Planning for Waltham’s Future

by Chris Wangler

October 5, 2022

Waltham faces some serious challenges (gridlock, overdevelopment, affordable housing), so devising a master plan with community input can help shape future planning. 

To that end, the city council’s City Master Plan Special Committee is hosting a series of community meetings to solicit feedback from residents in all nine wards. 

The series kicked off last week at the former South Middle School with a meeting of residents from Wards 8 and 9 on the city’s South Side. 

Roughly two dozen of the 60 people gathered in the auditorium spoke.

Our Skateboard Park

Skaters of all ages use the skate park at Jack Koutoujian Playground in Ward 9.

“When everything was closed down, we would all go to the skate park,” said Ajay Wadhwani, who attended with two other Newton teens.

 

“It’s small, it’s overcrowded,” he said. “It has cracks and it’s over 20 years old, but the community there is still thriving nonetheless,” he said. Wadhwani added that it was a positive converging space for youth from across the area.

“I started skating again 10 years ago in my mid thirties,” said Ward 8 resident Adam Rourke. 

He used to skate as a youth on Waltham streets, but now he’s happy to have a skate park nearby.

When proposed improvements were announced for the park, the skaters organized.

Rourke said the existing skate park is too compact for the mix of skaters, so he was alarmed when he saw plans for an even smaller park.  

He and others are working with Ward 8 councilor Cathyann Harris, hoping the size and design will accommodate a broad range of skaters.

Councilor Harris said she conferred with the skaters and incorporated their input into the design. “We’re hoping to go to the mayor in 30 days,” she said.

 

Climate Issues

Is Waltham overly beholden to cars? That was the impression given by some speakers, who hoped the city would try to move away from cars and fossil fuels, especially downtown.

Eamon Dawes criticized the extensive car infrastructure (repair shops and gas stations) in his neighborhood and the city’s decision to purchase a parking lot at 625 Moody Street.  

“We don’t need a parking lot,” he said. “We need green space. We need housing.”

Ward 9 resident Gary Markowitz said leaky gas lines kill trees and contribute to climate change.

He suggested a solution at the sprawling Fernald property in North Waltham. “Why not put a solar farm there?”

Cleaner Streets

Newer resident Susan Davis asked that the city keep Moody Street clean and install more containers for recyclables. “I believe this city can shine,” she said.

Another resident said the city’s trash contractor is doing a poor job. “They just drop trash everywhere in Ward 9. They don’t care,” he said.

200 Moody

A bank of retail buildings at 200 Moody Street, shown in a photo from 2013, has been declining for years. And some citizens want the city to address the issue.

A respected local developer bought the property back in 2014, planning to build a hotel and make park improvements, but he has been frustrated for years by city red tape.

Rain caved in the roof last year, but the building remained structurally sound, preventing demolition as the project remains in limbo.

“It’s appalling,” said Lisa Fruitt. She and others said the structure was dangerous and reflected poorly on the city. “Please do something about it,” she said.

Bikes

Several speakers were happy about progress on an East-West rail trail currently under construction, but they asked for more safe bicycle infrastructure in Waltham, including bike lanes.

“Why do roadways only exist for cars?” asked Luke Habermann, organizer of a series of Critical Mass rides in Waltham.

Emma, a newer resident and mom, returned to the area from North Carolina, drawn to Waltham by the dual language school and diversity. 

 But getting from the South Side to North Waltham’s outstanding parks, amenities and open spaces on bike? 

“We have zero built infrastructure to allow us to get there safely outside of a car,” she said. “The kids are happier when they can walk and bike.”

“Moody Street. Don’t open it again.”

Supporters of the summer shutdown of Moody Street expressed interest in having the street closed year-round to encourage pedestrian use.

 

Some said the city could improve the pedestrian walking zone, which has some long and empty expanses of pavement.

One resident cited Church Street in Burlington, Vermont, as an example of what’s possible.

Trees

It’s not only developers who have cut down trees to carry out building projects. 

The city has taken down many mature trees to build the new Waltham High School and various park projects such as McDonald Playground on Newton Street. 

“It’s a great park,” said South Side resident Jay Bigelow, “but they tore down like half a dozen gigantic gorgeous well-established trees and now there’s no shade in the middle of it.”

He and others said trees keep urban temperatures down.

“The South Side is a big heat island and needs more green space,” said Tom Benavides, who lives near Children’s Hospital.

Cannabis

Cannabis legalization passed statewide and in Waltham in 2016. Newton and Watertown have dispensaries. Waltham has plenty of liquor stores and glass shops, but no weed shops.

Waltham cannabis entrepreneur Viondy Merisma, a former WHS football star who had NFL tryouts, has not been able to get a dispensary opened downtown because of the zoning.

 

“I don’t want to say unfair, but that’s an understatement,” he said. “The zoning requirement for cannabis establishments is pretty much Bear Hill Road,” where the buy-in is very high.

But money apparently doesn’t help. Almost half a dozen Bear Hill Road dispensary applicants have also struggled, enduring delay after delay at a council committee.

Housing

Big housing developments will add hundreds of units in the coming years, but almost all are luxury rentals that exacerbate growing income inequality. 

How exactly the city can address the issue remains unclear, as it has produced only a handful of affordable units in recent years in spite of sky-high demand.

Jay Bigelow and his wife have good paying jobs, but it’s still a challenge to get affordable housing.

 

Bigelow suggested Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), which property owners build in garages or in other locations. In other communities and big cities (Los Angeles), they have increased the supply of non-luxury, affordable housing units.

ADUs would require changes to city zoning, which would need to be made by the city council.

What’s Next

Master plan committee chair Randy LeBlanc said he was “very pleased” with the turnout at the first meeting. 

The committee will host its second meeting for Ward 5 and Ward 6 residents on Thursday, October 6 at Government Center from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.

 

Feedback from all the meetings will be compiled with assistance from a consultant and serve as a future guide for elected and city officials.

Full schedule