OP-ED: Reflections on the First Watertown Square Plan Hearing

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By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

Part 1: Thomas Jefferson: “That government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.”

At last Thursday night’s Joint Hearing of the City Council and the Planning Board, the purpose was to gather community information and evaluate the Watertown Square Area Plan.

According to Watertown News: “A large group of people supported the plan…” and “A significant number of people spoke out against parts of the project.”

This description is both brief and accurate. Many Watertown residents went to the podium to announce their “strong support” for this plan and/or to support it with the caveat that they’d like even more density.

One by one, community members, finding no reason to look deeper into this plan, went up to the podium and started their comments with a cookie-cutter like “I strongly support this plan” and “I don’t think it goes far enough.”

They’d be a bit more convincing if some residents who agreed with this position hadn’t chosen to hold up their middle fingers and hiss behind the backs of those people who had more substantive and nuanced questions to be answered. Every Watertown resident is entitled to be heard, without such disrespectful antics.

This “Bigger is Always Better” crowd seemed to follow the same script, while the opposition tended to be a bit more colorful, multi-issued and individualistic and came bearing specific details of things to be looked at and/or changed.

The first speaker out of the gate that night referred to this plan as “government organized chaos.” He compared the proposal for an above-ground parking garage behind CVS as a “reoccurring cancer” that has been rejected by Watertown residents in the past. He pointed out areas in the square that should be counted in the 1,701 mandate. Overall, a colorful start, with a rousing round of applause for this gentleman’s thoughts.

This equally committed group of residents who were not yet convinced that the Watertown Square Area Plan was fully developed spoke out. Their comments provided an interesting contrast and added a lot of food for thought. They included questions about traffic, structured green space and creating connections between neighborhoods.

No one said, “Throw the whole thing out in the trash.” No. These Watertown citizens were willing to consider this plan, but needed more details or changes to some parts of the plan to feel it was most effective and appropriate for Watertown. They made some interesting discoveries from their study of the plan that added to the City Council’s and Planning Board’s knowledge.

Here’s one glaring and concerning detail pointed out by one of the last residents to speak, which seemed to catch the attention of all of the architects, planners and City Councilors on the dais that night:

After all of the “official” months of scrutiny, this discrepancy seemed to have been missed: On the left is the map shown on June 13 to the City Council and Planning Board.

It included a map of the area at the corner of Church and Summer Streets It implied that even with the whole CVS parking lot redeveloped (1), that the property above that, where the First Parish Church and Watertown Savings Bank are would retain a large green area (2). On the right is a zoning map from this same study (and not shown that evening). Notice the blue area, indicating that buildings up to 4+ (5) stories would be allowed to be built there (2). That is the same lot as the green space in the map on the left. That means all of that green space promised in the left map could be obliterated and built up to the second tallest buildings allowed in the Square.

As the resident described this discrepancy, you could see Planning Board members flipping through pages and furious writing by Councilors and Planning staff. This, my friends, is why we need all community eyes on all of this. This is why everyone in the community needs to be reached. This is why all portions of this plan need to be separated out for a separate review, so “oversights” like this can be caught and fixed, before irreparable harm can be done.

Part 2: Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much.” Helen Keller

In Part 1, we looked at some of the important issues that were raised by the public at the Joint Hearing of the City Council and The Planning Board.

My contribution to the conversation at that joint meeting on June 13 was more about our broken community process, which is highlighted fully in the road that led us to this hearing. These were my remarks:

“This very important meeting was being mishandled early on in the process.

First, the meeting was scheduled in a room in the library. Given the turnout at the other meetings, people wouldn’t have been able to fit in this room.

Then the very document to be discussed was on-line. That’s fine for people who operate in that realm, but exclusionary for everyone else.

The City, with pressure from residents, started printing copies of this important document, and then proceeded to dole them out to the library and senior center, 10 or 15 at a time.

We were told at the library that many people came in looking for a copy, but the last had already been taken. It became a full-time job for citizens to actually get a copy to look at.

Then there were the signs! Not a one until a few days before the meeting! The electronic sign was unreadable. The electronic sign in back of it was better … but it was advertising the Mt. Auburn Street work…being done in October.

Two days before the meeting, a small “sandwich board” sign showed up on the Delta. That was something, until one side of the sign broke loose, flew over the top, making both sides of the sign unreadable. After a while, it just got silly!

A lot of money at Staples later, a friend and I began going door-to-door, handing out hundreds of flyers to residents who not only had no idea about this meeting, but were totally unfamiliar with the topics to be discussed. I might add the demographics of the folks that I spoke with were all over the place, young and old, owner and renter, across many cultures.

One older gentleman shook his head and said, “I used to follow politics, but then I realized that the City would just make sure that the people who agreed with them knew about the meetings. I gave up after that.”

This city needs to do better!

1. These large topics need to be discussed separately in a series of hearings. Just this afternoon, for instance, the Watertown Business Coalition weighed in with some thoughtful ideas that should be part of the public discussion.

2. Postcards need to go to every home in Watertown in a timely manner, with the dates, times, locations, and topics for each of these hearings.

3. Better availability of the printed Watertown Square Area Plan is essential!

4. If we’re running a Democracy here, we’ve got to start acting like it!”

At the end of this meeting, a date was set in two weeks (June 27) for the next hearing. A councilor, responding to critiques of the limited way the City shared information with the Watertown public, asked if postcards should be used to make sure all residents were informed. The City manager responded that something like that would be “impossible.”

No other plan, like moving the meeting back a week or two so that postcards could be possible and all residents informed, was suggested. Actions (and inactions) speak louder than words. It looks like informing all Watertown residents is not a City priority … yet. I am not discouraged. As the famous Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

Post Script: The next day, in conversation with a woman who has attended most City meetings for years, she said, “There were a sizable amount of people at that meeting that I’ve never seen at a meeting before. They didn’t speak. They just watched.”

I said, “Yeah…I thought so too, and when my friend and I were heading back to our seats after speaking, some were mouthing, ‘Thank you.’ I wondered what that was about.”

It’s a start. Watertown City Manager George Proakis is on the clock, and he seems to be quite aware of this. The sooner these things are decided, the fewer citizens’ questions he’ll have to answer. (And there are many).

Relying on those who provide him with unquestioning political cover seems to be his preference. In the world of politics, that’s certainly understandable.

Tomorrow: Part 3: “If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.” Mark Twain.

Send letters to watertownmanews@gmail.com Note: letters may not be posted until the following day, or later.

21 thoughts on “OP-ED: Reflections on the First Watertown Square Plan Hearing

  1. I would like to see less emphasis on grandious planning, and a greater focus to maintain the basic infrastructures we already have. The redesign of the square might further congest peripheral road connections which are already strained to capacity. Before the square becomes transformed, thought is needed for the impact on our connecting roadways, and whether the city can realistically support inevitable redirections to our current patterns of traffic.

    • My question is who gets the kick backs for this? At the moment the square is passable in a relatively convenient amount of time. I f its not broke don t fix it. All these expensive rentals ate driving up already too high rental costs and will cause more uneeded and unwanted congestion! Put money into affordable housing somewhere outside of the square. Raise teachers salaries. Fix all the delapated roads. Update structures of sll bridges. This is what should ne the town s priorities not looking more like a city with all its problems and it isn t.

      • Charges of “kickbacks” with literally no evidence of such activity are not constructive. The construction of additional housing, which is desperately needed, will generate tax revenue to fix the problems cited here. And Watertown has been a city for 44 years; calling it a town doesn’t change that fact.

    • Hi Edward,

      The devil is in the details, that’s for sure. I’ve sat in enough of these planning sessions to know that the stock answer is a denial of any additional traffic in these “traffic studies” that are being done. I believe that Will Brownsberger said at the Progressive Watertown meeting that we’ll never be able to emulate Europe…we’re too spread out. He did say that we can do our best to have an excellent transit system and the most efficient vehicles that we can have. In Part Four I have a suggestion regarding thinking ahead for traffic in the Square.

  2. We have “studied” Watertown Square over and over again and spent monies to listen to “experts”. Now we have plans to build 3000+ units with 0.5 parking spots for each?? Where are all these other vehicles going to park? Remember when all the apartments were built on Arsenal St? Did our schools get overcrowded? Of course they did…did our streets become more congested, yup. Why are we considering more rentals? These high-end rentals are not the answer.
    Shouldn’t we focus on properties for ownership? Property owners are invested in the community and care about the long-term health of Watertown.
    Overcrowding is overcrowding no matter how you look at it.

    • Hi Wendy,

      I share your concerns. More about this in Parts 3 and 4. Here’s the thing…if more people who live here are not informed and are not given enough information to participate (or are given misleading info) these concerns cannot be addressed. Then Special interest groups step into the void and make decisions for us. You are one of many, I assure you, who are fine with growth as long as it’s not knee-jerk growth that is simply designed to cater to large developers.

  3. Jean Woodward

    I agree with Wendy Rocca that there should an emphasis on developing more homes to own in Watertow.n

  4. Stop insulting me and everyone who participated in the planning meetings since last October with the following: “One by one, community members, finding no reason to look deeper into this plan, went up to the podium and started their comments with a cookie-cutter like “I strongly support this plan” and “I don’t think it goes far enough.” ”

    Many of us who support this plan have spent many hours in meetings and reading the documents available on the project website. We are knowledgeable and we know what we want. And don’t summon the ghost of Helen Keller – she would not agree with you.

    • Apparently the only acceptable opinions are the ones the prolific writer of these highly one-sided articles supports.

      • The writer of these articles has a viewpoint, yes, but is just pointing out facts and issues that should be taken into consideration.

        In the past, criticism of the manner in which development is handled has been waved off summarily and ignored.

        It is about time that we are taking seriously the wants and needs of citizens. We should take all perspectives into consideration which will broaden our outlook and make fore more vibrant democracy.

        • This isn’t a simple presentation of a perspective on the issue. It’s highly loaded with emotions and innuendo about those with a different view. Such a perspective needs to be called out for what it is.

          • Paul, there is plenty of “emotion and innuendo” on all sides and all shades of opinion on these issues. You don’t agree with the writer. Leave it at that.

            I feel that some folks have denigrated their neighbors who desire to be careful about development calling them backward and afraid of change. In most cases, that is not true.

            In the time I have lived in Watertown (over 16 years), there has been a distinct lack of transparency and coupled with a phony public process surrounding development issues. It has come across as profoundly anti-democratic. There are a lot of open wounds that have not healed and that may be why you detect a certain degree of emotion.

    • Oh, so you don’t like it much when the shoe is on the other foot and you feel that someone is insulting you by misrepresenting your viewpoint. Karma can be painful.

      And I have often in the past heard someone summoning the ghost of Ayn Rand.

      Unfortunately our community is very divided. Unless we can have productive problem solving conversations, the result will be a poor future for our town.

  5. Kathi,
    Many of us have attended these Watertown Square Meetings over the last few months. From those meetings we have learned a lot about how dense the “planners” could make our city. Those “catch phrases” that you speak of have come up quite a bit from those in favor of the current plan. Historically, Watertown has not been proficient at planning as evidenced by such limited “green” space and/or parks. The current areal extent of our parks is far below the suggested acreage of approximately ten acres of parkland per thousand residents (National Recreation and Park Association) for our current population.
    The current plan has buildings that would cover the area from Mt Auburn Street to the Library. There is no planned “green” space in this confined area. Also, the one green area shown at the corner of Church and Summer Streets could be later developed. This development just makes the shortfall of open space much worse.
    The only potential for “green” space is the city-owned parcels behind the CVS, the lot on Church Street, and the lots behind City Hall and the Library. These parcels are important spaces that the city should control with great care.
    Thoughtful planning would incorporate amenities for our residents (and future residents). The current proposed plan adds far too much density with limited amenities. The planners should be directed to show a more reasonable plan to develop the “square”. Why wasn’t a plan proposed that would show 1701 units, which would meet the MBTA requirement? In preparing this reduced plan, the new units recently completed on Main Street across from the City Hall and those that have been approved and yet to be constructed should be included. Watertown has added significant housing on Pleasant Street and Arsenal Street over the last 10 years. We have added approximately only seven acres of “green” space at Walkers Pond.
    The council, planning board, and residents should be provided all the options, not just a massive densification of our suburban (not urban) community.

    • We have lots of green space by the river, a great area for recreation, and Watertown is lucky to have it. Residents have differing opinions about the value of additional housing vs. additional green space.

      I do NOT endorse a plan for 1701 unit capacity, that’s far too little. Housing is an immediate and critical emergency. Building more housing, regardless of the impact on density, is absolutely necessary for future economic growth (whether you understand why or not… in the same way that scientific principles operate whether you believe in them or not). Let’s remember that exactly no one is suggesting to build 5-story buildings in the middle of single-family and two-family neighborhoods. The Watertown Square Plan area is the exact right place for this density.

      The future will look different from the past, and many people seem unable to change. This writer gains nothing by insulting people, saying that they’re following in lock step without thinking.

  6. I’ve been following the progress of this disaster in the making from day 1, either in person or through Zoom, and one takeaway I’m getting from all of it is that with each passing meeting, it’s painfully obvious that there’s still a lot more work to be done and changes and revisions to be made.

    As much as there are some that would like to hasten the process and slam the door shut before more residents get any wiser and voice their concerns and opposition, THAT IS NOT going to happen no matter what their claims are regarding the small number of favorable votes from earlier meetings where the deck was stacked in favor of HAW. That’s old news and outdated data.

    Now that the word is getting out, more and more concerned residents are becoming aware of what’s at stake and I would hope that in any meetings to come, those residents become better organized, rally the troops and show up in even greater numbers the same way HAW has. Thankfully we have people like Linda and her friends out there spreading the word to those that have been sleeping all this time.

    Unfortunately though, even with all the attention this has been getting, there are still people that are unaware of this ambitious project, or are they are aware of it but not the nitty-gritty. Using recent history as an example, there are still many people that are unaware of another disaster heading our way… the Mt Auburn St project.

    Anyone remember how that one went? Residents and the Council members at the 25% meeting were misled by the MA DOT that there would be more meetings with more public engagement and input. That was followed by a few months of silence, then BOOM! No more meetings, no more input from residents, its a done deal. Even the Council member’s were caught off guard and dismayed. I can only assume lessons were learned from that debacle so they would not be repeated with this project. God help us all when (or if), both projects are completed with the Square as the epicenter for the ensuing chaos.

    Regarding how the June 13th meeting was mishandled, they also fumbled the ball with the Galen St. meeting by not initially including any kind of instructions of how to get there and where to park. It took the initiative and action by residents to correct something that should have been obvious and simple for “the experts” to address at the beginning… the same “experts” that want to assure us that this redesign project is badly needed and a good fit for the community.

    One final thought, out of all these meetings, has there been any mention or discussion about a rough estimate of how much this project would cost and how long it will take? Would any of it be eligible for state or federal funding?

  7. Linda, enjoyed the statement of “unquestioning political cover”. Very interesting to see how far it expands into areas that have absolutely ZERO to do with our lovely little Watertown. Some politicians it seems are always interfering with cover to obviously benefit themselves for their next political job favor, such a shame that one could not stand on merits, instead of being at the trough for a lifetime

  8. Linda is correct that the process if flawed in so many ways, starting with notification of the meeting to ALL residents. She summarized many of the comments at this first meeting and one resident’s statement pointing out the difference between a zoning map and the map presented at the meeting regarding green space for the First Parish Church and Watertown Savings Bank.

    If the planners for our Square can’t get these types of details correct, what else is being presented with less than accurate information? At one of the other meetings it was noticed by residents that the Dunkin Plaza on Mt. Auburn St. wasn’t highlighted and included as a big development area.

    The electronic and sandwich board meeting notices for the 13th were very late in the process and if you weren’t stopped at a red light in the perfect position, you couldn’t read the details. The plan copies weren’t readily available to many who searched for them in three locations. Is this to discourage people? If people didn’t attend this first meeting, they may not even realize there will be a second one!

    Postcard notices of these key meetings to all residents were requested, and for the upcoming meeting on June 27 it was said there wasn’t enough time. The meeting should have been delayed not only for that fact but also because it conflicted with the first Presidential Debate on that date. Now some people will have to decide whether to watch the debate or attend our City meeting. Granted some residents can record the debate, but others don’t have that option. And isn’t it better to see such an important event at the moment?

    The last meeting ended well after 9 p.m. and that didn’t even include many of the 100 Zoom callers on hold. Their comments were held to the end rather than being alternated with in-person attendees. How many of them dropped out before the end of the meeting?

    As of June 24 there weren’t signs anywhere to be found for the June 27 meeting. Will they happen? If so, when?

    These plans need to be broken out separately – housing first and traffic patterns later.

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