By Julie Penny
Ten years ago, in this very column, I wrote:
“Without knowing it, Sag Harbor is a poster child for ‘smart growth.’ Why? Because it’s a pedestrian-friendly community where you don’t have to go gallivanting all over town to get things done. It’s a place where the essentials for daily living, and then some, can be met in the village center. It also combines recreational, civic and cultural uses… “…Smart growth also means not developing beyond what is sustainable…for smart growth planning demands a balance remain between environmental impacts considered in regional totality, such as wetlands alteration, traffic and sewage impacts; groundwater impacts; open space…”
On many scores, our poster child of a village is fraying about the edges as we plunge further into the murky waters of the 21st century. Sustainability grows more tenuous. In certain instances, growth has not been so smart in the intervening years since I wrote the above. Sag Harbor’s impetus toward smart growth wasn’t a conscious effort so much as happenstance. That, and its desire to conserve the character of its beautiful historic architecture. It was during the last two decades as pressure for development mounted that it became more studied.
Smart growth seeks to maintain the vibrancy and soul of a community. In that, our access to and our viewscapes of the cove and harbor plays an enormous factor in the equation that sums up Sag Harbor and, with it, our lives. It molds our sense of place, our identity; it’s the abiding umbilical cord tying Sag Harbor’s past, present and future together. It’s also an engine that fuels our economy, and a magnet for tourists and residents alike. One can say we’ve already overstepped the wiggle-room of sustainability. Proposed additions to certain historic buildings threaten the look of Main Street. Several of our waterscapes once taken for granted have, over time, been obliterated. So too, our wetlands critical to our ecology are often overlooked. For example, as has often been the case, either homeowners ignore wetland laws when bent on improving their properties, or the village Harbor Committee doesn’t follow the village’s own code when granting wetland permits. This has led and leads to wetland encroachment or destruction. In this respect, it seems the village is poised for greater compliance. Let’s hope so. It needs to be consistent and always on its toes.
Strolling about our village, nestled on its ideal harbor, with beautiful historic buildings that whisper to us of our past, we each can take personal measure of what the village has done right; what they’ve done wrong. Of course there will be varying opinions. And vociferous these opinions are, and have been over the years — at meetings of Sag Harbor’s village boards and committees, in the fervid letters to the editor, at civic meetings like the now defunct CONPOSH or at the CACs. Come to mind are the pitched battles of the “round-abouts” by the bridge on one end of Main Street and at the Jermain/Main street intersection on the other. These hot-button traffic flow issues were finally remedied several years ago, and with satisfactory outcomes. But not without a lot of sturm and drang in between. The neck-downs, stop signs, crosswalks, and well-defined turning lane markings by the bridge have been effective in managing traffic; the stop light by Otter Pond as well. Both have created safe passage for pedestrians and vehicles alike. Then, there was the battle of public opinion on whether or not to keep or demolish the big, blue gas ball in the back parking lot. Or, the long-running battle to either preserve or demolish the old Bulova building.
The successful attempt by Brenda Siemer to save the “Sag Harbor” movie theatre sign was a small skirmish with the building’s owner to preserve the well-loved visual icon that harkens back to Sag Harbor’s vaudeville days. Nonetheless, it was emblematic of a collective citizens’ yearning to literally keep a landmark from the dustbin of history. When it was taken down for replacement, I believe the owner had no idea how important it was to the rest of us. These are the telling instances that give proof to how invested we are, how much we care about and identify with our living history.
The toughest battles are those that decimate our natural resources and our waterfront. Along its way the village has lost wetlands and habitat. And not for want of trying to protect them. As far back as the 1960s the late visionary environmentalist, Nancy Boyd Willey, for one, voiced the need to protect the wetlands on Glover Street. Jean Lane, who once sat on the village’s planning board and who retired to Oregon several years ago was a fierce voice in wanting to get the village to enact a strong wetland law for the village. She’d be happy to know that, though belatedly, stronger wetland laws are now in place.
Not only for its environmental impacts, but it’s painful when one of Sag Harbor’s waterscapes can be lost to condominiums. When big buildings go up along the waterfront it assaults both our individual and group psychology; creates a pall over the spirit. To add insult to injury, none of these big building projects offered any affordable housing for the locals. Without affordable housing there’s an exodus — a brain drain, a talent drain, a labor drain, and an expertise drain that ultimately stunts and diminishes communities. We are already endangered by the lack of affordable housing.
The proposed condos at One Ferry Road brought a packed house to Village Hall a couple of years ago to oppose it. Pending the outcome of litigation the defunct project may be revived again. The sheer scale, size and height of the Ferry Road condominiums would blot out light, space and viewscape. A jarring sore thumb when we look at it at street-level, or when going over the bridge. Seems they still want to maintain density to make it cost effective.
Immediately painful are the darkened stores that have lost their leases to escalating rents — Bikehampton, the drycleaners among them. I walk by these stores, their windows swathed over with brown paper pending new tenants. It makes me sad. Is this the watershed moment where we start losing an all-important diversity of businesses that provide products, services, entertainments and other ineffable qualities? If the Bay Street Theatre can’t afford to stay at the wharf, it will be a great loss. It’s been an anchor, an integral and beneficial part of the community in so many ways. One that also creates a huge economic spin-off for our community.
Together, they all provide a cultural heartbeat and pulse for the village. And importantly, livelihoods—for employees as well as proprietors. People invest blood, sweat and tears in their businesses and get the boot when rent becomes unaffordable. I have no idea how long the drycleaners had been in existence, but it’s been a fixture since I moved here 30 years ago. People now have to go to King Kullen in the Bridgehampton plaza to get their drycleaning done. A year-and-a-half ago, Megna Glass, a magical glass-blowing business, shuttered its shop to be replaced by a swank outdoor furniture place. The Java Nation coffee shop which has been in the same spot for 17 years will be gone by the time this column goes to print.
Who can afford high rents? Big outlets like Ralph Lauren? Starbucks? Not our neighbors who offer up a variety of talents we need to run daily life. And not only daily life, but the extras that make life sweeter and interesting. My comings and goings up the steps and through the alleyway where Java Nation and other shops are located, always reminded me of a miniaturized version of the outdoor “paseos” in Santa Barbara, California, of which I’m quite fond. The sight of the regulars sitting around the outside bistro tables chatting, sipping their coffee, always made me smile. I feel the same way when I pass LT Burger, a welcome newcomer, that always seems to be jumping in summer and over fall and spring weekends. People enjoying food, drink, conversation, life, each other, in the public square so to speak, is a gregarious pursuit that involves both diners and passersby. I was happy when the village finally relented and allowed restaurants their smattering of outside tables.
I, for one, love street life. I like to see the inside space of restaurants mirrored in the liveliness of people sitting outside al fresco enjoying themselves. I like to see people using the benches along Main Street. I like to see Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts or adult volunteers raising money for all manner of good causes at bake sales outside Schiavoni’s. Ours is a civic-minded place and engagement is part and parcel of those who live within and without the village.
Our sense of place derives from our beautiful geographic location, our rich history, our architecture, our cultural institutions — some old, some in the making — and in the variety of our shops. Southampton, and especially East Hampton, village has lost that variety that gives Sag Harbor its vitality and liveability.
Overdevelopment, especially overscale development that robs our views, our sense of airy space, despoils our environment, stresses our infrastructure, or, the relentless ratcheting of rents that forces the closing of businesses or institutions that are utilitarian, or that enhances the bonds of community and quality of life, or that feeds our souls and minds, sends us on a downward spiral. It takes a village to resist the forces of greed that usurps needed businesses and beloved institutions, and, to retain the essential diversity of Sag Harbor which, in the long run, is much better than gold.