businesses that could make a difference in our community. We ask that the City consider allocating space & zoning for an innovative small business collective. We don’t need big spaces to make a big impact.

2. “Make it a neighborhood”

More housing units in the Square will create a “captive audience” to make it easier for people to engage locally. We have seen recent plans & successful developments in Watertown, from Boylston Properties at Arsenal Yards and a future example from Alexandria at the Watertown Mall site. Building out the Watertown Square Area Plan in full has the same elements of the above mentioned projects. Additionally, Belmont, Lexington & Winchester Centers are local examples of successful downtown business districts. At the same time, how much rental housing do you need to support a thriving business district?

There is a balance between satisfying the MBTA Law, the business need for a captive audience, and satisfying the market demands of housing and affordable housing supply. The “by right development” is something we understand has to happen under the MBTA Law but are we allowing too much? Do we want to pass off these large areas of our most prized real estate to developers?

As the changes take place in the square, the City should ask: “Are there diminishing returns to giving up too much control?” Indeed, it is time to make Watertown Square a neighborhood, but this should be done through impactful, thoughtful development which balances benefits to new residents as much as it benefits existing residents. Examples include additional commercial parking requirements, community space and a more vibrant downtown. We should also be vigilant about balancing living in a new Watertown Square and “getting there” from elsewhere.

We agree in principle with the tiered zoning approach but ask that major emphasis on setbacks and recesses on the top two floors in each zone. The potential for continuous, large-scale buildings doesn’t seem to create welcoming space.

Development in the heart of Watertown Square should always help to fulfill community needs.

Our ask to the City is to prioritize making Watertown Square a Neighborhood-For-All, by continuing to maintain a degree of control over our destiny as zoning is finalized.

Watertown Square Redesign

The re-mapping yields back over 150,000 square feet for pedestrians, creativity and maybe even a few new reasons to linger in the Square. Activating the “Delta” as a usable space to gather and house additional businesses and kiosks will bring additional vibrancy to the Square. The creation of a new city block by extending Baptist Walk through the parking lot allows for additional creativity for commerce and living space – both crucial to a New Watertown Square.

The WBC is generally in favor of the design which prioritizes pedestrians over traffic, more open space and a more inviting environment for our city’s residents. As we think about the implementation of the redesign, we have 3 asks:

3. “I still need to park my car”

Lack of convenient on-street parking has hurt Main Street businesses for years. In order to progress to our next chapter, people need ample, easy, accessible parking for the Square to become a business destination. The WBC urges the ability for residents and visitors alike to be able to park in the Square. This will be a balance between the City’s decisions on how to implement the plan & what is required of developers as private capital also changes the Square.

We ask the City consider the following:

  • Balance increased parking with improved aesthetics in Square or underground parking (see Trader Joe’s in Allston)
  • New developments need to allocate spaces for community & commercial use
  • Consider incentives to visit the square (first hour – free parking?)
  • Do not rely on a single source of parking – diversified ways to get in/out

Once someone has parked, biked, walked (or maybe even Wada-Hopped) they still need to find their way to their destination …

4. “Help my customers get to my front door”

This ask is as much about different modes of transportation as it is about communication, awareness & marketing. The City will need to commit to communicating the changes in our City to residents and businesses here (so they can plan) but also to shoppers and entrepreneurs outside of Town. Once we get people into our square, let’s help folks navigate to their next destination, whether it be signage to restaurants and parking or wayfinding to an enlarged, beautiful green space by the Charles River.

This new “neighborhood” needs a full on marketing plan with great communication and wayfinding. The WBC asks that the City invest in Economic Development personnel to carry the phases of this plan that go beyond re-zoning and roadwork.

5. “Celebrate & highlight our existing Historical & Cultural assets”

Watertown Square celebrates nearly 400 Years of History in & around this Square. Soon a Watertown Square Cultural District (WSCD) will also emerge to highlight dozens of Cultural Assets from the Armenian Museum of America to our world class Library to the historic Fowle House to the Charles River.

A funded and well-governed WSCD could make a difference in terms of making the Square more interesting, vibrant and inviting.

We ask for the continued support for the Watertown Square Cultural District from the City of Watertown as we re-imagine our Square.

As we collectively reimagine Watertown Square, we urge the City Council & Planning Board to prioritize these recommendations in the upcoming planning and implementation phases. By adopting a balanced approach to housing and zoning, fostering a small business-friendly environment, ensuring adequate parking and celebrating our rich historical and cultural assets, we can create a Watertown Square that truly serves all stakeholders.

Investing in economic development personnel and committing to clear communication are essential steps in this transformation. Let’s work together to make Watertown Square a vibrant, accessible, and thriving community hub that attracts residents, visitors, and entrepreneurs alike, fostering a stronger, more connected community for years to come.

Thank you all for your continued service to this community.

Watertown Business Coalition Leadership Team

Watertown Business Coalition



3 thoughts on “LETTER: Watertown Business Coalition’s Asks for the Watertown Square Area Plan

  1. “There is a balance between satisfying the MBTA Law, the business need for a captive audience, and satisfying the market demands of housing and affordable housing supply. The “by right development” is something we understand has to happen under the MBTA Law but are we allowing too much? Do we want to pass off these large areas of our most prized real estate to developers?”

    And this plan tonight is the balance. The study area at one point was all “by right” which would have allowed for 6k plus units. Now it is a few spots which allows for 3k plus units in total. Zoning capacity already takes into account the existing units there which are around 2k. This plan would only add a thousand more or so.

    To be within community and wanting a voice for ALL is to realize that there are several who will exit the community due to unstainable housing costs and rents. These residents will never darken your doorstep again, nor will the individuals who will be forever barred from entry. This plan is the compromise. It will help some, not many but some. Unfortunately mere compliance with the law in order to retain control will produce the aforementioned diminishing returns since only businesses with longevity or large market share/area will be able to survive in such a context.

    As for historical accuracy, the history of Watertown is one of slightly more urban neighborhoods, industrial squares and open farmland. This suburbanization of Watertown is a very recent phenomenon that happened in the past 30-40 years. Watertown has never been Belmont or Lexington. Those bedroom communities were not the Ellis Island of the Boston area. They are as lively and dynamic as painting drying, and mimicking them may not be the dream scenario it is cracked up to be.

    I ask that businesses who think otherwise speak up tonight in support of the plan on the table, especially if you do not agree with all the points in this letter. For example, I agree with setbacks for the first floor since it allows for showcasing. A reduction in “by right” area or heights does not make economic sense in terms of business well-being or housing affordability. Whether you are part this organization or not, you are a part of Watertown, and your needs also should be voiced.

  2. Fantastic job by this group. Thank you for caring about the future of Watertown and putting together a well thought out, clear and concise plan to work WITH town leaders, not against them. If everyone is fighting one another, nothing will get done. Now it is the town’s responsibility to listen to the voices of its taxpayers and implement these ideas to best benefit the residents of Watertown, not the national developers who will come into town, turn this place upside down then walk away counting the cash in their hands and on to the next town in another state. Also, so much emphasis has been placed on housing. But not enough on creating businesses and revenue streams for these new residents to spend at and increase the economy and livelihood of small businesses in the Square. Just last night at the community meeting, I heard multiple mentions of no ground floor retail in these new housing developments. WHY NOT? What is the purpose of creating housing if those who live there will simply travel elsewhere to spend? Watertown Sq is a dead spot in our town, banks, auto repair shops, vape shop – these are not places for folks to gather, connect and truly make an impact on the economy in Watertown. I want to spend my time and money in my town and ideally within a few blocks of where I live (West End). Give me somewhere to go and people WILL come. Thanks to the WBC for this effort. I am impressed with the work that went into this and the way it was presented. Wish you all were in charge of this town!

  3. The most important take from this letter ……”Do we want to pass off these large areas of our most prized real estate to developers?”
    Additional thoughts ….
    Watertown IS NOT a “transportation hub”. Until the MBTA improves service, people will continue to avoid pubic transportation and drive and traffic will be more horrific than it us now.

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