Many East End villages have unique characteristics that make them attractive to both visitors and the residents who choose to call them home.
In Sag Harbor, a former whaling village, what shines is its waterfront, steeped in history and full of charm, and which offers the tight-knit community an identity of its own in a South Fork landscape filled with high-end beach communities.
“The economic driver of our village is the waterfront — it’s our history, our maritime history, and it’s our future, with the big boats and small boats and every other boat in between. So that is key,” Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy said during the Express News Group’s virtual Express Sessions forum on November 19, “On the Sag Harbor Waterfront.” It focused on a new planning study the village is undertaking.
Joining Mayor Mulcahy on the panel were Village Trustee James Larocca, Sag Harbor Inn owner Nat Egosi, planner Chris Hawley of the Form Based Code Institute, former Harbor Committee Chairman Bruce Tait, and Friends of Bay Street Chairman Adam Potter.
Landscape architect Edmund Hollander, instrumental in designing Steinbeck Park, also made a brief appearance at the forum held via the Zoom platform.
The 90-minute forum was co-hosted by Express News Group Co-Publisher Kathryn Menu and Executive Editor Joseph P. Shaw.
The village is currently in the midst of a six-month building moratorium along the waterfront, enacted in mid-October, while it undertakes a planning study conducted by a team of consultants, including Mr. Haley’s organization. Meanwhile, a committee of village stakeholders will come up a with a set of proposed code changes to guide future development.
Mayor Mulcahy said that her priorities for the waterfront plan include open space and public access to the waterfront — making sure that “our residents and our visitors can still always have that access to the water”; streetscapes that would include shops that are accessible, diverse and affordable; and a plan to deal with increased traffic — both vehicular and pedestrian.
While everyone seemed to be in favor of the efforts to shape development, protect the waterfront and promote public access, some panelists were concerned about the process.
What’s being proposed is a “form-based code” approach, which essentially uses a different approach to building codes based on a set or multiple sets of acceptable building styles and requirements. Current codes deal more with size, scope, setbacks, etc.
“The beauty of a form-based code is that it can, through illustrations, through very simple objective text, communicate the citizens’ vision through very objective and clear standards,” Mr. Hawley explained. “So I think the challenge for the community, and for us as a planning team, is to understand what the community wants and to translate that vision into very specific standards, so that a developer or a business person or homeowner knows exactly what the village is expecting.”
But at least one panelist remained unclear as to how that would work.
“I’m not sure I understand what this form-based zoning is. I’m trying to understand it, but I don’t understand it,” Mr. Tait said, noting that he was concerned that without the typical kinds of zoning restrictions, some existing businesses — those that add to the village’s maritime charm — might be endangered.
“If you water down the zoning for the waterfront district,” he said, “allowing additional special permitted uses and different uses in the waterfront, does that make it easier to get rid of some of the existing waterfront uses that are here?”
“Fundamentally, it is marinas right in front of my hotel, and going all the way to the east are marina fronts.” Mr. Egosi added. “A large portion of the waterfront, if it’s not owned by the village itself, it’s actually marina-based. And there’s nothing more exciting than watching boats coming in from the harbor late at night and redocking, or early in the morning going back out. That’s what makes Sag Harbor, Sag Harbor.”
Mr. Hawley assured them that waterfront uses would continue to be protected under any proposed code changes.
“I think we took a very close look at the zoning ordinance as is, and the waterfront zone is one zone where we concluded that things are working as they should,” he said. “So Sag Harbor is, I think, very fortunate to have identified very early on in its planning, going back a couple of decades, to protect water dependent uses and promote them, and to create a zoning district that restricts uses pretty significantly to uses that really rely on access to the water.
“When we took a trip down to Sag Harbor very early on in the process and got a tour with village officials and stakeholders, I did see the Sag Harbor Yacht Yard, and I thought it was one of the coolest things in the village,” he added.
Mr. Larocca, who has voiced concerns about the format of the study since its inception, said that he was still not convinced that it was the best way to move forward and wondered why the village had not conducted an overall master plan update, rather than focusing just on the waterfront.
He also repeated concerns that the study group didn’t include enough or varied voices.
Additionally, he said he was surprised to see that the study might recommend doing away with parking protocols for businesses — i.e., a required number of parking spaces depending on a business’s size — asserting that they have, in the past, helped to limit overdevelopment.
“As this planning process began, I had reservations about the format and form of the study and the way it’s gone forward,” he said. “My reservations have elevated to real concerns as we’ve gone forward. Early on, I observed that we do not have a comprehensive planning process overall for the village. The last really comprehensive piece that was done was in 2008, a very good piece of work made substantial contributions to what we’ve done since.
“Absence of a comprehensive overarching plan, I have trouble fitting this narrow study that’s underway up against a larger fabric,” he added. “I think the absence of a comprehensive plan gives no context or perspective to this study. So I’m concerned about the vision in this study.”
Mayor Mulcahy noted that when she ran for mayor, one of the things she wanted to achieve was a comprehensive plan update, but due to budget constraints caused by the pandemic, it had to be put on hold. She noted that the waterfront study was being paid for not through the village budget, but by donations.
“A lot of things got in the way this year, including budget, as well as distractions, but budget as well,” she said. “So this particular plan is something that we had talked about from the beginning. Kay Lawson, our head of planning, she and I talked about it while I was running. This was something that was needed. And this was an affordable bite that we could take at the moment.”
Mayor Mulcahy also noted that traffic has become a major concern in the village — recently released data from traffic monitors showed that on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, on the south side of Mashashimuet Park, 22,091 vehicles entered the village during a one week period in November.
“We need to deal with the idea of all these cars coming in as Bay Street expands, as the cinema opens with their expansion of seats and everything else,” she said. “And how do we deal with the cars, or can we come up with a better way and deal with transportation and not deal with more cars coming in, but better pedestrian access, better bike access, better access to bring people into the village without overcrowding our streets?”
Mr. Hawley said the form-based code was “focused on walkable communities that are mixed-use in nature and allow for a wide variety of transportation options.”
The mayor noted that the village also plans to complete a transportation management study, and is still considering a paid meter parking system in the business district. She also suggested that part of the solution might be to offer fewer parking spaces.
“It’s double-edged,” she said. “I would be delighted if we had fewer cars, but a lot of the planning, things that I’ve read, there’s also a place where if you don’t have enough parking spaces, maybe fewer cars do come and they figure it out, and that is another planning option. Just limit the parking spaces and say, ‘You’ve got to figure this out in a different way.’”
Mr. Egosi, however, noted that such a plan might affect residents’ ability to come to the village in addition to the day-trippers, which could be an unintended consequence. “Those are the ones that live and pay the taxes, and send their kids to school, and participate and support the churches and synagogues and so on,” he said.
Thursday’s discussion also focused on Bay Street Theater’s plans to develop its new home: The Water Street Shops property was recently purchased, and there are plans to build a new permanent Bay Street Theater there, in the heart of the waterfront district and adjacent to Steinbeck Park.
Mr. Potter assured the panel that it was his and the theater’s intention to work with the village to conform to the new vision for the waterfront, and that the theater also hopes to protect public access to the waterfront.
“So let me first start off by saying so Bay Street has been in existence for 30 years and rented its space for the 30 years,” he said, “and we’re tremendously excited to have a permanent home for hopefully hundreds of years adding to the economic impact to the village. We are just starting the process, we’re working with the Board of Trustees, we’re working with the mayor, we’re working with our architect.
“One of our priorities and probably one of the No. 1 priorities is having access to the water, both visual access to the water as well as a welcoming aspect to the water,” he added. “So as we’re trying to design and build our new theater and our new home, one of the things that we are tremendously focused on is how do we do so such that we’re allowing people to get through whatever space we have, whatever we’ve designed to ensure that they can not only see the water but have access to the water.”
The theater is considering making its lobby a “public space” he said, perhaps with the addition of a coffee shop, so that people can enjoy the property whether there is an event happening at the theater or not.
“We have a lot of spaghetti that we’re throwing at the wall, seeing what sticks, talking again with people in the village, with the mayor, with the board of trustees,” he said.
Officials said they were confident that the plans for the new theater would fit in well with the continuing development of the adjacent Steinbeck Park.
Mr. Larocca noted that current plans include building a walkway to connect Long Wharf, Windmill Park and Steinbeck Park — and then, depending on how the theater property is developed, to continue the walkway out to West Water Street.
“So we would have the integration of three parts of the waterfront in a common park-like setting and connection,” he said. “That’s the very next task.”
Mr. Hollander, who has donated his work in designing the landscape of the park, noted that he has already been in touch with representatives from Bay Street and they are working together to formulate a new vision for the park that includes the theater’s vision as well.
“And now working with Adam and his people,” he said, “we’ve already been in touch with the architects for Bay Street to look at a way where we could possibly make both the park and Bay Street better by having a design dialogue between those two.
“Now, those are fancy words for saying that both of these areas will work better, if they relate to each other,” he added. “We don’t want to compromise the space of the park or the use of the park for the citizens of Sag Harbor. But is there a way that the design can work with the design of the Bay Street development in there, both in terms of physical access around and through the Bay Street buildings, and perhaps even within the buildings themselves and the stages and how they relate to the park?”
Mr. Hawley said that he was confident that, in the end, the study and new zoning tools, would work to keep Sag Harbor vibrant and protect the waterfront for years to come.
“Well, I would say that I’ve never worked with a smarter group of people,” he said. “The village and its stakeholders have a really clear vision about what they want. And it’s really great to have a client that knows what they want rather than a client that doesn’t.”