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Watertown apartment proposal faces hurdles

By Jaclyn Reiss
Globe Correspondent / January 15, 2012
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A real estate developer has proposed building a 222-unit luxury apartment complex on Waltham Street in Watertown, but the company must overcome obstacles from neighbors, the Planning Board, and the Conservation Commission before moving forward.

Kevin Maley, development vice president of Wood Partners, said the company is eyeing Watertown for the project because of its close proximity to major transportation routes, and employment opportunities offered by Boston and Cambridge.

The company’s proposal calls for a three-building complex with 350 parking spots below the apartments. All units would be either one- or two-bedrooms and feature high-end finishings, and residents would have access to a large common pool and a clubhouse. The developer also included beautifying Walker Pond in its proposal, promising to make the nearby water body publicly accessible.

Maley said the company hopes to attract young professionals in the 26- to 35-year-old range as renters.

He said 10 percent of the units would be rented at below-market rates to income-eligible residents.

Ideally, Wood Partners would like to break ground this summer and make the first building available for rent by fall 2013, with the whole project completed by early 2014, Maley said.

Building the complex would cost approximately $46 million, according to the company.

However, Watertown’s community development and planning director, Steve Magoon, said the company still must obtain site and permit approval at a Planning Board meeting.

The next scheduled date for the company to appear before the board is Feb. 8.

Since November, when public hearings began for the project, residents and Planning Board members have raised concerns over potential problems from increased area traffic, possible lowering of property values, and a change to the neighborhood’s character, Magoon said.

“From a planning perspective, I think we have to be respectful of those concerns, and address those in terms of individual projects and in terms of long-range planning,’’ he said, adding that a third-party independent traffic study is in the works.

The development company must also circle back to the Conservation Commission if it gains approval from the Planning Board, since a portion of the property sits within a 100-foot buffer zone to legally protected wetlands.

Watertown conservation agent Chris Hayward said Wood Partners would need to do soil tests to make sure the ground offers enough stability and support for the proposed buildings.

“The borings would take place in the 100-foot buffer zones to wetland areas, so they had to talk to us about that’’ last month, Hayward said.

Obstacles aside, Magoon said he thinks the complex would successfully attract young workers, small families, and residents looking to sell their home and downsize in this slow economy.

“I would say for Watertown, and the region as a whole, there’s a need for a variety of forms of residential development,’’ Magoon said.

“If the project comes forward, it will attract people in that spectrum, and I think it will be successful.’’

Magoon said the project proposal represents new growth for the town, and if approved, would provide increases in local tax revenue.

However, some neighborhood residents remain wary. Marcia Sassoon, who owns the Pooch Palace on nearby Stanley Avenue, said while she supports developing the Waltham Street parcel, and its overgrown section that is said to host coyotes, she is concerned about increased traffic on her dead-end street.

“Drivers need to turn around, and then they race back out again,’’ Sassoon said, noting that Waltham Street is a mere one-minute walk from her business.

“Also, with 220 families or single people driving back and forth with no traffic light, that would not only increase traffic, but it would be a safety hazard,’’ she said.

Sassoon said she also did not relish a rowdier neighborhood, noting that with rental apartments and many local colleges nearby, the complex could attract students and partying.

“I’m sure it might be a little noisier over there, and having a lot of extra noise, yelling, or partying sets pooches off when they’re outside,’’ she said.

Maley said Wood Partners is working closely with the town to deal with neighbors’ fears, including shrinking the number of units, perhaps to 211, as well as developing traffic alleviating strategies, and designating eight parking spots for the public to gain access to Walker Pond.

If the town does not approve this project, Maley said, Wood Partners would continue to consider Watertown for a major development. The company also owns rental properties in Arlington, Melrose, and Stoughton.

“We realize it’s a discretionary approval. We understand that, and we’re hopeful the town will understand and appreciate the investment we’re putting into the site,’’ Maley said.

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