Sanity reared its fledgling head at the City Council showdown over the East Gloucester Espresso condos last Tuesday. The proposal fueled a huge crowd in the City Hall audience for the special permit hearing. It’s not surprising why. It was defeated 5-3 in a very dramatic and sometimes tense fashion.
The site was zoned for three units in 30,000 total square feet -- three quarters of an acre. The Beverly developer wanted eight condo units. The lot area was going to be stuffed right out to the edges. The danger of this project was that it could set a precedent for projects all over the city for a similar kind of math: zoned for three, build for eight. Anywhere. What future developer or their lawyer wouldn’t cite the precedent? What applies to them, applies to us, etc. That surely bothered the councilors who voted against almost a tripling of the zoning for this lot.
What is zoning for, anyway? Is it just a happy bright guideline guide for developers and boards to begin from and escalate? This developer demanded eight units because they couldn’t make a profit with fewer residences. Well, of course they couldn’t because the project was so inappropriate to the space. They were going to blast through those massive granite cliffs behind Espresso — going up the hill — just in order to shoehorn the units in. It was going to be an expensive effort. The project would redefine that part of East Gloucester and set a precedent for that “valley” between the soon-to-be-gone rocks and the water, including the old Bob’s Clam Shack.
The council took note of the concerned crowd and, to their credit, they kept an open mind and listened closely to both sides, especially opponents — and while there was a long line of them speaking, there were many multiples of them observing. In the end, it was the “zoned for three, build for eight” argument that won the night. It was just too much.
The scary thing these days is that the other boards, the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals just waved the thing right on through, 8-0, without a qualm. Those boards appear to have never met a project they didn’t like. Bigger the better. Zoning to them is the starting point for the developer to pile on their exponential desires. Those boards remind me of Trump’s reconstituted EPA, cheerfully dismantling any and all environmental protections they come across. Zoning? That’s but a guidance, right? Not any kind of rule or hard and fast standard? To call them “giveaway boards” could perhaps be considered an understatement. And they do it gleefully. The Age of Trump is fast catching up to our end-of-the-line paradise. The rule is that you squeeze the maximum dollars out and move on to bigger things. Trump is long gone by the time the paint has dried an there are too many cars for the parking spaces.
But you residents out in the wards won’t be so gleeful when they apply ‘zoned for three, build for eight” logic to your streets and neighborhoods. The pressures are building to “play ball” for more units because builders need higher profits to cover costs for sites that are so hard to engineer because the size is inappropriate. Could four units have passed? Probably, but there wasn’t the necessary profit to allow for that more reasonable number the council could have compromised on.
Back at the meeting — the cross section of the crowd was inspiring — as it was composed of all strata of Gloucester folks, lawyers, artists, bankers, just-plain-folks, and a bunch of Writer’s Center members whose properties abutted the site on both sides. It required much stamina to make it through the late night — for audience and board members alike — but it was American democracy in action. You have to show up to participate and both sides did. There was a boatload of talking and wonderfully, a boatload of listening.
Hopefully another, more reasonable project will approach that site, formerly a restaurant. We need a good eatery in that part of town. I remember when that site boomed — perhaps it will again some day soon. Good job Gloucester, good job council.
Good job residents for making sure “zoned for three, build for eight” doesn’t come soon to a neighborhood near you. Lobby your officials, lobby your neighbors. We’re all in this together. Zoning is in place for a reason. Stick up for your neighborhoods.
You can make a difference.
Gloucester resident Gordon Baird is an actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine and producer of “The Chicken Shack” community access TV show.