The city's Fort, a historically rich mishmash of a neighborhood where immigrant fishing families settled and fish were first frozen and packaged, would be revitalized and transformed under a rezoning plan released yesterday.
The proposal from Mayor Carolyn Kirk would subdivide a large section of the isolated peninsula — limited today to marine industrial uses and grandfathered apartments — into three different zones.
Left unchanged for now would be the wharfside properties of Commercial Street, which are inside the state-controlled Designated Port Area (DPA).
The rezoning plan is the first part of an agenda that may eventually revise usage laws for the DPA and other parts of the harbor. These changes were discussed in last month's series of five "listening post" public meetings on the future of the harbor.
But the most immediate impact of the mayor's Fort rezoning plan would be to simplify permitting for a Marriott hotel on the former Birdseye property between Commercial Street and Pavilion Beach.
Peter Maggio, who now owns the property where Clarence Birdseye proved fish could be flash frozen for shipment and storage, said the proposal — if ratified — makes "viable" the construction of the Commercial Street Marriott, which he has said he would build in partnership with hotel developers and a contract from the chain.
Kirk noted that she'd met her self-imposed July deadline for the rezoning plan — the first major spin-off from a grassroots-based process aimed at using public values to shape a more active waterfront and jump-start a citywide economic revival.
"We are delighted to submit the proposed rezoning," Kirk said in a memo to the City Council.
The proposal — which will undergo an expedited, joint review by the council's Planning and Development Committee and the Planning Board — splits the section of the Fort on the outside of Commercial Street into three zones.
The first zone, described as "the flats", contains 33 Commercial Street, which currently houses the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce, as well as the virtually abandoned Birdseye facilty, would become a Central Business zone, a designation that allows hotels.
Under the current designation of Marine Indutrial zone, construction of a hotel would require variances by the city and could face a potentially lenghty legal fight should opposition surface.
Maggio, who has brought his hotel development partners to meet with Kirk, said "nobody would spend a cent" of the estimated $1 million in "soft costs" needed to get a hotel project through design and permitting unless the city replaces the marine industrial zone with one that allows a hotel.
Norris & Norris Associates, a waterfront planning firm that advised Kirk on the rezoning, reported that "Chapter 91 permitting will be required for some portion of the Birdseye site."
"The site will post challenges for redevelopment, even with the change to CB zoning," the consulting firm wrote.
Maggio said research by his legal team has convinced him there are no Chapter 91 (waterfront access) issues.
"We fully intend to have public access," said Maggio.
The second zone, encompassing the residential high ground and center of the Fort, would go from a marine industrial zone to a "Neighborhood Business" zone. As such, residential apartments would become allowable — a move that would, according to Community Development Director Sarah Buck, encourage reinvestment and modernization in the neighborhood.
Buck said the marine industrial zone that was imposed on the Fort early in the last century had essentially prevented investment. The designation came more than 100 years after the old Fort itself, a defensive redoubt from the Revolutionary War, was abandoned and the area converted into tenements for immigrants.
The conversion of the interior section into a neighborhood business zone ratifies present uses, Buck said, and should ensure that the center of the neighborhood remain residential. The neighorhood business zone also would allow light commercial services needed by the neighborhood.
The third zone would frame the elevated center of the Fort and take in degraded wharves and docking facilities that are now used for storing lobster traps and not much else.
Because of their placement on the water and its location — directly across the mouth of the Inner Harbor from the historic Paint Factory, itself acquired last month for revitalization as the home of a ocean research facility — the outer edges of the Fort at the end of Commercial Street have potential for industrial and commercial waterfront uses.
In the 19th century, the longest wharf in the city was located along the outer side of the Fort. It was where the great sailing ships of the day tied up. The city recently lost out to Newburyport in a competition to host a "tall ships" reunion later this summer because of a lack of berthing facilities.
A new zone for the city, named Harbor District, would be created to govern use of this section of the Fort. Housing of any kind, including condos, would be prohibited, according to Kirk's proposal.
Buck said the consensus of the community was to keep the harbor clear of new housing and condos. In her message to the council, Kirk said the rezoning proposals reflect the consensus of the community expressed last month in the "listening post" meetings.
Norris & Norris wrote to encourage the restoration of the old long wharf.
"Future restoration of the long pile supported pier face along the eastern edge of the Fort should be considered to further economic redevelopment of the commercial land parcels in the area as well as further public access along the water's edge," the consultants wrote.
In its description of the rationale for the Fort's rezoning, the firm indicated that "current land uses in the Fort have evolved over the past century from pre-eminently marine industrial to a mixture of fishing-related, water dependent, non-water dependent industrial, and residential.
"The full district has remained in MI zoning while the majority of current uses and land areas are nonconforming or vacant. It is quite likely that the MI zoning has discouraged any changes in use or substantial property upgrades for areas in non-conforming uses.
"The deterioration of the once continuous pile supported pier and apron along the southeastern face of the Fort is a reflection of diminished demand for commercial marine operations combined with wave and wind exposure along this edge of the Fort," the consultants wrote.
The Fort got its name from a fort known as "Watch House Neck" that was strategically built on the redoubt overlooking the Inner Harbor to give colonists a vantage point from which to fire upon British ships.
In the War of 1812, the fort was rebuilt as "Fort Defiance" — and again in the Civil War. Afterward, the little peninsula was adapted as the local version of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where immigrants were shoehorned into tenements.
First came Irish who filled up the schooners and contributed more than their fair share to the rolls of fishermen lost at sea. Later came the Portuguese and, finally, in the 1920s, Sicilians.
The first St. Peter's Fiesta in 1927 was held within the Fort, where the immigrants lived in de facto segregation. Proximity of the boats to the tenements made the Fort an ideal home for the poor fishermen-laborers.
For more than a generation — with the fishing industry on the decline— the properties inside of the Fort fell into disuse and began to decay. In 1993, a comprehensive reassessment dropped property values on the waterfront by 40 percent.
Down at the end of Commercial Street, Cape Pond Ice perseveres, shifting away from commercial ice to novelties.
But in the past few years, new businesses have begun to improve the properties along Commercial Street.
Buck said a goal of the harbor plan is to see similar public access throughout the Fort and the rest of the harbor. Public access was a persistent theme of the public meetings.
Richard Gaines can be reached at email@example.com