Retail claims v reality in our newest developments

Dear friends, neighborhood group leaders/scribes, and those of you interested in retail as part of developing Watertown's economic base, Here is a letter I sent to the Councilors and Planning Department after my disappointment with the limited view of "retail" by developers recently. I'd be interested in your comments. If you agree in any way, I hope that some ideas will become part of your speaking and writing to our Councilors and Planning Department and before the Planning Board.

33 Mt Auburn Street was officially filed and continued March 12 so the Board will take some time and not vote on the same day it hears plans, which has been its usual way of doing business. There have been some remarks from members that things have been moving too fast, and we heartily agree. You may write to the Planning Board (and Planning Dept also) c/o Clerk Ingrid Marchesano, The Zoning Department (Mike Mena is Zoning Enforcement Officer) and Board may be reached c/o Louise Civetti, Steve Magoon is overall head of Planning and Zoning. All those who sit on boards use their first initials, last names and the same address as the above if you want to write individually. The names are all on

Thursday, March 13 is a meeting with the developers of 202 Arsenal Street ostensibly to meet with CCG which abuts to the north, but it is an open meeting and the CCG leadership thinks that it should be open to everyone, since the developers promised to have a second meeting. 7PM, Library. However, it turns out that the plans were officially filed last week so will go before the Planning Department for its review and then its recommendation goes to the Planning Board for its decision in April. Again, we hope for time to digest all the elements and time for the public to be heard by the Board at a number of meetings.


Hi, Councilors and Planning Department,

* What is mixed use? Infusion of diverse, particularly local businesses, a variety of small places that residents can go to for ordinary shopping needs as well as enjoyable places for browsing:
I am concerned after returning from the developer meeting for 33 Mt Auburn Street and the one with the developers of 202 Arsenal Street that the idea of retail presented to the public as "mixed use" retail is not what we want it to be. I assume that this category is separate from commercial, which I take to be offices (not the individual accountant, dentist, etc), manufacturing, apartments, startups. I think that we are hoping mixed use will mean an infusion of diverse, particularly local independent businesses, or at least a variety of small places that residents can go to for ordinary shopping needs as well as enjoyable places to go for browsing and poking around.

* Lack of planning and regulation for attractive, vibrant streetscape. Tradeoff for streetside Community Path should be worthwhile:
What we are getting is much less and a disappointment. 202 Arsenal is planning for a restaurant and one other shop in its 7000 sq feet. The 33,000 sq ft supermarket seems to be up in the air. We assume we will not be subjected to another kind of big box store (that recommendation was in the Strategic Framework, and should be in the Comprehensive Plan). But, there is still no there there. If the proposed Community and Bike Path is placed on Arsenal Street, we have a great interest in creating a great retail streetscape.

* Down town enhanced with walkability, variety, attractive to residents and small business. Design Review:
The sq footage for retail at 33 Mt Auburn is minimal At the meeting, the developer expected that it will be one office. This is not our idea of retail to enhance Watertown Square. How can we let this happen? Why wouldn't there be room for two small businesses? There should be access from the little park. It should connect to the rest of our walkable "down town." I appreciate that it isn't the best of times for small businesses. But isn't it in the interest of building our community to require certain kinds of retail? What good would a closed office be to enhance the walkability, the interrelationship of shops, the draw to people to walk around the Square? We have the Location, but are we demanding enough from our developers? How can Watertown work to attract small business? We have so many plans on the drawing boards and we have to be prepared. Design Review in CB might help if it covers attracting a variety of local retail.

* Work with landlords to maintain the character and health of Watertown and protect existing local businesses:
While we're at it, I am so disappointed that 7-11 was allowed to set up shop across from The Meat Spot. Don't we care to protect the independent, interesting, and much needed businesses that are here already? Does the entire Planning Department and Town have no influence on creating the kind of town center we imagine? Just because the shell of a building exists, do we not have any right to choose our image of the character and health of our town and work with the landlord to attain it? Would design review in CB help?

* Unifying sense of cohesion and design for Main Street. Design Review to attract local businesses and shoppers:
The Settles Glass development is also falling into the trap of needing banks and perhaps a large chain to fill its expensive space. What is our image of a destination and cohesive shopping area for Main Street? Can we ask for a certain kind of exterior light, perhaps, or some unifying, though not cookie cutter, feature out front and down the street to the Square? I would have thought that the town would have some influence, even when Board decisions are not required. Do we have such discussions with builders now? Do we have any leverage at all? I'm glad to see the parking in the back (though I hope that the interface with the neighbors is kinder than it has been). Is that something that the town managed to achieve for us? Design review in business districts might require all developers to work with the town.

* We cannot legislate taste, but a Design Review in CB might help:
And, were permissions required for the professional building on Summer Street to build such an out of place brick facade without setbacks in front of a regular house being used as an office? I assume this whole block is about to be sacrificed to some fantasy of urbanism and to make hay with the residents of the Assisted Living/Alzheimer's development. I wonder if the home owners and other offices are anticipating this. We hope the retail in the Assisted living building is varied and reflects Watertown's needs. Again, could design review in our Central Business District enhance our goals?

* Transparancy and bank frontage limitations zoning. Good retail space for local, independents, and divisibility for flexibility:
Just a couple of other Zoning issues: Transparency and bank frontage limitations. I was told by the Cambridge Economic Development Division that North Cambridge area now has a bank frontage limitation policy. I believe that Watertown should take it on, particularly since there are so many huge bank buildings newly inhabiting Belmont and they seem to be among the few businesses that can afford to build, or rent large spaces. Is there anything we can do to limit the size of the bank frontage that we hear will be the mainstay of Settles before the project is completed? Might that not allow a small business to rent a small space in front more cheaply? Can we put the concept into our Comprehensive Plan and make it part of the Zoning amendments that the Economic Development Committee in Watertown requested after Councilor Woodland spoke about Pleasant Street? If the supermarket at 202 Arsenal turns out not to be happening, we really don't want it to become a bank (or in fact the Walgreens, or other big box). One of the features of good retail space for local independents is small size and, in new construction, divisibility which allows flexibility in renting.

* Maintain the character and diversity of businesses in Watertown's shopping areas. Reasonable frontage and transparency:
As you know, transparency is the concept of keeping windows facing streets to attract customers, allow us to look inside, and have an interesting streetscape. The glass-paned garage door at the 33 Mt Auburn development happily reflects that concept (and we hope that they will continue the outside facing into the entry way so our view is not cinderblock). City neighborhoods in New York have limited both bank frontage to maintain the 25' approximate frontage of most shops and required transparency to limit the closed look that destroys the enjoyment of shoppers. Look for the drawings of streetscapes in At one of our meetings someone spoke out about huge stores like CVS putting shelving against, and signage in, their windows. Transparency and frontage limitations seem to go hand in hand.

* Standards so developers will respect the scale, diversity, uniqueness, and vitality of Watertown while improving it:
I believe that since Watertown has plans for huge amounts of development we need to anticipate the needs of our town and put zoning in place to attract and protect the kind of retail, particularly local and independent, that creates those wonderful places residents and visitors enjoy. It seems clear that the town, speaking for our community and residents, has a great mission to protect the character of our local, independent businesses and the residential economy that will support them. If Watertown is asking for mixed use developments, we have to have standards by which developers will respect the scale, diversity, uniqueness, and present and potential vitality of Watertown while improving it.

Barbara Ruskin

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