Signaling its desire for a full service, downtown hotel, the City Council has approved a special hotel overlay zoning template for a beachfront section of Commercial Street on the city's Outer Harbor — and across from a line of four fish processing businesses that oppose the project.
The action late Tuesday night was seen by some as possibly historic, but before Gloucester gets a waterfront hotel on the old Birdseye site, legal and permitting hurdles remain.
"This is a defining moment for Gloucester," Mayor Carolyn Kirk said Wednesday.
The previous similar defining moment, she said, was when a chain-link fence went up 40 years ago around the I-4, C-2 site, an inner harbor property on Rogers Street the city acquired two years ago.
"My worst fear," Kirk said Wednesday, "was a chain link fence around Birdseye."
Ocean Crest and its fertilizer subsidiary Neptune's Harvest, Mortillaro's Lobster Co. and Intershell, bustling businesses that help anchor the city's marine industrial economy are wary of their possible future neighbor and gentrifier, as are many Fort residents.
During and after and the heated four-hour full City Council hearing and 8-0 vote late Tuesday night, which opens the door for Beauport Gloucester LLC to seek a 80-to-102 room hotel with a conference center and other amenities, opponents made clear a court fight was likely over the zoning addition.
Councilors sought to assure opponents that the developer gets nothing by right — especially Pavilion Beach itself, the ownership of which is disputed.
City Solicitor Suzanne Egan advised that the special council permit process gives the council significant "discretion," to disapprove a project not to its liking, though attorney Michael Faherty, representing Mortillaro's, warned it would be hard to stop a project that would now comply with the zoning. The hotel overlay zone, covering 45-61 Commercial St., essentially goes on top of the existing marine industrial zoning designation, which covers all of the city's historic Fort neighborhood.
Cambridge attorney Dan Hill, representing Ann Molloy of Neptune's Harvest and other businesses and Fort residents, all but promised an immediate court fight over the legality of the nearly unanimous vote for the hotel overlay, predicting that the courts would invalidate the overlay as "spot zoning."
But Egan, along with Beauport Gloucester project attorney John Cunningham, contended that the overlay is proper.
Thereafter, councilors, one by one, gave their rationales for backing the plan, which allows the developers, headed by New Balance Shoe Co. owner and founder Jim Davis and Cruiseport's Sheree DeLorenzo in a limited liability company to begin the architectural and engineering work on a hotel that fits the terms hammered out by the Planning Board, the Kirk administration and the council's Planning and Development Committee over several weeks.
The vote was taken about 11 p.m. after nearly four hours of alternating testimony from advocates and opponents sitting on opposite sides of City Hall's Kyrouz Auditorium, and filling the seats on the floor.
The debate had moments of class struggle, with opponents invoking images of "Jaguars" and "Lexuses" replacing hard laborers on the Fort.
"Either we stay as the home of Captain's Courageous or we become a city of the rich and powerful," testified Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association. Councilor Sefatia Romeo Theken abstained from voting, citing her position as vice president of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association, which came out against the project.
Planning and Development Committee Chairman Bruce Tobey led the council debate, explaining that the site was appropriate for a hotel and that the overlay language protected the community from condos, time share apartments and casinos. "Anything not allowed is explicitly prohibited," Tobey explained.
In the most detailed explanation for a vote for the overlay, Tobey cast his thoughts back to 1988, when he first joined the council. He recalled the need for a year-round hotel and noted that Capt. Carlo's Restaurant, adjacent to the seafood auction on Harbor Loop, and Cruiseport Gloucester disprove the notion that hospitality and industry can't mix along the waterfront.
He also implicitly rebutted many of the opponents' arguments that the hospitality jobs the project would create were inferior to those in fisheries.
"There is dignity in work — chambermaid or Harvard professor, there is dignity in work," Tobey argued.
Tobey also warned that "we won't restore Gloucester to greatness on dreams."
Building on that theme, Councilor Joe Ciolino reminded the auditorium that Cruiseport fit it without driving out industrial neighbors. He also noted that Market Basket didn't drive out Stop & Shop or Shaw's and that Main Street wasn't ruined by Gloucester Crossing.
Those who argued against the project outnumbered advocates at the separate microphones.
But Councilor Steven LeBlanc said he counted the "letters, emails and communications he'd received" and found that proponents outnumbered opponents by "four to one."
"That's a big number," he added.
City clerk Linda Lowe reported 778 valid signatories to petitions for the project versus 305 on a petition against it.
Opponents warned that high-end hospitality would clash and eventually overwhelm and drive out humble, noisy, and smelly but essential marine industrial enterprises that provide concentrated energy unrivaled elsewhere in the nation's first and still fully operational fishing port that has not hedged its bets with condos.
But Councilor Paul McGeary referred to the row of fish processors as the city's "ace in the hole" against gentrification — a "counter force."
Left to be resolved is ownership of the beach and whether the development team, publicly led locally by DeLorenzo and backed by the business and financial resources that the reclusive Davis brings to the partnership.
Also clearly stated by Council President Jackie Hardy and others was that the developers get nothing by right from the overlay district, and must satisfy the Council with the architectural and design for the project before it is allowed.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.