Watertown, MA. Cold Water Thrown On Wal-Mart Plan
The world's largest retailer hasn't even submitted its proposal for a superstore in Watertown, Massachusetts -- but already the plan has run into strong opposition.
A group called Sustainable Watertown held a public meeting this week at the Public Library on a planned 92,000 s.f. Wal-Mart in Watertown, a Boston suburb of roughly 33,000 people. According to local media sources, as many as 200 people showed up to comment on the plan -- and nobody spoke in favor of it.
Area residents reiterated the usual concerns about a big box store: traffic, impact on property values, incompatibility with local zoning plans, and negative impact on existing merchants. "Watertown is known as Crossroads on the Charles (River)," one resident told the Watertown TAB. "We could easily become known as Gridlock on the Charles."
Wal-Mart has created a website to promote the project, but has not yet submitted any plan to the town. The company is not calling their store a supercenter, but the store will carry discount merchandise and have full grocery department. The site Wal-Mart wants is roughly 8 acres, so the retailer has squeezed on a store that is the size of 1.5 football fields. There are at least three Wal-Mart stores located within 16 miles of Watertown, so area residents are not being deprived of cheap Chinese goods.
Wal-Mart's main problem at this point -- in addition to strong opposition from Sustainable Wateretown, is that the parcel they have chosen in not correctly zoned, and does not fit into the town's Economic Development Plan, which was finalized last spring. In the ED Plan, the "Arsenal North" area states that more "big box retail outlets" would "tip the character of the corridor away from its potential as a cohesive innovation district."
On those grounds alone, Planning Board members would be legally justified in rejecting the Wal-Mart superstore on grounds that it was inharmonious with the area plan.
The zoning in Watertown also limits the square footage of retail stores, another reason to reject the plan. If Wal-Mart attempts to get a rezoning for the piece of residentially zoned land on the parcel on Arsenal Street, they will need to win the approval of the town's Planning Board and the Town Council by a two-thirds vote.
If they seek a special permit, Wal-Mart will also need a two-thirds vote from the Town Council. So politics and public pressure will be a major factor going forward from this point, because town officials have many legitimate reasons to say no.
Some local and state officials have already weighed in against the plan -- not so much because it is a Wal-Mart -- but because any big box logo makes no sense for that site. State Representative Jonathan Hecht, whose 29th Middlesex District includes Watertown and one ward in Cambridge, told the media that he had met with Wal-Mart representatives. "In my mind, they didn't raise the bar enough to show that the benefits outweigh the costs," Hecht told the TAB.
Watertown Councilor Susan Falkoff was one of the most outspoken against the plan. "Why do we have zoning rules if someone can just come in and we say, 'OK, we'll change that,'? I see a room full of people here opposed to Wal-Mart coming to Watertown. Can we just stop (the project) now?" Town Councilor Cecilia Lenk, who represents town residents near the proposed Wal-Mart site, said a big box store "goes against everything so many of us have been working towards."
What you can do: In an editorial this week, the Watertown TAB suggested that "any 90,000 square-foot big box store in the middle of Arsenal Street is going to affect the area," and suggested that Wal-Mart should "spare an evening or two to listen to anxious residents' concerns, if not necessarily assuage them."
But given the zoning for this property, and given the town's Economic Development Plan, it would be a far better move on Wal-Mart's part to simply withdraw their plans for Watertown. There is plenty of precedent for Wal-Mart doing this when the votes were stacking up against them. If there is one thing that Wal-Mart can do, it's reading the writing on the WAL.
Readers are urged to email Town Council President Mark Sideris at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message:
"Dear President Sideris,
The case against big box development on Arsenal Street in Watertown is very clear: the project is simply incompatible with the Arsenal North economic development plan goals. The plan notes that more big box retail would be harmful to the corridor, and damage the "cohesive innovative district" that Watertowns seeks to protect.
Inviting Wal-Mart to Watertown is like inviting a cannibal to dinner. You will lose local jobs and property tax revenues as smaller merchants lose sales and shut down. This is not a form of economic development -- it's a form of economic displacement, and certainly not the highest and best use of nearly 8 acres of land in your community.
I urge you to take the leadership and block any big box plans for this location."