Mayor Carolyn Kirk said Friday that she backs the proposed rezoning of the Commercial Street properties that contain the Birdseye and Chamber of Commerce buildings and the "intention" of developing a hotel on the site.
Beauport Gloucester LLC, a limited liability corporation headed by New Balance founder Jim Davis, has proposed placing a hotel overlay zoning district from 33 to 61 Commercial St., ahead of planned hotel development at Birdseye. The re-zoning heads to a Planning Board public hearing on March 12 and two citizens groups have started a flurry of petitions supporting and opposing the plans.
In her weekly "Mayor's Desk" column submitted Friday for today's Times, Kirk supports the re-zoning proposal because redeveloping the Birdseye site and development across the city will spread out the tax burden.
Right now, Kirk said, residential property is around 90 percent of the city's tax base. Commercial development makes up the rest.
"It simply comes down to the expansion of the tax base to make the community affordable for everybody," said Kirk.
Kirk said that she and her administration have stood behind every proposed rezoning in the Fort area. While the first two proposals failed — one that would have rezoned the entire neighborhood failed in 2008, and Mac Bell's zoning proposal that did not go through in 2010 — this proposal, she said, is more specific and concentrated.
Development, she said, isn't an either, or proposition. Tourism-related industry, she said, will not replace or prevent building the maritime economy.
Residents who are rallying against the project and its rezoning don't agree.
"The city says they support (marine industry)," said Ann Molloy of Neptune's Harvest, based on Commercial Street. "But their actions don't show it," she added.
Standing behind the proposal, which would augment the requirements of the Fort's Marine Industrial zoning, runs contrary to the city's November Maritime Summit and conflicts with the industry that's already there, Molloy said Friday. Beauport Gloucester LLC's proposed hotel overlay zoning district, which adds only hotel and accessory uses to the zoning, simply isn't needed for successful waterfront development, she said.
The Fort Square and Commercial Street businesses, Molloy said, bring in around $80 million in gross revenue each year, while a hotel built on the Birdseye site would conflict with what those businesses are doing there now. She said the opposition supports a downtown hotel — just not at the Birdseye site.
The mayor's endorsement of the rezoning and the project and the latest debate come amid a flurry of new online petitions courting support on both sides.
Molloy, Citizens for Gloucester Harbor, and the "Hold the Fort" initiative have sent out two petitions, asking for signatures from residents and non-residents alike who oppose the rezoning and planned hotel.
On the web, both petitions are run by SignOn.org, and have together be signed by about 400 people, with a good percentage of them out-of towns.
Molloy and members of the Hold the Fort initiative sent out an email asking people to sign. The petitions auto-send email messages to city councilors, Kirk, and other officials every time someone signs on.
One email introducing the petition states that the "hostile takeover of the 1 percent has begun" in Gloucester. The same email also indicates that the district would be rezoned for a "huge luxury hotel," though Beauport representatives have not submitted any specific plans beyond the rezoning request. The email received at the Times did not come from Molloy, but the message is signed "Ann" and bears Molloy's electronic stamp as "sales director, Neptune's Harvest ..."
Molloy said Friday that Davis and Beauport Gloucester LLC's purchase of the property from local developer Mac Bell for $6.5 million may not be a "hostile takeover," but said the acquisitions by Beauport Gloucester will raise housing values and property taxes and will make it difficult, if not impossible, for residents to stay where they are.
She added that it's important to have out-of-town input showing that even people who visit the city take issue with changing its character.
Ward 2 City Councilor Melissa Cox, however, said that help isn't helpful.
"People outside of Gloucester who are signing (the petitions) aren't doing anything but jamming inboxes," Cox said Friday.
Those signatures, she said, don't help inform her decision. People from out of town, she added, didn't elect her and aren't the constituents to whom she answers. Her concern, she said, are the views of Gloucester residents who will bear the benefit or the brunt of the rezoning and planned hotel.
Hold the Fort, however, isn't the only group petitioning.
"I kept hearing no, no, no, from so many people on so many projects in Gloucester," said Ed Collard, who runs the House Doctors and is a vice president on the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce's Board of Directors.
Collard has launched Citizens for Positive Change to support the Birdseye project, and the group has started its own petition drive, which, at least on SignOn.org, had pulled together 114 signatures as of Friday.
While a percentage of those signatures also come from out of town, Collard said he realizes the local ones are the ones that matter.
"We are living this," he said. "It's our infrastructure, our tax base, and our jobs."
Despite the debate over whether a hotel will serve or harm the city and its waterfront, officials heading the zoning proposal review say the hotel isn't the focus right now.
"The Planning Board and Planning and Development (subcommittee) review that will start on (March) 12," said Planning Board Chairman Richard Noonan. "is solely focused on the zoning proposal, and the merits of (it)."
Those panels, said Councilor Bruce Tobey, chairman of the Planning and Development subcommittee, will make decisions based on reality — not folklore and emotion.
"The challenge," Tobey said, "is going to be for the members of the (boards) to put on their very best filters and very best analytical skills, and come up with a fair and balanced evaluation."
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.