Permits OK'd for Magnolia project

Desi Smith/Staff file photo/Firefighters from surrounding towns look on as fire destroys the building on the corner of Fuller Street and Norman Avenue in Magnolia, which housed apartments and Tony’s Magnolia House of Pizza, on Oct. 26, 2014. The City Council approved special permits Tuesday to allow a similar structure to be built on the site.

An empty lot in the center of Magnolia, Gloucester's southernmost village, is closer to becoming the site of a new building.

The City Council voted, 8-1, to grant Boston-based Beauport Shores LLC, Boston, the owner of 35 Fuller St., three special permits as it looks to build a multi-family or apartment dwelling on the site. The lot, at the corner of Fuller Street and Norman Avenue, was home to a three-story structure that housed Magnolia House of Pizza, a hair salon and apartments. It was destroyed by fire in 2014.

The special permits granted Tuesday night include the ability to increase the number of residential building units from two to six, and to decrease the minimum lot area per dwelling unit and minimum open space per dwelling unit. 

While the permits were granted, city councilors did not shy away from taking their time to speak to the pros and cons of the potential development. 

"This was a process but we took our time and made sure that this was followed by the letter of the law," said Council President Steven G. LeBlanc, Jr. prior to the roll-call vote.  

During the discussion, Council Vice President Valerie H. Gilman made sure that the council discussed the social economics for community need, traffic flow and safety, adequacy of utilities and public services, neighborhood character, qualities of natural environments, and potential fiscal impact.

Councilor at-Large James W. O'Hara, Jr., a long-time resident of Magnolia, was the lone opposing vote.

He raised concerns for the character of the neighborhood, saying that when all is said and done, the council would have to answer to a poor decision. 

"When the visitors arrive in the summer and we have traffic all over creation and people continue to complain, who can we blame but the nine of us who sit here at this table and vote on these projects?" O'Hara said. "We continue to turn a blind eye. Is it responsible?"

Other councilors disagreed with O'Hara. 

"I do not believe that this proposed project is inconsistent or out of character with the mixed neighborhood business and residential district that it is being built in," Ward 2 councilor Scott Memhard said. "I think it is appropriate and in character with development."

Councilor at-Large Melissa Cox agreed with Memhard. 

"This would not be in character of East Gloucester, but it is in character for the place that it is being built," Cox said. 

There was a short discussion regarding what Beauport Shores meant by "take-out" restaurant, as some assumed that this meant Magnolia House of Pizza, which was housed in the burned building, would be returning to the square. 

Neither Beauport Shores attorney Mark Nestor, attorney Meredith Fine, representing opposition to the project, nor the City Council could confirm that the beloved pizza joint would be residing in Magnolia once again. 

Fine has not discussed the possibility of an appeal with her client, Gerald McCarthy. 

To build or not to build? 

Whether community members were for or against the 35 Fuller St. conversion, they agreed that the empty lot is an eyesore and something needs to change. 

However, that is where their views came to a crossroad. 

The room during Tuesday night's public hearing was divided as Nestor and those in favor of the development sat on the right side of Kyrouz Auditorium, while Fine, representing McCarthy, was joined by those opposed on the left. 

Those in favor spoke of rekindling the social hub that was once there, prior to the 2014 fire that destroyed the building.

"The place that the neighborhood could go to dine together at a reasonable price, send their children, or walk off of Magnolia Beach in the summer as a matter of convenience would again be," Magnolia resident Ted Costa said. 

Chris Doe called Magnolia a "friendly residential neighborhood" and sees a project like this as in line with the neighborhood's character. 

"This building is what the residents see when enter the village," Nestor said. "My client seeks to revitalize the square to provide something for the neighborhood at the same time providing housing."

Abutters and other community members opposed to the conversion were concerned for the increase in traffic, parking, environmental impact, and overall safety of the square. 

Keith Zellmann, an abutter and church moderator at Union Congregational Church, 3 Norman Ave., voiced his concern regarding safety, particularly for the children who attend the church's youth group and Sunday school. 

However, he was not opposed to a development of some kind.

"We want to see something built there," Zellmann continued. 

Surfer, swimmer, and diver John O'Hara addressed traffic flow, the lack of parking, and the concern of increased sewage flow. 

"It should say something to the council that most of the people who live right around this property don't want this," said Fine, motioning to the people preparing to voice their frustrations. 

Nestor, however, pointed out that there were 35 people present at the public hearing in support of the project and he had a petition signed by 192 people. 

Staff writer Taylor Ann Bradford can be reached at 978-675-2705 or tbradford@northofboston.com.

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