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Watertown board rejects Pleasant St. condo project

Over the past several years, the Watertown Planning Board has approved development projects with hundreds of new apartments and condominiums in the neighborhood by a stretch of Pleasant Street, west of Watertown Square along the Charles River.

The push on the so-called Pleasant Street corridor has been in keeping with a vision by town planners that sees it changing from an area of industrial companies and warehouses to one with more apartments, condos, and stores.

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But last week Pleasant Street residents stood their ground at a hearing on a 14-unit condo project proposed for 192 Pleasant. And the latest development proposal for the corridor failed to garner enough votes from the board.

Although many residents agreed that the 14-unit condo building would be a positive addition to the neighborhood, others said it was too big for the land on which it would be built. Moreover, nearly a dozen residents at the hearing railed against the negative impacts of the three 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, a resident of Pleasant Street. “Maybe we have just reached the threshold of not willing to accept this without a fight.”

After listening to the residents, the planning board voted. Developers from Acton-based Burkhard Corp. need four votes for approval of the project 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 it shuttered its operations two years ago, to 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 the 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 1.2 mile corridor that starts at Myrtle Street and runs to the Waltham border. 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.

Watertown’s town planning director, Steve Magoon, said that one problem with Pleasant Street development centers on the economic downturn of recent years. He said that lenders have been more willing to provide money to residential developers than those building stores or other commercial establishments and that hurt the mix along the corridor.

Four of the five planning board members were present at the meeting; Jeffrey Brown could not make it. Board member Linda Tuttle-Barletta voted against the proposal, rendering the three approval votes ineffective. She declined to comment after the meeting.

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

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

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.

Under the state’s Chapter 40B law, communities that do not meet the required 10 percent affordable unit threshold are subject to developers building affordable housing complexes with little say from local planning boards. The developments would host at least 25 percent affordable units.

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 vote 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,” Siobhan Murphy, a Myrtle Street resident, said at the meeting.

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

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at Jaclyn.Reiss@globe.com.
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