With Watertown’s family population projected to shrink over the next two decades, residents are telling city and state planners that they want to encourage developers to build housing with enough room to accommodate families.
About two dozen residents attended a meeting last Thursday night run by Metropolitan Area Planning Council representatives to solicit opinions on what should be included in the town’s Housing Production Plan.
The plan, developed with a federal grant, helps the town assess its evolving housing needs and move closer to the 10 percent threshold for affordable housing units in communities as defined by the state’s Chapter 40B law. In Watertown, 6.1 percent of the housing stock is considered affordable.
But the discussion at the meeting included not only affordable housing but ideas for market-rate apartments and condominiums as well.
“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 director of planning and community development.
Many of the Watertown residents at the meeting said they were concerned that state projections show the number of families in town will decrease in the next two decades. The trends show that the town will experience an increase in people age 65 or older, but will see either a decrease or hold steady in all other age categories. And compared with 18 other area communities, 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 apartment or condo 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 — let’s not do that again.”
However, Magoon said developers propose smaller units in their residential plans as a strategy to ease the approval process.
“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 there is support for units with more bedrooms, he said, “I think that’s something we can achieve.”
Jennifer Van Campen, executive director of a regional nonprofit organization, Metro West Collaborative Development Inc., said Watertown residents are in a position to put pressure on developers.
Van Campen said Watertown has proven to be a desirable place to live: The town has a nearly zero percent vacancy rate, and many homes on the market sell within a week.
“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 people at the meeting 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 tax bill on an average single-family house is about $4,400, compared with 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 outdoor activities.
“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 agreed Watertown’s accessibility to the Charles 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 because residents with deep roots are more active in the community — 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 neighborhood 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.”