As Watertown’s population of families shrinks, local residents are telling city and state planners that they want to encourage future housing developers to build bigger residences in town to attract families.
About two dozen residents attended a meeting Thursday night, run by Metropolitan Area Planning Council representatives asking Watertown locals for their opinions on what should be outlined in the town’s Housing Production Plan. The plan helps the town assess its evolving housing needs. The process is funded by a federal grant.
Although the Housing Production Plan seeks to help the town plan for adding the state-required 10 percent of affordable units as defined by Chapter 40B law – of which Watertown is only at 6.1 percent now – conversation points spoke to both affordable units and fair market valued residences.
“We’re really trying to prevent the community from excluding affordable housing, but it’s also about how we approach housing in general,” said Steve Magoon, Watertown’s planning director.
Many Watertown residents said they were concerned that the state’s data predicts that the number of families in town will decrease in the next decade. The data trends show that the town will experience an increase in people aged 65 and older, but will either decrease or stay in all other age categories. And compared to 18 other local towns, Watertown ranks last in household size.
“I would like to see things friendlier and more inviting for families to come live in our town,” said Rena Baskin, a Watertown resident.
Baskin said she noticed that most proposed residential developments in Watertown feature studios and one- or two-bedroom units.
“That’s nice, but families can’t live there,” Baskin said. “Families are having a hard time living here. We did that [in these developments] – let’s not do that again.”
However, Magoon said developers propose smaller units in their residential plans strategically.
“These types of projects come in because developers are concerned the town will be opposed to big units because more children means a burden on the school systems, but developers will want to build that if the town wants to encourage it,” Magoon said. “If we want to encourage [units with more bedrooms], I think that’s something we can achieve.”
Jennifer Van Campen, executive director of the MetroWest Collaborative Development, said Watertown residents could stand to put pressure on future developers.
Van Campen said Watertown proves to be a desirable place to live in: the town has a nearly 0 percent vacancy rate, and many homes on the market sell within a week, she said.
“There’s a real opportunity here in town, and we need to recognize that we are an incredibly strong housing community,” Van Campen said. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t put more demands on our developers.”
Some meeting attendees said they were not surprised by the population trends shown by planning officials. Town Councilor Vincent Piccirilli said Watertown attracts seniors, who are often on fixed incomes, because the town offers comparatively low tax rates.
“We are one of 11 communities in the state that allows a huge 20 percent tax exemption for owner-occupied homes, and we take statutory exemptions for disabled residents to the maximum,” Piccirilli said, noting that the average single-family tax bill is about $4,400, compared to nearly double that in Newton and Belmont.
In addition to making the town friendlier for families, residents brainstormed other features they wanted to see in new developments coming to town.
One resident who said she lived in Watertown’s Lexington Gardens housing development said she wished there were more recreational activities for her child.
“There’s no jungle gym, no playground, not even a basketball hoop,” she said. “These kids are feeling low as can be living there, and people yell at them not to hang around, but there’s nothing for them to do.”
Baskin agreed that there should be space for outside pastimes.
“Anything built needs green space for seniors to sit out and chat, for kids to run around, or for the community to walk around and enjoy,” she said.
Town Councilor Susan Falkoff and Watertown resident Libby Shaw also both agreed that Watertown’s accessibility to the river should be maximized.
Shaw said that in order to help people commit to living in Watertown long-term – which many current residents said they want, as rooted residents are more active in the town – town planners must require the natural environment to be well kept.
“We want to provide an environment that feels good to live in, but we suffer from eroding green infrastructure,” Shaw said.
Shaw also pointed out that the community is losing large shade trees on community streets, noting that trees are an important asset to the community.
”Developers are just sticking them in as decorations after the fact, and then they don’t survive very long and need replacing frequently,” she said. “We have to make sure developers build them into the project from the beginning.”
Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org