Hats off to the Planning and Development Committee Zoom for how the meeting on rezoning the city was conducted last Wednesday. In so many ways, the Zoom nature of the call reinforced how slow and steady and seriously the committee was going to take this plan. One got a real close-up view of how the process worked and also, just how much work and time goes in to being on the City Council.
The three councilors on the committee obviously are taking this proposal and the marked change it will cause, seriously.
Chairman Jason Grow was very clear, steady, fair and efficient in sequencing the agenda, but in an interesting aside, the first item on the agenda (45 minutes) that preceded the zoning, shined a light on how much weight the councilors gave to the neighbors, the rules, history and the details. Val Gilman and Grow were very incisive working their way through what seemed like a walk-through Concord Street boat storage lot proposal, but, in fact, contained several concerns for the neighborhood. Sounds funny, but on Zoom, the two resembled airline pilots operating the controls of the plane while cueing in various city experts who had examined the facts on the ground. Very illuminating. These folks do work hard.
When it came time for the main bout, City Planner Greg Cademartori repeatedly emphasized just how much the entire effort was driven by the need for affordable housing. By raising building heights and making house expansions easier, planners felt that affordable housing was an attainable goal. However, while the presentation was well run and organized and the graphs, tables and plans well screened for all, the plan rarely showed how these changes would create much affordable housing. It would definitely create more housing, however, and several councilors auditing the meeting questioned whether congestion in our neighborhoods, and particularly on the roads, was really a goal the city needed to attain.
Councilors Tony Gross and Scott Memhard brought up downtown traffic specifically — which the planners had not given much research to. While committee member Tracy O’Neil spotlighted traffic, she also had major concerns for increased sewage and water demands as well as on-street parking in her neighborhood adjacent to the new school construction. Where are they all going to go in a blizzard, she wondered? It’s pretty bad now, she said, what will happen when expanding units-by-right becomes prevalent downtown. She and others questioned, again, whether just expanding housing to a greater degree should be the goal.
In fact, Mr. Cadamortori made two remarks that stuck in this Zoomer’s mind when he was asked about increased housing stock in West Gloucester. He said, “Build it and they will come,” and made many wonder if the goal was to attract new people from out of town. The second was when Memhard asked if making two-family conversion and construction much easier in R-1 (soon to renamed R-40) — Eastern Point and Dolliver’s Neck — would produce any affordable housing at all, Mr. Cadamortori inexplicably laughed and said “Well, prices are always going up on Eastern Point!” Memhard had mentioned he had received a bevy of phone calls from Eastern Point residents. This writer and perhaps other councilors wondered if prices were going up, why any landlord would charge affordable rent on EP. There was also much concern about increased heights and why that would result in more affordable housing.
However, this meeting was the first step in fleshing out the city’s response to the sweeping changes. Planner Greg did admit before he left that parts of the plan — nine amendments — might be struck depending on neighborhood reaction.
And Councilor Gilman had reinforced just how important meeting with and listening to neighborhood groups was. She emphasized it in the first agenda item about Concord Street and brought it up again in the main article.
That was very reassuring to feel that this whole magilla was not going to be rushed past the neighborhoods. She intimated that now was the time for residents to pipe up, be heard and make their case in either direction.
Sometimes in the recent past, it felt like boards we’re just approving anything that came along. This did not feel that way.
When it came time for questions from the public, this writer asked whether moving R-1 away from single family would produce a single affordable unit and not be a magnet for developers, especially on EP’s own Back Shore. I had concerns too that R-1 residents currently pay for their own roads to be plowed, paved and maintained. The plan showed many new units in the accompanying build-out analysis — would the city now begin to take on the expense of the roads?
And how about septics? With no sewer out there, what would become of existing septic systems with all these new bedrooms?
Finally, West Gloucester resident Dennis McGurk pointed out how much of the growth would take place in West Gloucester and East Gloucester where it was far less likely any affordable housing or lower prices would result. There were a lot of heads nodding after he said that. In fact, there were many good points bought up by the committee members and the attending other councilors — six in all. They listened, they spoke, they definitely cared about their wards first and foremost, but also about the livability factor for the whole city. That was really nice to see because this proposal will dramatically change Gloucester’s density. After all, last week, a pro-building letter writer, Mr. McCabe had said: “If we build enough houses, some are bound to be affordable. That’s their logic? It’s too bad all or more of the apartments at the YMCA complex couldn’t have been affordable so we could keep the zoning we have now. It will be a shame if we look back in five years and say: if only . . .
However, this was no kangaroo court and the process was, so far, pretty darn fair. Speak up, folks — they are listening. Don’t put it off. Never underestimate greed. The neighborhood you save might be your own.
Gloucester resident Gordon Baird is an actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine and producer of “The Chicken Shack” community access TV show.