Monday, April 27, 2009

Residential Development: Who's Right and Who's Wrong (Part II)

Critics of condo projects, frequently point to ill conceived, cheap construction, poorly designed, gaudy, condo complexes in other neighboring towns as examples of residential development that they don’t want. These critics are exactly right; however, we, in Gloucester, have several award winning examples of excellent condo designed units, offering premium quality residential properties to the consumer market.

For many years, at every public hearing, especially when these meetings involved proposed harbor development, opponents of any nonfishing related project have threatened the audience with the dreaded condo outcome.

This was the scenario at the Paint Factory hearing a few years ago. An ongoing series of housing condo proposals all met with strong audience opposition based on often alleged bogus lost fishery potential. Thanks to Ocean Alliance in 2008, Gloucester’s Motif#1 has been saved! The future of the Paint Factory has been guaranteed for years to come by Ocean Alliance. At long last the best solution has been found, and the proper caretaker is now the official owner.

Ocean Alliance has bought into renewing our harbor’s historic entrance. The organization brings hope and a sense of commitment to preserving our maritime heritage. Other positive signs of renewal investment and faith in our waterfront is the new Cruiseport complex and restaurant; the Gloucester Fish Display Auction; and Latitude 43 Restaurant. These new business additions join the successful established Rose’s Machine Shop, Connolly’s Fish Co., and Gorton’s of Gloucester on the harbor’s east end.

Ocean Crest Fish Co. and the new younger generation of family owners have continued a successful company, also adding “Neptune Harvest”, a fertilizer product, to their business. This is the up side of our business “working waterfront”. Activists are quick to put this positive spin on our industrial oriented waterfront and our alleged rejuvenated developing harbor. This maybe true, and I sincerely hope this economic expansion continues; however, closer examination into this positive business growth indicate not all is FISH-related. Restaurants, Rockport National Bank, Cruiseport, and other businesses are finding a way onto the working harbor, while others like Good Harbor Fillet relocate to the Blackburn Industrial Park. To those of us who have lived close to and worked in the fish industry for a lifetime – realists, not romantics - see the Cruiseport, restaurants, the herring fish pier, and other spin-type waterfront investment as “just that”. Realistically, our fish-related waterfront is dying on the vine! Each day the news gets worse from the National Marine Fisheries Service, resulting in more restrictive vessel activity.

Overall our waterfront is in need of renewal. When I survey our harbor, all I see are pockets of undeveloped blight. Arriving from seaward, the front door to America’s once premium fishing port, reflects the type of desperation portrayed in Steinbeck’s best seller, “The Grapes of Wrath”, many years ago. This obvious blight impairs Gloucester’s growth, withers hopes, and impedes progress and prosperity. THIS IS THE MESSAGE THAT TODAY’S HARBORFRONT SENDS TO THE VISITOR!

Former Cape Ann Fisheries property, lies fallow; next door, vacant Producer’s Fish Co. property and adjacent wharfs are shut down, reduced to storing lobster traps. This, mind you, is on inactive commercial wharfage bordering on prime harbor frontage. The upland’s periphery road around the backside of the Fort is the same as fifty years ago, only the fish businesses are burned out and the residential neighborhood is unimproved and has been for decades. This is prime waterfront land that begs for infrastructure improvement!

This scene is repeated throughout the harbor, not only in the Fort, but the now famous I-4 C-2 parcel. The Building Center’s once viable coal landing wharf is now reduced to rotted pilings. Next door, Peter Mullins former Empire Fish Co. wharf is just that, only a tie up facility for his herring boats. Any fish processing machinery vacated by the former owner is obsolete, inoperative and of no value. There is very little evidence of new capital investment around the harbor, especially on these properties I’ve listed.

Capt. Joe’s Wharf (Lobster Pot Storage) 2009

Onto Capt. Joe’s waterfront property off East Main Street, where at one time 200 Gorton Pew employees labored daily, processing fish on acres of waterfront uplands. Presently, two owners work there with an occasional part time helper unloading a few lobster boats on a seasonal basis. Finally, the Rocky Neck Gloucester Marine Railways appears to be on its last legs - another property succumbs to the downsizing of our fishing industry.

Huge freezers occupy valuable waterfront property. Fish-carrying steamers once arrived at the freezer wharfs on a regular basis. This hasn’t happened for at least ten years! Unlike decades ago, freezers no longer store any volume domestic fish products. Foreign raw material seafood products for local processors all arrive by truck. Wharfside vessel unloading is no longer necessary.

Lumpers Unloading Fish-carrying Steamers, Americold Freezer

If the city’s industrial development commission, charged with attracting industry, is looking for a future industrial park, they need look no further than our once thriving operating harbor. The inner harbor periphery should be today’s focus. Properties, such as the burned out Cape Ann Fisheries, Producers, and adjacent uplands should be allowed to build housing – yes – residential “condos”, high end, well-designed modern units, sending a signal that Gloucester is moving on.

Development of Waterfront Related Businesses

The I-4 C-2 parcel could be promoted as the location of a new modern downtown visitor hotel. The Building Center, originally the Gloucester Coal and Lumber Company, is no longer marine related and should be relocated. Gloucester cannot afford the convenience of a building materials retail store taking up space on waterfront property.

Gloucester Building Center, Harbor Loop

How about Capt. Joe’s property on East Main Street? Renew the entire wharf; invest in a marine-related seafood restaurant of sorts where boats dock and unload lobsters outside on the wharf in full view of the dining public. Consider off street parking below the public road, adjacent to the wharf, and possibly above the restaurant located on a second story. Every additional building elevation doubles the area on the same footprint. Let’s be creative!
Covered Fish Flakes on Gorton’s Wharf, East Main St., 1940,
Now Capt. Joe & Sons Wharf

The Rocky Neck Gloucester Marine Railways property with its two operating hauling tracks and travel lift, haven’t seen boat hauling action for months; most of their employees have moved on. The hand writing is on the wall. This is prime waterfront real estate, all but inactive save land storage for a few hauled out boats. Something must be done. Our once life-sustaining industrial center, OUR HARBOR, cries out for renewal....economic revitalization!!

Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong

There are many different opinions on ways to expand our housing inventory. We all agree that Gloucester’s buildable land mass is limited, in fact, becoming less as time goes on. Our industrial parks are at capacity level. Our obvious focus has to be on our changing industrial, underdeveloped waterfront. It is our harbor, as always, that holds the key for our changing 21st century Gloucester economy. We must make every effort to improve and utilize our harbor. This can be accomplished by incorporating a sensible mix of residential and business development. This concept should not necessarily be dependent upon fishing related revenue, but by tax- producing real estate, such as hotels, waterfront housing, commercial marinas, and vacation seasonal properties, all producing a steady cash flow to city coffers.

This is all pie in the sky if city officials and state representatives drop the ball in lobbying our state government to relax and/or rescind portions of our state mandated non-marine industrial use status. We must revisit and change our designated port area status.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Residential Development: Who's Right and Who's Wrong

Change comes to Gloucester gradually, but when it happens it is dramatic! In the 1950s a rash of hotel fires all but eliminated the hotel business community, four large hotels going up in smoke almost overnight! In the early ‘60s urban renewal took a major part of our waterfront, leaving eyesore harbor vistas to the present day. Government vessel investment resulting in our offshore fleet buildup spiked in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. In the mid-eighties in only 18 months,
our offshore fishing fleet experienced massive sinkings in response to a perceived declining resource. Gloucester was responding to changing economic and market conditions, vacationing habits and increased mobility. We also were adjusting to Rt. 128’s continuing drain on our Main Street businesses. To those of us who have lived these past 50 years in Gloucester, the changes have been almost incredible.

Route 128 A. Piatt Andrew Expansion Bridge

As our lifestyle has altered, so must our perspective on residential building change. For the first 350 years, residential development was severely limited due to our famous Cape Ann granite foundation. Installation advances in waste treatment (sewage) disposal have given contractors the ability to build almost anywhere in any season on Cape Ann. This has had far reaching ramifications for our community, especially since our land mass and shoreline are limited. Because of our limited land area, future development strategies dictate proceeding with caution. In other words, our goal should be to achieve “the most bang for our buck”.

The building trades, developers and general contractors over the years, have regarded Gloucester permitting authorities tough to deal with. We as a community are generally considered difficult when dealing with “off island” developer’s proposing new major community residential development. Given our limited land mass and watershed acreage that requires constant vigilance, we must continue to take a guarded approach towards any new residential development now and in the future. Arriving at a proper mix of prudent new development is essential.
Old Nugent Farm Condominium


A few years ago, a prominent local businessman made this statement, “the City of Gloucester should award John McNiff a medal for what he accomplished and gave to Gloucester,” referring to McNiff’s transformation of old Nugent’s farm to functional condominiums. McNiff envisioned this upper middle class housing on a former dairy and produce farm of an earlier era. He transformed a tired, hilly and rocky terrain, creating cluster condominiums. This residential complex is the recipient of numerous awards nationwide for its aesthetics and community-blending character and has stood the test of time! It continues to provide excellent residential living while maintaining its high end value as part of Gloucester’s residential housing inventory.

Old Nugent Farm unit owners pay more than their fair share of residential real estate taxes. In addition, owners assume costs for their trash removal, snowplowing, maintenance of internal roads and sewer system. They are committed to high standards of landscape appearance. These costs are borne by the condo association in maintenance fees charged to the unit owners. Condo owners are often empty-nesters, retirees, and second home buyers. This older demographic group does not impact our local school system and has minimal reported crime. IT IS A WIN-WIN SITUATION for the larger community of Gloucester taxpayers. Old Nugent Farm condos are a cash cow that keeps on giving.

Another successful condominium project is Hawthorne Point. The Hawthorne Inn and Delphine Hotel in the early 1950s were relics of the past. They provided accommodations and nightclub entertainment for summer residents of the 1920s and 1930s. Their seasonal occupancy and related entertainment revenue had declined by the early ‘50s. When the properties burned, Hawthorne Point Condominiums became reality. Another cash cow for Gloucester for all the same reasons associated with McNiff’s Old Nugent Farm project. Hawthorne Point Condominiums, like Old Nugent Farm, are well designed, secluded off Eastern Point Road, returning only high tax revenues to the city. Hawthorne Point is another condo cash cow for the city.

In Gloucester land values and development costs are often restrictive. Shore front land is extremely limited and high in value. The condominium concept allows for maximizing the total number of units on any given footprint. It makes possible the availability and assurance of excellent well-designed housing units in premium locations, to customers that otherwise may not qualify in buying a single family house on a waterfront lot! Condo development can provide economical downsizing for our growing elderly population. It can provide seniors with affordable, higher end housing, independent of maintenance burdens experienced by single family property owners.

It replaces apartment dwellings, low income apartment complexes, and allows families unable to afford single family homes the frequent opportunity to move into condominium home ownership. It is a sensible answer to our diminishing land inventory and affordable independent home ownership. Condominium construction is a better solution to modern-day multifamily housing in Gloucester.

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Part II to be continued April 27, 2009

Residential Developments: Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong (Part II)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Don't Tread on Me

History informs us that the above inscription appearing in 1775 on a Navy ensign was a symbol of resistance to British repressive acts. Our present day fleet of remaining inshore day boat owners should adapt a modern-day version of a similar flag to fly in the face of NMFS bureaucrats.

Gloucester’s fishermen are currently being subjected to NMFS law enforcement strong arm tactics reminiscent of Nazi Germany Gestapo-style intimidation in the ‘20s and ‘30s. This locally based NMFS service is out of control! They see themselves as being above the law!

Forty-five years ago, full of energy, enthusiasm and bent on a NMFS career with the Fish and Wildlife Service, I reported for work in the statistical office of the Fish and Wildlife Service on Elm St. in downtown Gloucester. At the time, the NMFS Fish and Wildlife Service was my chosen career path. I believed I could contribute to the agency, and in doing so, improve the local fisheries, thereby insuring our fishermen’s economic future for decades to come. I saw this employment as a chance to make my mark and truly be a factor in helping the industry. Within three days I realized that what I had dreamed about, meaningful work resulting in a better industry, was really a pretense!

Once seated at my desk, reality set in. I had a feeling of emptiness, disappointment, almost despair. After only a few days I knew a terrible mistake had been made in accepting this port agent job with the National Marine Fisheries. To me, the office was a haven for “lay-abouts”, inventing mundane projects, passing the time of day by reading brown paper-covered novels, and following the stock market. The boss took his daily afternoon nap, face down on his desk!

The average citizen working in the private sector, often sees federal government civil service as being somewhat of a lofty career. At least that was my impression as a young man back in the ‘60s. The truth was, data gathering at the Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1960s was anything but reliable! Inaccurate statistics were often reported by disinterested skippers. Vessel landings were frequently erroneous, often based on guesstimates. The whole process seemed flawed and a sham. It was wishful thinking on my part; the job was a pipe dream. Six months later I resigned. How anyone could endure a 30-year career of those non-productive shenanigans is beyond me! No wonder Dick Marchant, my mentor, was so anxious to get out the door!

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Research Vessel Delaware

Years later, my friend “Lew” Knickle, chief engineer on the agency’s research vessel, R/V Delaware, stationed in Gloucester, would reminisce with the Delaware’s fishing skipper and friend, Bill Murphy. They talked about the research cruises they and the government scientists had sailed on. At sea, the agency’s scientists directed the vessel’s operation and overall mission. Capt. Murphy; chief engineer, Knickle; cook, Bert Cluett, and fishermen deckhands were only along for the ride. The professional fishermen welcomed the often bad weather-imposed vacations on every cruise. It was always interesting and sometimes comical when the weather picked up; a breeze over 20 mph brought the command from the scientists to seek a sheltered nearby port! The professional fishermen readily complied. On a swordfish research excursion, the Delaware scientists and crew took liberty in Portugal. As “Lew” Knickle would relate, it was always fair weather sailing with the scientists on the R/V Delaware.

All that was decades ago. The law enforcement branch of the Fish & Wildlife service, located in the old Gloucester National Bank building, was just getting up to speed. These Fish &Wildlife law enforcement agents initially were recruited from the ranks of experienced fishermen in the fleet. At sea, these newly trained and armed enforcement agents would board vessels of former fellow fishermen, enforcing agency rules and regulations. This was the beginning of the strong-armed tactics we live with today. As I see it, the NMFS in my lifetime, starting in the 1940s, primarily serves itself. The fishing industry is secondary.

NOAA New Headquarters, Gloucester

In the 1960s and early 1970s the government subsidized the fishermen, encouraged vessel investments, and found ways to pump money into vessel construction. The vessels St. Nicholas, Andromeda, and St. Anthony are a few examples. Later, the government encouraged just the opposite with vessel buyouts. Today, in order to reduce the fleet, the NMFS is now relying on fine-tuned narrow interpretations of laws, changing rules, and levying exorbitant fines on our working fishermen.

I don’t rely on scientific data published by the NMFS, when I can talk to the real fishermen at Lee’s Restaurant on any given morning. They tell me the codfish and haddock are eating the keel out of the boat! The whole fishing business has been regulated down to a joke: only the joke is on the little guy, bent over in the scuppers.

The fishermen’s real friend, as I see it, is the "Gloucester Daily Times". The waterfront in its heyday, always had an ally in the local newspaper, but in this era of small fleet day boats and industry downsizing the Times has stepped up continually to champion the cause of our remaining fishermen. The Times in depth frequent reporting of the goings on with the NMFS is the fishermen’s only hope! Persistent, factual, “in your face” reporting by Richard Gaines has produced results—bureaucrats/politicians do respond to publicity. It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. Newly confirmed director, Lubchenco, may have the support of the Pew Foundation and our local gal, Kurkul, can defend the Interim Rule all she wants, but the heat is on these bureaucrats, and they know it. That’s why NOAA fisheries administrator Dr. Balsiger is so willing to listen and encourage dialog. Balsiger can massage the press all he wants; he can write letters to the media, he can have conference calls and meetings with the Times and extend the olive branch - he has to!

Here’s my bottom line common sense advice for the NMFS: “cut out the nonsense, drop the charges against the auction, get off Billie Lee’s back, forget the Interim Rule, and let the boys go fishing.” The cod and haddock are eating the keel out of the boat!

Ron Gilson

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Waterfront: Then and Now (but this is NOW)

Gloucester’s future is in our harbor. In my youth our harbor was our lifeblood. If this city is to survive economically without a substantial fishing industry, our harbor planners must accept the reality of change. Before we take off willy nilly, we should examine the past: what went on in our harbor since 1950, the pivotal year and highest period of our harbor’s fishing production. Before we can decide on any new harbor strategy, the planners must review where we’ve been.

Our off-shore fleet of the 1950s numbered approximately 150 large vessels fishing from Georges to the Grand Banks. In Harbor Cove, the Gloucester Whiting Association member vessels numbered approximately 50 inshore day boats. The Italian community also manned a seining fleet of approximately fifteen highline vessels responsible for landing millions of pounds of mackerel in the beginning and, later, menhaden (pogies) being the money fish for that fleet. Gloucester also boasted a fleet of gillnetters as well as an off-shore Portuguese swordfishing fleet in season. We also serviced a substantial fleet of southern draggers in the summer months. Together these vessels made up our fleet of about 250 active fishing businesses. That waterfront scene has vanished. We are left with a handful of inshore day boats, highly restricted in their fishing activity and rapidly being regulated out of business. The reality is, fishing as we once knew it is no more!

Scene at Ben Pine’s Atlantic Supply Wharf, circa 1947(now Capt. Carlos’ property)

While we are quick to point to an endangered resource and blame excess governmental regulation for our current fishing demise, there is another basic factor affecting any hoped-for resurgence of Gloucester’s fishery. Our 1950 era wharfside way of processing fish products is over.

The fish business has changed profoundly because products and marketing methods of the industry have had to respond to modern-day consumer demands. Gone are canned codfish cakes, canned mackerel, layer-pack redfish fillets, and H&G whiting. Today’s sophisticated consumer is demanding more. Our lifestyles have changed also, requiring fish processors to develop an endless array of easily prepared microwaveable products, fast food McDonald’s fish portions, and school lunch programs featuring fish sticks items. Demand for these easily prepared products is immense and the ingredients (domestic fish) are not available in the required volume, at least in Gloucester. We are not capable of meeting the fast food industry demand, nor have we been for over fifty years. These changes in demand and consumer preferences have had far-reaching consequences on the processing side of the fish business. Our raw material now is purchased around the globe, imported frozen, arriving in Gloucester by trailer truck for processing. There is no need to provide shore side wharf locations to manufacture the fish products of today. This has been demonstrated time and again, starting back in our own urban renewal days in the 1960s when Booth Fisheries relocated to New Hampshire on the side of I-95. Most recently, our own Good Harbor Fillet Company relocated from the Fort to Blackburn Industrial Park. These are revolutionary changes in the fish processing side of our domestic fish producing industry. The world’s fish production can be processed almost anywhere, where labor and other production costs and proximity to markets and distribution points are favorable.

NOW.....That is the history. In short, it’s not the demise of our fish supply alone; it’s also the lifestyle changes we’ve adopted along the way. Our desires and needs are different. While the local fish resource has declined, our way of life has shifted. Soccer moms no longer want their husbands away from home for days and weeks on end, fishing. Kids are instructed to get an education, fishing is over, there’s no future in the business. What was once “a way of life”, processing and fishing jobs on the waterfront, have been replaced and relocated to inland industrial parks, and the Route 128 corridor.

Today’s waterfront is entirely different than in my day. The big off shore boats are gone; the inshore fleet is being regulated out of existence. Fish can be processed almost anywhere and any fresh fish business remaining in Gloucester can be accommodated by existing companies. Reserving more space for the fishing industry in our harbor is a smokescreen. Remember, at the zenith of our local fishing production in the 1950s when we often processed a million pounds of edible fish daily, that production was accomplished on 60% of our waterfront, if that! We have more useable available wharfage today in our harbor than existed in 1950 when our offshore and inshore fleet was at its record vessel numbers.

A portion of the Portuguese fishing fleet, circa 1947, at State Fish Pier

Gloucester and its well meaning harbor planners need to focus on a prudent long range economic mixed use plan for our harbor. We must look beyond the present and adopt a modern-day developmental concept resulting in a positive cash flow future for our harbor if our community is to keep pace economically.

Without forward thinking and a demonstrated willingness to accept change, any hope for our harbor’s future prosperity is lost. Gloucester’s harbor economy will remain mired in the past and only continue to negatively impact our community’s economic future. Without meaningful change, all of our taxpaying citizens will continue to subsidize an underutilized failing waterfront. That’s my common sense opinion.

F’O’C’S’LE SCUTTLEBUTT; Comments overheard following the last Fort zoning (hotel) hearing. IT’S NOT ABOUT HOTELS; IT’S ABOUT NOT WANTING ANY IMPROVEMENT IN ANY FORM AT THE FORT. Residents fear increasing real estate taxes will result. Any development might disturb the “business as usual – we’ve got ours” status quo mentality. I find this attitude sad, even selfish. When a few residents petition a few grandstanding, ranting, bloviating politicians, it only results in continued economic stagnation at the Fort. If this narrow attitude continues, our larger community of taxpaying citizens will be subsidizing the Fort and the rest of our failing waterfront forever!

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