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LETTER: Looking Back, Moving Forward in Watertown Square

This letter was published in Watertown News on May 10, 2024

We often talk about “The Good Old Days” and the nostalgia of how things were better in the past. While Watertown’s past had great things, “The Good Old Days” had the same issues we face today.

For instance, The Historical Society of Watertown has a fantastic resource: Watertown Newspaper Headlines from 1880-1941. Below is a sampling of 20 headlines along with the dates they appeared:

  1. 7/14/1880 “Galen St Dangerous for ladies after dark” 

  2. 11/8/1882  “What Watertown Needs Most – housing for rent” 

  3. 10/21/1892 George E. Priest said he had heard that the Newton & Waltham Street Railway desires to extend its Watertown-Waltham line to Mount Auburn

  4. 8/1/1893  “controversy between horse drawn vehicles and electric cars between Cambridge and Watertown” 

  5. 1/6/1893 “Plans for electric railway cars from Watertown to Newton up Galen Street” 

  6. 11/1/1901  “Cyclists warned not to ride between streetcar tracks, dangerous”

  7. 7/4/1902 “Horse and buggy accident between Mr. & Mrs. James Milmore and 2 men on horseback – Fred Rankins and Frank Haynes”

  8. 9/26/1902  “Another suggestion for improving the center (illustration and map of a proposed new Watertown Square)”

  9. 12/9/1904 “Save the trees”

  10. 3/17/1905 “Arsenal streetcar route extended to Scollay Square”

  11. 12/15/1905 “New Plans for Galen Street Bridge and Delta”

  12. 7/19/1907 “Watertown murder case: Charles Reed shot by Antonio Zeccolo”

  13. 7/30/1909 “10,000 riot at band concert near Watertown Square”

  14. 1/20/1911 “ Progress Being Made on High School Building (East Jr.)”

  15. 2/7/1924 “Common Street Widening meets great protest”

  16. 12/24/1933 “Town votes $135,000 for addition to High School, $35,000 for Main Library”

  17. 11/8/1934 “Subway tunnel proposed for Watertown Square (to relieve traffic!)” 

  18. 12/26/1935 “Arsenal Street most dangerous piece of road in town” 

  19. 9/4/1941 “ Watertown Starts to Abolish Worst Traffic Bottleneck (widening Watertown St. at Galen”

  20. 6/29/1945 “Mt. Auburn Street to be Relocated for 2 miles between Beacon Square and the Bridge at East End”

As you can see from these headlines, the issues we discuss today in Watertown are the same ones we were discussing last century (though thankfully, no recent riots with 10,000 people at a Watertown Square concert!). While these debates have remained constant, someone living in the late 1800s would likely be shocked by Watertown’s development and changes by 1930. Similarly, people who grew up here in Watertown between 1950 and 2000 are often surprised by the changes they see today if they have moved away and come back and visit. 

The “Good Old Days” from your youth, no matter when you grew up in Watertown, would seem radically different to someone whose “Good Old Days” came a few generations before you.

I have lived in Watertown for all 41 years of my life on both the east and west sides of town, and I don’t need to go back to the newspaper headlines to know these issues in the old headlines above have been contentious for the past 41 years as well. I would be willing to bet that no matter what plan we choose for Watertown Square, we will most likely be discussing and complaining about it in the future. Does that mean it’s futile? That we shouldn’t try to improve Watertown Square? Of course not, but it’s a reminder that it’s impossible to please everyone or make things perfect. However, we shouldn’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. We should strive for the Aristotelian golden mean.

I’ve been to several meetings for the Watertown Square plan. As we know, the state requires Watertown to zone enough properties to allow at least 1,701 units to be built by-right. I’ve heard some say we should not comply with this mandate, and others say that we should only zone for the minimal amount. I’ve heard others advocate for over 6,000 new units. Live polls at public meetings related to Watertown Square have also shown a wide range of opinions regarding how much new housing should be built.

At the April 4th Watertown Square meeting, one of the plans that was presented  would allow for 3,133 units (see slide 59) and a plan for The Four Corners redesign of Watertown Square (see slide 19).

I believe that both of these plans represent the golden mean. They won’t please everyone, because nothing will, but to me they represent a reasonable path forward that meets the current needs of more housing near Watertown Square, improved walkability/ traffic flow, and space for new businesses. It would do this without the 6,000+ units that might bring changes too fast and too jarring for some residents. 

I hope that we can move forward with this plan to make Watertown Square a more dynamic space with people walking around frequently and supporting local businesses, whether they be long-standing businesses like Demos Restaurant or China Rainbow or new businesses that will open once the Watertown Square redevelopment is implemented. I’m especially keen on Watertown Square having the population density to support a more vibrant nightlife with places to go listen to live music, dance, shop, play video games (hey, maybe we can bring back The Dream Machine!), and more.

I hope we can move forward with these changes and create a more lively Watertown Square. I look forward to, God willing, being alive in 50 years when people start proposing major changes to Watertown Square again, and I can tell them about how things were in the “Good Old Days” of the 2020s.

Teddy Kokoros

Lifelong Watertown Resident 

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