The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
WATERTOWN – There’s a spot on Coolidge Avenue in Watertown’s East End where you can see what this community has long been, and what it is rapidly becoming.
An asphalt plant sits across the street from a UPS depot, around the corner from a wholesale tile and countertop store. Next door, where the bubbled-over tennis courts of the Mount Auburn Club once stood, construction crews are erecting the frames of a lab building — nearly a quarter-million square feet — which will boast solar panels and views of the Charles River.
Things are changing fast these days in Watertown, a solidly middle-class community of 35,000 tucked among fancier neighbors like Cambridge, Newton, and Belmont. At just four square miles, it’s a tight-knit community where families put down roots and have stayed for generations, where small businesses become institutions, and ethnic enclaves — like its sizable Armenian community — have carved their own niches.
“It has to do with the size of the town, the diversity of people here — culturally and financially — the strong small business community,” said Bob Airasian a lifelong resident and co-founder of the Watertown Business Coalition. “You don’t find that in all these other cities and towns, even the ones we border, it’s just a different feel.”
And while it’s technically been a city for 40 years, it long leaned into its less urbane name, going instead by “The City Known as the Town of Watertown.”
But last year, Watertown residents voted to update their municipal charter and lose the confusing moniker. It’s just the City of Watertown now. It hired a new city manager, from Somerville, and has been switching over the signage in City Hall. Locals say it’s all part of a larger shift in the community’s collective mindset.
“It’s a semantic change, but it’s a significant change,” said Mark Sideris, Watertown’s City Council president. “We’ve grown immensely over the last 10 to 12 years. We should be known as a city because we act like a city.”
Much of that shift is tied to a transformation of Watertown’s economy.
In the last few years, life sciences companies — many priced out of Cambridge and looking for someplace to grow — have poured in, drawn to a place that’s easily accessible for urban-dwelling younger employees as well as their more suburban senior counterparts.
Now the small, low-slung industrial buildings on side streets around the East End tout drug company signs out front. A new wave of restaurants and coffee shops cater to well-heeled scientists and lab workers. And larger purpose-built lab projects are being designed to replace old standbys like Russo’s supermarket and the Watertown Mall.
“This lab thing became the biggest thing we’ve ever seen,” said Sideris. “Everybody came in buying properties, converting them to lab and office space and biotech space. And that’s just continuing.”
The most dramatic remake so far is probably the conversion of the failing Arsenal Mall into Arsenal Yards, a mixed-used mecca of apartments, lively restaurant patios and stores and, of course, lab space. It’s almost done. A Starbucks finally opened last month and workers are wrapping up a nine-story life sciences building — the closest thing Watertown has to a skyline. It will open, fully leased, in the next few months.
It’s all somewhat of a marvel to the people who knew the Arsenal Mall back when.
Even Bill McQuillan, whose Boylston Properties paid $70.5 million in 2013 to develop the site, seems gobsmacked by how he managed to piece together a “jigsaw puzzle” that began with retail, tacked on housing, and then launched lab space at just the moment it was in peak demand. He’ll be the first to admit that what began as a plan to spruce up an aging mall has evolved into something far more dynamic: 50 storefronts, 300 residences, and over 400,000 square feet of commercial and lab space.
“I mean, it’s sort of crazy, and wild from a retail standpoint, as it’s just very, very successful,” McQuillan said. “And it’s, quite frankly, a bit of a surprise to us. Not that it’s successful, but how successful it is.”
And, in turn, that success is transforming what Watertown can offer its residents.
The city’s annual tax revenue has grown by more than 50 percent over the last eight years, from $90 million in 2016 to $140 million now. Much of that has come from commercial real estate ― lab buildings and larger apartment complexes ― that has enabled the construction of two new elementary schools and renovations on a third, with work on a roughly $200 million high school set to start next summer.
It’s cropped up in other ways, too, says Roberta Miller, chair of the city’s Public Art & Culture Committee. The city was able to funnel funds from the sale of The Arsenal parcel into the Mosesian Center for the Arts and seed the Watertown Community Foundation, which played an integral role in supporting families and small businesses through the pandemic.
“A lot of times these developers come in with these big ideas that don’t match up with where the community is, or where the community’s efforts are,” she said. “We managed to align those two things.”
The question is who will enjoy the spoils of this newfound fortune. Jan Singer, executive director of the Community Foundation, has seen the challenge up close, as rents rise and more people are priced out of the housing market. “For a long time, Watertown had no tax base, so all this development has been such a boon to everybody,” she said. “It’s amazing, but you have to be here already to enjoy that.”
That has some people worried that the tight-knit Watertown they grew up in will gradually fade away.
About half of Watertown’s residents are renters, with little protection against rents that have surged in recent years. The new development is bringing lots of retail, but offers little for longtime locally-owned businesses in Watertown Center or Coolidge Hill, the hub of Watertown’s Armenian community. And even as lab projects push through city planning, the life sciences market is showing signs of slowing, at least compared with the meteoric pace of the last few years.
That’s giving some city leaders pause about what Watertown might look like before long.
“Maybe we, you know, at some point, we’re going to say we overdid it,” Sideris said. “I can’t answer that right now.”
Airasian also worries about that. He’s a real estate agent and business leader who benefits from the growth, but he also worries that the unique community where he grew up, where his family has run a menswear shop for decades, will become more or less indistinguishable from the wealthier communities around it. He’s hopeful that a new planning process getting underway will ensure that all the new development ultimately helps people who already live in Watertown.
But he’s wary. It’s so much change, and coming at a frenetic pace.
“I love what’s happening in Watertown but we’ve got to be careful,” Airasian said. “We’ve got to keep the flavor of our town ― now our city ― in check.”
Read more about Watertown and explore the full On the Street series.