City Manager’s Update on Watertown Square Area Plan

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City Manager George Proakis provided the following statement he presented at the Watertown Square Area Plan Meeting on June 27. The third meeting on the plan will take place on Tuesday, July 16 at 6 p.m. at Watertown Middle School.

This letter reproduces the introductory remarks given by the City Manager to the City Council and Planning Board at the Watertown Square Area Plan Joint Hearing on June 27, 2024, with modifications for publication:

As we embark on what I call the end of the beginning of the work on Watertown Square, I’d like to reflect on the progress we have made and the process we have taken to get to the publication of the Watertown Square Area Plan.

Since the beginning of this process, we have spread the word about this plan throughout the city, by sharing announcements with the Watertown News, advertising on-line through our social media channels, sharing information in regular City Council meetings, three different tax bill inserts, and on signage at businesses and in public places throughout the city. We are tremendously proud of our community for joining us to participate in this process, and the ability to build this plan with collaborative involvement. The work we have completed since October 2023 has included:

o 210 people at our kick-off event
o 604 sign ups with 274 participants in our design charrette
o 240 participants in our February meeting
o 450 individual comments during and after the February meeting
o 334 participants in our April meeting
o 499 feedback forms from the April meeting

I appreciate the involvement of so many participants in this process. Your insight and comments have been invaluable. I have been participating in public processes and plans for decades, and this is the most robust public involvement that I have been involved in. I believe it is the most robust process that Watertown has been involved in as well.

This has ultimately resulted in the plan document we submitted to the City Council and Planning Board for review on May 30, 2024.

With each meeting, the City staff and consultants have taken time to reflect, review comments, make substantive changes, and return with an update that is based upon a blend of professional expertise and understanding of the Square, available data on traffic, community comments and ideas, feedback from those inside and outside of the room, and our other relevant planning documents. This has all led to this complete draft plan, which was released online, and made available at City Hall, the Watertown Library and at the Senior Center for residents to access. Turning our attention forward, the plan now sits before the Planning Board and elected City Council to discuss, deliberate, take-in additional public comment, and ultimately decide whether to endorse it or not. There is no requirement in any state law that requires the endorsement of an ‘area plan’ from an elected City Council. Comprehensive plans, like the one we approved in 2022, require Planning Board approval, but not Council approval. However, it has been a best practice here (and other places I have worked) to have high-level plan documents endorsed by the chief elected board. It is our way, as City staff, of asking the question: Are you ok with us taking this the next step?

What we have submitted to the City Council and Planning Board is a plan. It is not zoning, it is not an engineering design. It’s a blueprint for moving forward on the Square, albeit with significant community process and input. If endorsed, there are three things to happen next:

  1. We will ask the Planning Board and City Council to approve zoning: This requires us to write zoning that reflects the approved plan, to bring zoning to public hearing(s) before the Planning Board and City Council.
  2. We will design and build a public realm based on the plan: This requires partnering with State Agencies, hiring landscape architects and engineers, designing finer details, dealing with underground utilities, and much more.
  3. We will ask the City Council to allow us to find developer partners: We will need to identify a developer or developers who want to work with us to build projects that are partially or fully on current city parking lots. We’d have to have conversations with owners of neighboring properties and see if we can find the best way to move this forward with this part of the plan.

The most common questions myself and my staff receive are “why are we doing this?” And “why are we doing it all together at once?”

We didn’t need to do the streetscape redesign and the MBTA Communities rezoning together. There are easier ways to meet these new state zoning requirements, and we could have left the intersection to operate as it has for another generation. But just because it is easier does not necessarily mean it is the best thing for Watertown.

Watertown Square was once a bustling, busy commercial core in the 1940s and 1950s. It was the place for Watertown residents to come, go shopping, and meet up with neighbors. It was a very successful downtown. However, after the Massachusetts Turnpike extension through Newton opened in 1964, Watertown Square slowly transitioned into a place to pass through – a place to wait two minutes at a red light before moving along to somewhere else. While we have some valuable and well-loved local businesses in the Square, we haven’t had a cohesive center in decades.

The plan we have put forth is based completely on one thing – returning the Square to a place where Watertown residents both present and future can shop and meet-up with neighbors. Why should we let the people who want to get from Wayland to Cambridge determine the decisions of what we do in our downtown? This is your city, your Square, your downtown. We can stop pandering to the cut through traffic. There is nothing radical about trying to take back your downtown.

Though it will be different than it was in the past, unable to bring back Woolworths or Fox Drug or the 35-cent sandwiches that residents reminisce about online, the plan can create a new, present-day version of a great Watertown Square. It will have more buildings, but they are the right size for a mid-size inner core downtown served by extensive bus service. We can do this. We can do it in a way that respects and includes our existing small business and immediate neighbors. We can do it in a way that offers our residents the ability to continue to get here by driving, biking and walking. We can do it in a way that ensures we have the services downtown that we need for our residents. We can do it in a way that respects and enhances green space and tree canopy.

We can do it to be much better than we have today, and it will be something we can all look back on and say that we did together.

In order to accomplish all this, there’s three key considerations we need to make:

  1. Transportation & Re-aligning our Priorities
    Simply put, we need to prioritize people who are out of their cars. This doesn‘t mean we expect everybody not to have a car, because we still want people who prefer to drive to still come to the Square, and that is the only way that some people can get around. Therefore, we need to have options for short-term parking, for people to go out to dinner, visit the library, or come to work here daily. But it is important for us to make sure that once those people get out of their car, they are a pedestrian, and they are the priority. The same thing goes for those who walk or bike to theSquare. They eventually find themselves on a downtown sidewalk – so let’s make sure those sidewalks are what they need to be to make everything work.
    This is a change because the current Square prioritizes moving cars and storing them. Like many city and town centers, Watertown Square moves a lot of traffic every day, often leading to congestion (which will likely always exist in the Square). But the current construction of the Square provides a significant amount of pavement to store cars, even if just for a few minutes as they wait at each leg of the intersection for a red light to turn green, and then clear out that storage area, leaving behind empty pavement. This makes it difficult for pedestrians to enjoy the Square as a destination. Which is why if we develop a more efficient road network, we don’t need to have all that pavement.
    The plan changes traffic movements in two significant ways to reduce the need for car storage. It removes one leg, Charles River Road, from the intersection, thereby shortening the total time spent for all the other legs of the intersection. It also restores traffic movements to the current bus stop area at the delta, further dissipating overall traffic. The plan then reduces total travel lanes, picking up that important three acres of open space for trees, sidewalks, and outdoor seating (all key to prioritizing pedestrians), while continuing to serve traffic about as well as the Square does today. There’s a lot more detail in the plan about how we make sure the buses still work, and there’s more work to do to make sure that we limit the urge to cut through neighborhood streets.

We will continue to refine these important details as we move from the plan to an engineered

  1. The Importance of Housing to Retail (and much more)
    Retail centers need nearby housing to succeed. The time when an automobile oriented single-use mall could dominate the retail landscape is over. Now, time and time again, even the malls want to build housing. Any recent case study on revitalizing a town center or a dying shopping mall – housing is the key to the short and long-term success of those efforts.
    It is a simple formula, but having enough people living in Watertown Square who can walk around and spend money here is key to bringing back the downtown. Even if that’s the only reason to support housing, it’s a good enough reason if you want the Square to be successful. This strategy has worked in several other communities, including our own, where housing has been the secret sauce that makes Arsenal Yards work where an old, enclosed mall didn’t work anymore.
    To take this a step further, building new housing contributes to addressing the greatest threat to our region: the housing shortage. We fully understand that this plan alone won’t solve the housing crisis all by itself. However, we need to do our part, and our neighboring communities also need to do theirs.
    There have been several economic studies looking at housing in recent years and they confirm that housing follows the most basic of economic strategies: building more supply stabilizes the increase in prices. We are not proposing that we over-build Watertown. In fact, Watertown has contributed substantially to our regional housing needs, most significantly with a growth in multi-family housing along Arsenal Street and the Pleasant Street Corridor between 2010 and 2019. But, since housing provides such a clear advantage to our downtown’s future, we do think this is the right housing in the right place. If we work to meet the greater Boston area’s 200,000+ unit housing shortage here in Watertown, we will alleviate the potential clog on our road network that would happen if we allowed it to happen elsewhere, and we will support our walkable retail.
    Development of new housing in the Square will appeal to many people looking for a place to live. For those who might be saying “but I wouldn’t want to live there” – “I wouldn’t want to live without a car” – “I wouldn’t want to live in a mixed-income multi-family building over a store” – “I wouldn’t want to live without a yard” – that is okay. Many of us want a house with a yard. But many other people that DO want to live in a walkable downtown. For whatever the
    reason, or whether they are currently in Watertown or are yet to come, living a car-free, low carbon-footprint, walkable downtown lifestyle is desirable for many people – and just because they are in a different place than others, does not mean we shouldn’t meet those needs as well.
  2. Blending Sustainability with Great Public Places
    Lastly, we need to make great public spaces. We need great trees, great river connections, places where we can have lush, green landscapes in the middle of the city. And we need those spaces to work for a downtown environment. The ecological priorities of neighborhoods depend on their context, and those solutions change if we are on a farm, a suburban neighborhood, or, as in this case, in the center of a walkable downtown. In the Square, we need to have robust street trees and shared green spaces. We also know that we can’t force green onto every small private lot.
    Instead, most of our downtown green space should be in shared public spaces. This plan reclaims over three acres of shared public space, and that’s quite a bit for a downtown. Those spaces need to be great, they need to contribute to ecological sustainability, and they need to be green. And they will.
    This plan implements many of the strategies of our Resilient Watertown climate plan. There is nothing more ecologically sound than a walkable downtown. Every family that moves into our walkable downtown and not into a suburban cul-de-sac in Boston’s outer suburbs is doing substantial things for the environment. They are:

o Taking the bus to their daily job, instead of getting in a car that would be driving every day through Watertown Square.
o Walking to go out to dinner, get to the pharmacy and get their daily needs met.
o Taking a bike ride to nearby parks and amenities, including the path along the river.
o Having their kids walk to school.
o Living in a housing unit with more shared space, in an energy-efficient building, with solar panels, and built under the new specialized stretch energy code.
o And, likely, living in a one-car family (or maybe with no car at all)

This is everything we want our climate plan to be.

So, why try to meet all these goals in one single plan? The issues of traffic, housing and sustainability will have separate solutions, but we understand that we must first understand their synergies and shared benefits. This is an opportunity to make a real positive difference in our community at the right time on these several issues that are all very closely interrelated.

In our next steps, we will break the plan’s component pieces apart and start digging deeper. We’ll be back with more meetings and more conversation about how to implement the steps of the plan, and with more opportunities to hear from the Watertown community. We will build upon what we have presented to the Council and Planning Board and refine it to create zoning, streetscapes and public spaces that will create a better Watertown Square.

This is just the end of the beginning of this process, but this plan can and should be the beginning of the future of Watertown Square.

George J. Proakis
City Manager | City of Watertown, Massachusetts

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