Mac asked me to lend some thought to the concept of Gloucester 's present, possibly because I've been involved in development issues, perhaps as someone who loves Gloucester, or maybe just as an observer.
Gloucester is at a curious point in its nearly 400-year history. First settled in 1623, we're one of the very oldest of American cities. We have a median age of 44.9 years and a median household income of about $42,000. We commute an average of 25 minutes to get to work, which means that many more of us now work off-Cape than was the case in the past. Fewer of us work in the fishing industry (frozen or fresh) than did 10 years ago, far, far less than worked in it 50 years ago or a hundred years ago. Our city has a large land area, one of the largest in the state, with some 30,000 residents. The burden of servicing this large area falls on relatively few people and, compared to our neighboring towns, people of more modest means. Proportionally fewer of our children go to college than the kids in neighboring towns. We have a unique and challenging demographic, in that we're at the end of the line. We're surrounded on three sides by water, and we're not on the way to anywhere else.
Gloucester has a desperate need for tax revenue; we all know that. We have a school system that has been underfunded in the millions every year from the loss of State aid which we have been unable to replace. Our water system is in dire need of upgrading, and many of our roads are in bad shape. Our infrastructure would be strained to handle large increases in traditional family residential-type growth, and attracting businesses to Gloucester has historically been a challenge.
What's the answer? What does Gloucester need? Since purchasing the BirdsEye building several months ago, Mac has been working on this issue, seeking input, asking opinions, assessing options. Quite candidly, it's been exciting to watch the evolution of such a huge undertaking.
In Gloucester, no two people can agree on much of anything, but in an effort to tap into the community's own sense of itself and its needs, the BirdsEye team has had a series of meetings with the public. Following our initial public input meeting on August 8, we had a session of focus groups on September 19, which were directed toward visualizing the future of the Birdseye building.
Trends definitely emerged. There was a lot of interest in bio-marine research, a culinary arts school, museums, a desalinization plant, Coast Guard training center, a Pavilion Beach club, retail, neighborhood shops, and housing.
But there was also interest in businesses most of us had never heard of before, including the construction of European-style canals boats that serve as floating “waterfront” hotels, which could be constructed here and operated in the harbor. Intriguing, and definitely thinking outside the box.
People were interested in jobs, in green industries, and in fishing-related businesses. They wanted art and performance spaces and meeting spaces, restaurants and health clubs, live/work spaces, a piazza, and beach access. No one suggested a recording studio, which given the wealth of musical talent in this city was somewhat surprising. But people had lots of ideas; there was no shortage of wish lists.
In reviewing the results of this in context with the work done recently by the space/numbers crunchers at Mt. Auburn Assoc., we found that the space already exists for all of the industrial uses, for the plants, the research and development, the fishermen's storage facilities, desalinization, waste-water treatment, and then some. The real estate market in Gloucester is wide open for any investor willing to start up those kinds of businesses – the industrial space is there, plenty of it. There exists at present, depending on whose numbers you consult and how you analyze it, and excluding BirdsEye, between 250,000-1,000,000 square feet of either available or underutilized marine industrial; space – develop-able, build-able or buy-able.
The working waterfront has been limited by lack of demand for more than 10 years now – space is going begging. It might be time to think - creatively and wisely - about other options.
And one place to start could be a property that falls outside both Ch. 91 and the DPA, as BirdsEye does..
We would like to see increased marine-industrial growth as much as everyone else in Gloucester does. But it is not going to fall out of the sky. What's standing between new marine-related industry isn't a lack of industrial space, but a lack of support for that industry: What is lacking is infrastructure – a better water system, better cell phone coverage, the facilities that businesses require. That leads to other questions – how do we generate sufficient tax revenue to boost the infrastructure, and then, where do we put the new businesses that foster or follow industrial growth? They could be located in Sam Park's mall, but is that desirable space, considering where we are? What's so compelling about Gloucester is our waterfront – THAT's what brings the people. Gloucester's got the ocean, it's got Gloucester Harbor . It's right out the window. It's our biggest asset.
There are thousands upon millions of square miles of this world that fall outside of the ocean's reach, and yet landlocked people still dream about it. They want to see the ocean, to touch it, to put their feet in the waves. We may love our Dogtown, our Portugese Hill, our Ravenswood, but when people visit Gloucester, they zero in on how to get the most of their proximity to the ocean. “Our inn was right on the water!” “We got a table right next to the water.” People of all ages cannot resist the urge to take a piece of this experience home with them: a shell, a smooth rock, a sand dollar, a piece of opaque seaglass. And of course, all the photographs, each with its expanse of blue sky and sea.
We've been carefully protecting our waterfront for a long time, through the DPA, through zoning and through Ch. 91 - and there are good reasons for this. We all know what they are. But there are other, more subtle reasons why in Gloucester we have had a lot of resistance to opening up the waterfront to non marine-industrial uses. Gregor has touched on them in the compelling portrait of urban loss we have just seen and heard.
But even before Urban Renewal, in the hundreds of years that the ocean has been giving our families food and livelihoods, it has also taken away from us more than five thousand of our husbands, fathers and sons, uncles, cousins and friends, and made widows and orphans of many times more than that. Added up over the years, this sense of loss, this fatalism, also has to have left its grim mark on our subconscious. “No more loss; no more change” – who has not felt that?
Gloucester has been our home, our refuge, but it also breaks our hearts. As we cling to our beloved traditions, we witness the steady march of time, which has taken away so much that this city once was. During urban renewal, Boston lost the West End, permanently and irrevocably destroying an important ethnic neighborhood, a home to thousands of close-knit neighbors that would never be home again. Gloucester lost so much too – and not just one neighborhood. We surrendered 165 buildings, commercial and residential, to supposed “progress,” trading diversity and activity for a sterile industrial zone that cut us off from the water. And this is on top of our always having lost our people to the sea.
In Gloucester, where death and loss are never far away, we have a natural fear of change. In our lifetimes, change has meant loss; rarely has it meant gain. It is tempting to try to keep everything the same, but things don't stay the same. They never have. How do we sort out beneficial change from change that sets us back?
In the earlier days of our republic, towns that didn't fall on the path of the newly constructed railroads became ghost towns. Thriving western towns and cities became quickly obsolete if they weren't connected by that speedy rail to other cities and towns. The railroads moved goods and people over thousands of miles and facilitated the development of the country and its westward expansion. Places outside their reach became quickly irrelevant, and eventually abandoned.
Now, it's a different phenomenon with strangely similar results. Cars have given us individual mobility, and they've also presented problems. They can get us places quickly, but then we have to park them somewhere. We can move our homes out of the city, but then we have to get to work in the city. Large numbers of cars are especially difficult in older cities, cities built on a small scale, like Gloucester, which contemplated horses, pedestrians, and maybe streetcars. With Americans increasingly behind the wheel, developers began moving commercial activity away from the cities toward the suburban malls, closer to where people were living, easier for them to access, easier to park. Not just retail and residential properties were affected, as industries went increasingly suburban. Many American cities face the identity crisis Gloucester does. But they don't have what we have – they don't have the ocean and they don't have Gloucester Harbor .
Before building Gloucester Crossing, Sam Park nonchalantly expressed his view of Gloucester 's irrelevance. He and his group described Main Street as a collection of quaint shops with niche products, lacking serious retail or services. Even if he were wrong, Main Street merchants say that there is now a significant percentage of Gloucester 's money that is leaving Main Street, tipping the commercial activity toward the mall.
Long before the mall, Main Street has been in decline. Downtown Gloucester has lost so many businesses, from the enormous Brown's Dept store (once twice the size of LL Bean) down to the dozens of shops and markets that used to provide for the daily necessities of our citizens. Our downtown has, since urban renewal, become increasingly marginalized. Whatever the cause or the confluence of causes, the trend is tragic.
A perfect storm of conditions exists. Coupled with the loss of shoppers to malls, and the loss of tax revenue from downtown businesses, we have our Main Street, snugged up between Middle and Rogers, once thriving, and now fighting for its life. We fret about it, we love it, many people have invested their capital and energies toward its revival and growth, but it has an uncertain future. Will we lose this too? Where is downtown's tipping point?
Sam Park evidently thought Main Street and downtown weren't worth investing it. So he went the conventional way the country has been going for the past 50 years and built a mall, away from downtown. Undeniably, this project provides employment and convenience. But at what cost? What about downtown? What can the downtown of the future be? How can Birdseye be part of the solution?
Mac – who is going to speak next – is a hometown Gloucester guy. For those of us who started out someplace else, we have two hometowns – the one we were born in and the one we have chosen. In Mac's case, they are one and the same. This is a remarkable choice, in many ways, because Mac, with his energy and resources, could have been successful almost anywhere, and probably could have been more successful in some ways had he gone elsewhere. For a developer, Gloucester is a tough place. Not much buildable land, funky infrastructure, resistance to change. But he's here to stay. In the BirdsEye project, he has taken on a jaw-dropping challenge. He can keep it as it is, a freezer facility – obsolete and underused. But it has been interesting to explore what's possible – to merge the city's needs with the potential that this uniquely situated property suggests.