(What follows is the text of the testimony I was prevented from delivering in full at the Gloucester City Council's May 8 public hearing on the Fort hotel overlay district zoning (HOD) that would pave the way for the construction of a luxury hotel and conference center at the site of the historic Birdseye plant on Commercial Street.)
This is the third assault on a neighborhood that has given, and continues to give, so much to Gloucester. The continued attempt to jam a hotel into an economically viable and socially and historically rich part of our city is not only poor planning, it is immoral and unethical. It is poor planning because it occurs at a time when the city’s Master Plan is ten years out of date. It is immoral because you do not target one neighborhood three times for radically inconsistent and potentially damaging developments, like hotels and condos, and then attack the residents and business owners for attempting legitimately to protect their lives and their livelihoods.
What community in its right mind would be talking about a hotel on the Fort when we haven’t looked at our future in a comprehensive way for over a decade? More fundamentally, you do not put the cart before the horse. You do not plan by zoning or rezoning; you zone through planning. Zoning was created to protect existing uses and to allow them to grow and prosper in safety, not to undermine them as this proposed hotel overlay would do, creating chaos in its wake.
The city is not bankrupt and we have an excellent bond rating, so there is no reason to rush into development without taking the long view and achieving the kind of consensus a community needs. For without that consensus we will have years of haggling and dysfunction.
One hotel on the Fort will not appreciably increase the city’s tax base or make our schools any better; nor will it provide the full-time jobs with benefits that maritime and other industries provide. What will increase the tax base and provide for excellence in education is comprehensive planning.
Those who believe that a hotel can be contained without consequences in a marine industrial neighborhood are seriously mistaken. One overlay request will lead to another, both on and off the Fort. The current developer already owns other parcels on the Fort, and at least one more Fort property owner has already expressed a desire to apply for an overlay for his property. Make no mistake, there will be a domino effect, and it could reverberate throughout the waterfront and the entire city. It has already begun to happen on the Back Shore, with yet another area of conflict opening up.
There will be social and economic consequences as well, as residents and business owners on the Fort are squeezed. To treat Gloucester’s most iconic neighborhood—the home to the some of the city’s most successful and viable marine industries and a place that draws thousands of visitors and has inspired generations of artists—like a pariah is not only wrong from a planning perspective, it is unethical. We should be praising and supporting these local Fort businesses for what they bring to the city in real products and wages, rather than damning them for presumably standing in the way of progress.
We need a downtown hotel. There is a welcome consensus on that issue. Good planning will help us to find the appropriate location for it. Planning and patience—virtues that are necessary for sustainable growth—are what we need just now, not knee-jerk reactions to overlay zoning or a hotel where it doesn’t belong and where it will create more problems than it will solve.
The groundwork has been laid for a new Master Plan with the Harbor Development plan, the Mt. Auburn Report and the Maritime Summit. However, the Harbor Plan is slated for revision and the Mt. Auburn and Summit reports are recommendations not plans. They need to be integrated into a rigorous Master Plan through an inclusive public process with maximum citizen input. Otherwise, we will spend years in meetings like this locked into debilitating arguments rather than working together to help our community grow and prosper.
The city is not in an active, creative mode. Instead, we are reacting to what others propose or try to impose on us. This does not make good economic sense, nor does it foster a community’s sense of well-being. We must take control of our future. We can only do that by declaring a moratorium, a conflict-free space in which we can heal and plan for the potentially rich future this city faces, a future we must create together not allow to be created for us by the demands of others. It is the responsibility of the City Council—you, our elected representatives—to exercise due diligence and to protect us from those demands that may on their face seem worthwhile, but will, in the end, prove even more divisive and damaging.
For these reasons, I strongly oppose the proposed Hotel Overlay District zoning for the Fort and I urge you to vote against it.