LETTER: Reflections on Deliberations by City Council & Planning Board on Watertown Square Area Plan

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I’ve participated in every public meeting since October 2023 and I have publicly supported a renaissance for our city center through the Watertown Square Area Plan … both the 4 Corners streetscape and the proposed zoning changes to enable new housing of at least 3,300 unit capacity. I call these “imaginary units” because the concept of unit capacity assumes that existing landowners will tear down whatever exists on their property today and build housing up to the plan limits (an unlikely scenario at best).

I strongly oppose the suggestion to limit “imaginary units” to 1701, either as a so-called “Phase
1” or as a final number. The phased approach suggested by one Planning Board member seems
like a thinly veiled attempt to kick the controversy down the road in hopes that a higher
number will ultimately be rejected. However, the 1,701 number is too low to achieve our goals
to make Watertown Square a vibrant, attractive city center and an economically viable place for
small businesses.

I agree with the Councilor who said that our Square is a failed area and has been failing for 30 years. I lived on California Street during the 1980s and never came to the Square, only through it. Today it looks just the same … rundown buildings, limited choices for shopping and restaurants, and questionable personal services businesses. I’m excited by the opportunity to take our city center back for the residents of Watertown! It can be so much more. I would love to have an ice cream shop and a book store there, but no one in their right mind would invest in such businesses as the Square is now.

Let’s put this Plan in context. It covers only a small proportion of our city’s land area. Exactly no one is suggesting to put five story buildings inside neighborhoods of existing single-family and two-family homes. Watertown Square is exactly the right place for additional housing density, given its access to city services and the best transit options we have to offer. As the planning team has repeatedly emphasized, it is unlikely that all 3,300 “imaginary units” will actually be built.

To those who say, let’s wait until transit is more reliable, I say you could find 1,000 reasons to wait. Implementing this plan will take who-knows-how-many years, so let’s get started. Citizens should focus their energy on lobbying for increased state-level funding to improve the currently disgraceful service provided by the MBTA. There’s no viable way to achieve the goals of the Plan except to pursue multiple improvements at the same time, coordinate these efforts, and work hard to ensure they all come together. That, in general, is what I do for a living so I know it can be done.

One Councilor expressed “concern about the large area of by-right zoning.” He betrays an underlying assumption that local residents should be able to, in effect, approve what gets built on property owned by someone else. This concept of “local control” is the vehicle by which individuals all over our state have found a myriad of ways to unnecessarily complicate the building process, nitpick design elements, beat back proposed developments and ultimately prevent new people from moving into their community. I believe this is IMMORAL and it’s EXACTLY THE REASON WE HAVE A HOUSING EMERGENCY IN MASSACHUSETTS. It needs to change. I support removing most “local control” by non-professional individuals from the process of approving new housing.

I heard so much fear from one Councilor – fear of any change whatsoever came through in almost a whimpering tone. Realistically, this city isn’t so beautiful that we should preserve everything in it exactly as is. Yes, the views from some homes may change due to this Plan. What she failed to mention is that any kind of change will benefit some people while being difficult for others. A “generational change” should be assessed based on both costs and benefits. If a handful of people “lose” while 35,000 people benefit, we should go with the choice that benefits the most people in our city.

To those who are concerned about increased traffic from the Plan, I have three responses:

  1. Car drivers are not the only people who matter. Allowing our Square be a pass-through to the Pike forever is unacceptable.
  2. The current traffic pattern in the Square is unsafe … for me as a car driver, for bicycles, and for pedestrians … especially the blind and elderly and young children. It’s too many lanes, too confusing and it must be simplified.
  3. The Planning team has said repeatedly that additional traffic forecasts and impact studies will be performed as we dive deeper into the planning process. Let’s see what those uncover.

Regarding the idea to put this Plan to a city-wide referendum, I say absolutely not! The City Council and Planning Board are vested with the responsibility to amend and approve this Plan. Delay is simply a tactic to try to beat back the entire plan. No plan will please everyone, and some residents demonstrate that they don’t want any change at all.

I urge the City Council and Planning Board to get going by approving this Plan. It’s an excellent “end of the beginning.”

Kathi Breen
Watertown Resident

11 thoughts on “LETTER: Reflections on Deliberations by City Council & Planning Board on Watertown Square Area Plan

  1. Ms. Breen’s opinion betrays the perniciousness of misguided elitism. That some residents’ elected representatives (Planning Board members are appointed.) demonstrated a thoughtful combination of skepticism and optimism regarding the Watertown Square Revitalization Plan seems entirely appropriate to the moment. Similarly, concerned residents are not and should not be characterized as change-resistant worriers for wanting to get things right.

    Many residents instinctively mistrust those who insist that so-called experts know best and are the disinterested spokespeople of the common good. On the contrary, transparent governance unimpeded by the efforts of elites and other minority interests to dominate has always been the enduring goal of grassroots power sharing by which individuals wish to steer the course of their lives and their communities. The referendum process is a healthy expression of residents’ desire for responsive representation.

  2. Thank you for this heartfelt, articulate, and wise statement. I agree.

    I’ve not followed the design process closely, but I have attended public briefings … and have been impressed with the openness, inclusivity, skills, and expertise of the planning team — both City and consultants. And I’m especially grateful for the vision and leadership of our City Manager. I also appreciate the consistent reminders that this is a process that we’ve only just begun.

    So at this point it seems to me that we’re headed in the right direction … to revitalize Watertown Square, address traffic and street use issues, and significantly increase the number of housing units through changed zoning. To me, this is local government as it should be — tackling difficult problems, engaging citizens and communities meaningfully, developing and evaluating options, and making difficult tradeoffs transparently … based on information, experience and expertise.

  3. I think the plan is OK. But the devil will be in the details, esp. the zoning changes. These will mandate whether we have a really improved Square, or if we have a bunch of ugly and cheap cookie cutter buildings like a few others that have been built. We need to watch the zoning changes carefully.

    I also think that the councilors brought up some good points. The “fear” that you heard stems from years of promises from an opaque and incompetent Planning Dept that never came to fruition. The current government led by Mr Proakis has opened up the process and brought in some better vendors to help with design.

    • I think my point is that individuals shouldn’t impose their personal taste on the design of new buildings. Your definition of “ugly” and “cheap cookie-cutter” will be different from mine. That said, I’m not always wild about the design of new buildings. It’s just that I don’t think it’s my place to tell another property owner what their design should be, just as I wouldn’t want them to tell me what my house should look like.

  4. Hi Kathi,

    While I appreciate you articulating your thoughts on the Watertown Square Area Plan,
    “imaginary units?” That’s quite a concept! We’ve all been attending meetings for months, (yes, I’ve attended all of the meetings as well), because we are imagining things. Right!

    There was at least one large developer at the meetings, schmoozing, listening to what was said and figuring out his next steps. Who knows, he may have even given his input into the zoning plan. Everyone there was invited to. No, there is absolutely nothing imaginary about the decisions we’re about to make.

    First of all, Kathi, the unit number is 3133, not 3300. Secondly, if recent 104 Main Street plans are any indication, these “imaginary units” are mostly imagined to be studio and one bedroom units. There is a “hope” that large developers will throw in a few extra 2 and 3 bedroom units for families…no promises though. That may affect their bottom lines. So…what do you think the chances are?

    These imaginary units will have units affordable to people making 80% and 65% of our area’s median income ($114,250 ). That means that a one-person “family” would be eligible for “Affordable” housing in these units if they earned $91,400. A family of four would be eligible if they earned $130,550. That’s for the 80% eligibility.

    I guess that leaves out an awful lot of our current residents. I’m guessing that there’ll probably be more than a handful of “losers” in this game, don’t you think? By the way, how many “losers” would be acceptable to you?

    The Phase 1 (MBTA Mandated by-right 1701 units) is a real number with a real deadline. Accusing someone, who will be charged with making some really important decisions about the direction that Watertown takes as a city, of creating a “thinly veiled attempt to kick the controversy down the road” has the scent of desperation to it.

    This guy is trying to help us as a community to make some really thoughtful decisions. “Thoughtful” takes time. And the only part of this plan that has a deadline is the 1701. All he’s saying is let’s hone in on what needs to be done now. We’ve all seen Watertown planning go awry. Pleasant Street is Exhibit A.

    You state that “1701 is too low to achieve our goals.” Who is the “our“ in that statement? Since you roundly denounce a city-wide referendum later in your letter, there must be some other “our.” What’s wrong with involving all of our residents in “our” decision?

    I agree with you that the square needs a lot of work. I’d like to see a combination of some new with a repair and upgrade of the old. I agree about a book store and an ice cream shop, but what kind of small business like that will be able to afford the rents in the new buildings?

    I think our small businesses must get very discouraged when they hear people speak about the Square as if nothing is there. Off the top of my head, there’s a nail salon…nothing fancy, but services as good as I’ve seen in newer, more updated places, Greek food, Chinese food, …. The doughnut and sandwich shop which contribute to keeping the Square busy are likely to be gone sooner than later. There’s a Mexican restaurant, an Italian restaurant, NYAJ’s, a classic breakfast place, an Asian fusion restaurant, an independent coffee shop, which I hear is excellent (I’m not a coffee drinker) and a Thai takeout restaurant. There are more businesses, but those are just off the top of my head. We’ve lost our post office, an “amenity” that brought lots of people into Watertown.

    As for a councilor advocating for local control, immoral is a strong word.

    Question: Giving up total control to entities (profit-seeking individuals and companies) who have no stake in our community is moral?

    Another question: Who is more “immoral,” someone who would put limits on large corporations in their community or someone who would cede all control of their community’s environment to developers?

    You say, “Let’s put this plan into context. It covers only a small proportion of the City’s land area.” Then you further unfairly characterize one councilor as asking questions with a “whimpering tone.” I have no idea who you’re talking about. Let’s focus instead on Lisa Feltner, the District B councilor, who asked very pointed and specific questions about this plan

    Councilor Feltner is the councilor whose constituents are going to have to live with the bulk of these decisions. When 3133 “imaginary units” are dropped into Watertown, the vast majority of them, the equivalent of about 10 Watertown Gables-sized buildings, will be dropped into District B’s midst. We all will feel it, but they will live it! She wouldn’t be doing her job if she wasn’t concerned and didn’t ask questions…lots of them.

    In contrast to you, I have more problems with councilors who seem to go with the flow, with few questions and lots of platitudes… By all means, let’s not delve into this more deeply. When mistakes are made, we’ll just deal with them…or not.

    And speaking of mistakes, what gives with the strong resistance from the City to testing out our new road plan? An old sewing (and construction) adage: Measure twice, cut once. In other words, it’s better to be doubly sure that you are getting the result you want.

    I know that I haven’t addressed all of your points. I apologize. Here’s my last point.:

    As it stands now, the only thing that is “imaginary” in this plan is open and green space. The planners didn’t care enough about it to include a green space planner on the team. That says it all.

    To say we don’t agree would be an understatement, but thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • This writer completely distorted my use of the word “imaginary” (see 1st paragraph in my Letter), and then argued against the phantom definition she created. I once had a friend who argued like this … it was impossible to sustain a relationship with someone who argued with something I didn’t say!

      Also, let’s stop criticizing people who have money… including developers and residents who can afford to pay $3000 a month rents, etc. Money isn’t an enemy, it’s a tool. We can’t build housing of any kind without it.

      Last, anyone who spends all their attention on the trees (low-level details) is missing the forest. One must be able to synthesize details in service of a larger point.

  5. Well said Kathi! I too have been involved from the very beginning and I’d very much like to see the square improved. Watertown Square deserves to be more than just an on-ramp to the pike and catering mostly to pass-thru traffic. We have surface parking lots in our city center which could house hundreds of people. I think it is immoral to prefer housing for cars over housing for people in such a severe housing crisis.

    I also disagree with the opponents who insist that Watertown is a small town and should stay that way. First of all, we’re not a small town nor do we have a small town feel. I grew up in a small town. Watertown is nothing like a small town and that’s a big reason why I moved here. We’re a stone’s throw from Boston and Cambridge. I take busses and I bike into those cities and I live an effectively car-free life. We should enable many more people to live so close to important job centers to help alleviate car dependency, instead of begrudgingly doing the *bare minimum* that the state requires.

    Instead of fearing the change, let’s embrace it! Cities should be allowed to evolve and change based on what’s needed by each new generation. My generation, Millennials, and younger generations need housing. Many people in the younger generations see car-dependency as a burden. So I say let’s change the zoning to get out of the way and allow for this change to happen. I’d be in support of much more extensive zoning changes (there should not be ANY single-family exclusionary zoning in Watertown), but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion. I support the plan as it represents a big step in the right direction

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