Mayor Carolyn Kirk's oft-stated commitment to change zoning and allow a hotel on the Fort to help revitalize the economy on the waterfront has been dealt a blow.
Her plan to rezone the flats along the west side of Commercial Street to allow a hotel with condo units — the basic business model for a Marriott, which developers have proposed — is not being supported by the city's planning director.
City Planner Gregg Cademartori put his opinion in writing and delivered it to the Planning Board, which was trying to complete an extended set of hearings Monday night before turning to the task of deciding whether to recommend rezoning the Fort as the mayor proposed — or perhaps in other ways.
The board has been meeting in joint session with the City Council's Planning and Development Committee, which sat in to gather information. The recommendation of the board goes to the council where zoning decisions are made.
The Planning and Development Committee plays the key role of writing the plan for the full council, though the board's role is strictly advisory.
Dating from her campaign for mayor last year, Kirk has targeted the Fort as the first sector of the city's waterfront pegged for revitalization. The west side of Commercial Street behind Pavilion Beach, where the former Birdseye property is located, sits just outside the state Designated Port Area where the city's options are limited.
Developers have eyed the site for a Marriott Hotel.
After hearing Cademartori and the organized neighborhood opposition to the hotel, the board put off any decision for at least two weeks.
Cademartori agreed with the organized neighborhood opposition to the hotel that the mayor's proposal to replace the hotel-barring Marine Industrial zone with a Central Business zone that would allow a hotel and condos zone was probably too open-ended.
"When both uses and dimensional requirements are considered," Cademartori wrote in a five-page analysis of Kirk's proposal, "I have come to the conclusion that the CB district may not be the best designation."
In an interview yesterday, Cademartori said the problem he found with using the CB designation on the flats was that it allowed too many uses and had too few dimensional limits.
That combination works well for Main Street, which is a Central Business zone, he explained, because Main Street is already a stable and long matured district. But on the Fort — a neighborhood in transition — he said he's concerned that the central business designation would not provide the needed controls.
Instead, Cademartori suggested rezoning the flats as an Extensive Business District, which would allow a hotel, but bar the residential units that have become pro forma with the type of vacation hotel that developers have discussed with the mayor.
"An overwhelming majority" of the Fort Community Association, which organized in October, opposes any rezoning that would allow a hotel, group spokesman Bill Johnson told the Times yesterday.
In a written critique delivered — along with Cademartori's — to the Planning Board Monday night, the association said it opposed the CB designation because it would allow residential development as well as a hotel.
"Additional residential unit development ... is adding conflict to one of the city's primarily industrial neighborhoods," the association said in a statement read by Johnson to the board. The association also opposed the EB designation that Cademartori suggested might be a better fit.
"EB does not allow for some uses which should be viewed as critical possibilities for this site, that being manufacturing, processing and research," the neighborhood association wrote, noting that these uses that are currently found on the flats of the Fort.
The group described the use of EB as "death by a thousand cuts," allowing a hotel which might decide later to seek a zoning change that could allow housing to make the project economically viable.
Yesterday, Kirk and Cademartori said a different approach would be examined, and a report will be made to the Planning Board before its next meeting on the Fort's future, scheduled for Nov. 24.
The mayor said the idea is to keep the Marine Industrial designation but write an "overlay" district program for the flats that might allow a hotel and residences — but with built-in prohibitions against seeking relief from the noise, smell or traffic inconveniences posed by the industrial base that is already there.
Lisa Mead — attorney for Mac Bell, who owns the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce building at 33 Commercial St. — suggested the possibility of writing more effective limits for usage of the Fort into an overlay district plan.
"This isn't about standing still and doing nothing," the mayor said in a telephone interview.
At the board meeting Monday, Kirk drew renewed criticism from a number of Fort residents for writing the rezoning without neighborhood input. Instead, she employed consultants.
Kirk defended her approach, saying the goal was to get the process started.
"If I started in the neighborhood," she said, "we might never have gotten out."
She also said she worried that the neighborhood might block the rezoning and leave the city with a second waterfront property that languishes for years without helping provide economic vitality to the community.
She compared the decision about the Birdseye property to the long-vacant and weed-infested I-4, C-2 parcel on Rogers Street.
"My fear," she said, "is that Birdseye will become the new I-4, C-2."
Richard Gaines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.