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As neighbors lament too much development, Pleasant Street condo proposal killed in Watertown

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  March 14, 2013 10:30 AM

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After hearing Watertown residents lament for hours about the changing character of the Pleasant Street neighborhood, the Watertown Planning Board did not provide the needed votes for developers of a 14-unit condominium project at 192 Pleasant and the proposal was rejected.

It was the first time in years that planners denied a residential project in the rapidly-developing Pleasant Street Corridor.

Developers from Acton-based Burkhard Corporation need four votes for approval but only got three.

The developers had been working with the town for months on the four-story condo proposal. Representatives agreed at Wednesday’s meeting to clean up toxic material left by Bacon Industries when they shuttered their operations two years ago; tweak the building’s design at the town’s request; add green space where asphalt currently sits; and even offered to foot the bill for an on-site car-sharing service to reduce the overall vehicular impact there.

But one by one, Watertown residents filed to the podium in Town Hall to testify against the proposal. Many said they were left with a bitter taste from three large apartment complexes, approved in recent years, that are now sprouting up in their neighborhood.

Those complexes will add 650 new rental units to the one-mile stretch known as the Pleasant Street Corridor: Repton Place off Pleasant Street will soon have 220 units; Riverbend on the Charles at 270 Pleasant St. will add 170 units; and Alta at the Estate at 255 Waltham St. will offer 155 units.

The Planning Department additionally received a preliminary site review in late January outlining plans for a new 41-unit residential complex at 45 Bacon St., which is in the corridor's district. Developers have yet to submit a formal proposal.

The planning board approved the large-scale complexes in recent years under a vision adopted in 2008 that sees the Pleasant Street Corridor evolving from an industrial-defined neighborhood to one with a mix of residential, commercial, and retail spaces.

However, the plan’s adoption paralleled to the economic downturn, and residential developers have meanwhile been better positioned to borrow sufficient investment funds than their retail and commercial counterparts, Magoon said.

Although many residents agreed Wednesday night that the 14-unit condo building would be a somewhat pleasing addition to the neighborhood, nearly a dozen railed against the negative impacts of the three other large-scale projects being built nearby, citing congested traffic, reduced parking, decreased pedestrian safety, environmental concerns, and unappealing aesthetics.

“We have reached a tipping point, a critical mass, a boiling point,” said Cindy Nelson, resident of 193 Pleasant St. “Maybe we have just reached the threshold of not willing to accept this without a fight.”

Burkhard Corporation needed four approval votes from the five-member planning board before moving forward. However, with one member absent Wednesday night, board member Linda Tuttle-Barletta voted against the proposal, rendering the three other approval votes useless.

Tuttle-Barletta declined to comment after the meeting about why she voted against the development.

“We’re very disappointed,” said Jack Wise, principal at Burkhard, at the end of the meeting.

Burkhard Corporation now must wait two years before resubmitting the project, said planning director Steve Magoon. In that time, other proposals can be submitted for the property.

Supporters of the project noted at the meeting that the 14-unit development would have proved useful to the neighborhood. The property’s owner, Richard Cass, said that he had been approached with proposals calling for twice the number of units, but he had chosen the Burkhard design because it seemed to fit with the neighborhood and take on environmental responsibilities.

Magoon also pointed out that not approving the condominiums potentially leaves the town open for other developers to build affordable housing complexes.

In Watertown, about 6 percent of the housing stock is considered affordable - including units from the new complexes - but the state requires a 10 percent affordable threshold.

Under the state’s Chapter 40B law, communities that do not meet the 10 percent affordable unit threshold are subject to developers building affordable housing complexes with little to no say from local planning boards. The developments would host at least 25 percent affordable units.

“This state zoning legislation prevents communities from preventing housing projects from being developed,” Magoon said. “If towns meet certain criteria, they can be exempt. But if not, a developer can just come in and our zoning gets pushed aside.”

Magoon said after the meeting that he was not sure if Watertown would be exempt because he has not analyzed the situation yet, but noted that the town was fairly below the required 10 percent required by the state.

Matthew Keys, owner of 202-204 Pleasant St., said he supported the 14-unit condo development specifically for that reason.

“If this gets turned down by the board, odds are that the next proposal will be 40B, which means more units, and it will be bigger,” Keys said. “All these concerns about traffic, height, and size will be worse. And you guys won’t have much of a say.”

However, many residents still viewed the denial as a win, even as some noted that the rejection was more about the greater picture of the neighborhood’s development than the single project itself.

“We appreciate the tweaks described, but on top of all the construction that has occurred, this proposal turns out to be the straw that is breaking Pleasant Street’s back,” testified Siobhan Murphy, a Myrtle Street resident, at the meeting.

“I ask this group, or just one of you,” Murphy said, beckoning to the board, “to pause at this tipping point.”

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