Monday, September 22, 2008

Hold the Fort: Planning Before Rezoning

(Current zoning map of the Fort neighborhood of Gloucester, MA)

There are two questions about the proposed rezoning of the Fort—and of the waterfront itself—I’d like to address briefly.

The first is about the language we’re using. Slogans like “putting the harbor back to work” or “turning the lights back on on the waterfront” presuppose that the harbor isn’t working and that the lights of commercial activity are out. Neither statement is true. Even with the worst federal regulations ever imposed on the fishing industry we’re still working on Gloucester harbor. Millions of pounds of fish are being landed, boats from other Massachusetts ports, Maine and Rhode Island are unloading, there are two fish auctions, businesses like Neptune’s Harvest are thriving and new businesses are starting up. This is not a dead seaport; neither is the fishing industry moribund or the waterfront “stagnant.” These negative myths need to be refuted because they don’t provide the facts on the ground we need for intelligent planning. Instead, they create a crisis atmosphere that allows only for knee-jerk solutions.

What I’m suggesting is that we reframe the issue, from crisis to opportunity. The collapse of stocks and the advent of restrictive federal regulations to ensure they recoup has forced the industry to downsize, creating hardship for boat owners, processors, ancillary businesses and individual fishing families. Fishing is not what it was thirty years ago. But Gloucester, a city of courageous, inventive people accustomed to hardship, has kept its waterfront working, knowing that our city still is and will continue to be an important hub port. We want to renew existing infrastructure and invest in new docking and processing facilities, not only because we need them now (every docking space assigned to fishing is currently in use—and we need more, right now) but because when the stocks recoup (scientists tell us they will by 2014—only six years from now) we want to be the people fishing for them, landing and processing them, not some other community.

Meanwhile, we’re all working together, planning together, to protect our maritime heritage, our hardy character, and to bring in new marine industrial business, creating by-products and value-added commodities and encouraging hi-tech, research and bio-genetic facilities, all related to the sea. What we want to tell the world, and ourselves, is not that Gloucester is on the way out, but that we’ve turned crisis into opportunity and we’re on the way up. Come and see for yourselves!

This is just a sketch, but I can envision it as the basis for a whole new pitch for Gloucester—re-branding the city, if you will, from a negative image of “the town where fishing once was,” as so many people around the country have been led to believe by the Media, to a positive picture of Gloucester as “one of the premiere hub ports in the country,” where citizens have taken their future into their own hands while preserving the best of their historic past.

With this in mind, let me turn to the zoning. The current proposal for the Fort puts the cart before the horse. It doesn’t look at the fact that there are currently thriving businesses on the Fort, with the potential for more to come (how do we help them to stay here and grow); or the fact that real people with real lives live on the Fort, people who pay their taxes and are committed to their neighborhood. It is really an "urban renewal" proposal that would primarily open the way for a hotel with condos to be developed, no matter what negative social or economic impact they would have on the residents and business owners of the Fort. It is disingenuous to think otherwise. It’s a case of development driving planning. Jam in a hotel and let the chips fall where they may.

This is not good planning. Real planning lets the community say what it wants where it wants it, and from there we go out and get what we need. Real planning looks at what’s currently working, what is its history and how does it fit into the total ecology of the community. Real planning is not a knee-jerk response to a myth: fishing is dead, the waterfront is stagnant, let’s sell it out for a hotel.

Real planning asks what should we be doing to promote Gloucester as a place to move or start a business in. Real planning asks how can we make it easier to get permits to fix up and maintain current properties. Real planning asks if we need to change the DPA, or if under the current DPA we already have the flexibility we need to keep the waterfront working. Real planning answers the question of how we get businesses to come to Gloucester right now, businesses that are compatible with the economic, social and physical character of the city; business that create year-round jobs with good pay and comprehensive benefits, not the service jobs of hotels that depend on the ups and downs of tourism.

Let’s address these questions before we start rezoning the Fort and the rest of the waterfront out of existence.

I received an email last week from a close friend, a Gloucester native, who lives with her family now in Florida. She writes: “If Gloucester becomes soulless, then what hope is there for the rest of the country? This is what is wrong with the place where I live. It doesn’t have a soul, and there is no one I’ve met who would even know what I’m talking about. It’s heartbreaking.” The Fort is the heart and soul of Gloucester. Let’s keep it that way.

(Presented as testimony at a joint public hearing of the Gloucester Planning Board and City Council Planning & Development Sub-committee, at City Hall on September 22, 2008.)

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