In wake of arson, residents concerned over Cooper Street rebuild

Watham News Tribune

After the 10-alarm fire that destroyed a construction site on Cooper Street in July was deemed arson, Waltham residents say they are concerned about the safety of wood-framed structures, the lack of security at the site, and the trauma felt by the community in the wake of the fire.

Consuelo Valdes, candidate for Waltham Ward 9 city councilor, held a public meeting on Oct. 9 for residents to voice those concerns as the developer, Lincoln Cooper Street LLC., moves forward with plans to rebuild. Mayor Jeannette McCarthy and more than 50 city residents attended the meeting. Fire Chief Paul Ciccone was unable to attend, but provided answers to questions submitted in advance by the public.

Residents expressed concern about the developer rebuilding on the same site with the same building materials and blueprint, even though both have proven dangerous. The proximity of the construction site to surrounding buildings made it difficult for firefighters to reach the fire, and wood-frame structures are a fire hazard, particularly during construction, they said.

McCarthy explained that neither of these issues fall under her jurisdiction. The size of the construction project is a zoning issue, which is a City Council matter, and the state building code allows for wood-framed structures. Furthermore, the developer obtained a special permit, which is still valid despite the fire.

“The special permit runs with the land,” said McCarthy. “I am not in favor of the wood-frame construction, as I think most people who saw the fire would agree, but I agree that he has a right to rebuild under the special permit as long as he complies with the building codes.”

On-site security

Some stated concern that the arsonist would return if the apartment complex were rebuilt. According to Ciccone, the developer has said that there will be security personnel on site 24/7 once construction starts up again.

“The presence of after-hours security will be the biggest detriment to this type of crime,” said Ciccone. “Also, the earlier activation of suppression systems would limit the size of fire that would occur.”

Evacuation procedures

Several residents of The Francis Cabot Lowell Mill—the housing complex for seniors and disabled adults that was evacuated during the fire due to smoke—spoke to the trauma associated with evacuating their homes in the middle of the night and the continued fear they feel at going through it all again if there were another arson. Others had trouble hearing the fire alarm, or were unclear whether the fire alarm meant to evacuate or to shelter in place.

McCarthy assured residents that the alarm is a signal to evacuate and that her office and City Council would review the evacuation procedure. “Once all the standard operating procedures are reviewed and finished, we intend to have a big meeting to discuss how best to uphold those procedures,” said McCarthy.

Lack of public meetings

This was the first opportunity for the public to discuss the Cooper Street rebuilding process. Previously, Lincoln Cooper Street representative John Noone canceled a closed meeting with senior residents of The Mill, which other affected residents were not allowed to attend. And, John Logan, city councilor for Ward 9, did not respond to Valdes’ request for a public meeting.

″[Logan] represents this Ward, he should have held a public meeting,” said Don Desrockers, Waltham resident and a volunteer for Valdes’ campaign. “Pine Street experiences hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage and there is no public meeting? Nothing to explain to people what happened? This is the first time we have been able to get everybody out here.”

Valdes stated she sent questions to State Sen. Mike Barrett, D-Lexington, and State Rep. John Lawn, D-Watertown, prior to the meeting they but did not provide answers.

“The intention of this meeting was to get a lot of information and to get some questions answered,” said Valdes. “We encourage you to write a postcard for the state representative, state senator, and the attorney general so that we can put some political pressure on them so that this does not happen again.”