The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
WATERTOWN ― There are plenty of reasons to visit Watertown Square. Among them: the gorgeous library, the weekly farmers market, and the Armenian Museum. But there’s something else endemic to the city: traffic.
One of Watertown’s most appealing characteristics is also one of its most challenging. The small city is a massive regional transportation hub, with nine roads and nine MBTA bus routes all converging on the square. Add bike routes and pedestrian pathways, and there are tens of thousands of people passing through daily on their way to Cambridge and Boston. The trouble is getting them to linger.
“A lot of it is through traffic,” said George Proakis, Watertown’s newly appointed city manager, gesturing toward the intersection at Galen Street, Mt. Auburn Street, and Charles River Road as dozens of cars sped past. “You want to create a destination in the midst of all those people passing through.”
The thing is, Watertown has already created a destination ― it just happens to be in its East End.
The Arsenal Yards development is a mixed-use playground with a slate of new retail on the way. Similar lab/housing/retail projects are mushrooming all along Arsenal Street. But given its current collection of empty storefronts, it feels to some like Watertown’s downtown got passed by.
“I think there’s potential for Watertown Square, but it’s going to be a different kind of node. There are a lot of underutilized things there,” said Roberta Miller, who chairs the newly formed Watertown Public Arts and Culture Committee. ”The commercial sector is a little bit weak.”
That could soon change. Earlier this year, a four-story, 146-unit mixed-use building was proposed for Main Street by O’Connor Capital Partners, a New York-based development firm with local ties. The developer, which plans to spread office and retail across three parcels in the square, promised to keep existing leases and add more. But those plans were initially met with resistance from locals, some of whom petitioned to make Main Street a historic district in an effort to preserve the status quo.
The idea was ultimately rejected by the City Council this summer. (It turns out, many of the buildings weren’t actually historic.) But it’s prompted a conversation about what the square could become.
“It was just a matter of time until developers realized how underutilized Main Street was,” said Anthony Donato, a lifelong resident and former city councilor. He said he looks to nearby Belmont Center as an example of what’s possible. “Adding housing could help revitalize businesses in Watertown Square, it’s close to so many modes of transportation.”
But with housing comes the perennial question about traffic and parking, and that complicates the already busy streetscape. The city has been working to reimagine traffic patterns and alleviate congestion and has created the Resilient Watertown climate and energy plan to rethink transportation modes. They’ll all feed into a larger comprehensive plan already underway, Proakis said. At just a few weeks into his new role, he’s on a listening tour to learn more about what people want.
“There is no reason in the world why we can’t have a vibrant Arsenal Yards and a vibrant Watertown Square. We’re a big enough place and there’s enough activity going on that we should be able to make both work,” he said. “As much as building new, substantial destinations is an important part of what a community does... community is really defined by what’s going on and its downtown. And I don’t want our town center to be thought of only as a place for lots of traffic.”
Read more about Watertown and explore the full On the Street series.