Express Sessions: Pondering the Future of Sag Harbor’s Public Spaces

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The panelists at the "Express Sessions" luncheon at the American Hotel on Nov. 15 to discuss the future of Sag Harbor's public spaces: (from left) Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy, Edmund Hollander, James Larocca, Linley Pennebaker Hagen, Jonas Hagen and Eric Cohen. Michael Heller photo

Should a food truck be allowed to park by the library, Whaling Museum and Custom House to draw people south of the downtown shopping district? Should an amphitheater be built in Mashashimuet Park?

What should happen to the vacant Cilli Farm property off Long Island Avenue or the former gas ball site near the post office that the village currently rents for parking? Should Steinbeck Park be developed according to landscape architect Edmund Hollander’s lush conceptual renderings or should it be left as it is, maybe with a few trees and plantings?

There were no firm answers but plenty of questions on these and other topics when nearly 70 people gathered at The American Hotel for an “Express Session” luncheon discussion on Friday, November 15, on “The Future of Public Space in Sag Harbor Village.” It was the latest in a series of sold-out public discussions sponsored by The Sag Harbor Express and the last one for 2019.

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“People love to watch other people … It’s why everybody comes to Main Street, Sag Harbor. They want to see and be seen and stroll around the public space,” said one of the six discussion panelists, New York City-based urban planner Jonas Hagen. “If we could extend” the area of Main Street that people want to stroll, he said, “we could extend the area that is a destination,” allowing people to get more exercise and encouraging them to park outside the congested retail district.

“I think Sag Harbor is simply succeeding because of its DNA,” Mr. Hagen said. “It’s a pedestrian village created before the automobile and before contemporary zoning.

Landscape architect Edmund Hollander, while praising the village’s parks and open spaces, said “the soul of this village, though, comes from the street life, the public spaces as we walk up and down the streets, the front yards of houses that become part of the visual landscape; the trees, the streets, the organic nature of this village, the way no two [streets] have the same width, the same length … It was really laid out by bunch of drunken whalers,” he joked.

If there was no common theme at the two-hour session, the idea of promoting walking, biking and parking in a wider area — all the way from Havens Beach on the east to Mashashimuet Park on the west — came up several times.

Former IT director at the John Jermain Memorial Library and an originator of the Sag Harbor Cultural District concept, a union of 12 non-profits that seeks, in part, to encourage visitors to explore Sag Harbor beyond Main Street’s shops, Eric Cohen noted that streets and sidewalks constitute up to 25 percent of any community’s public space and up to 70 percent of its publicly owned land.

“Streets play an important role in animating the social and economic life of the community,” he said. “They’re the connective tissue that ties businesses into the downtown and people into the community.” Besides “facilitating travel,” streets — before the advent of the automobile — “were more a social gathering place, to do business, play, to meet, to have discussions. In recent times, those streets have become almost the exclusive terrain of motor vehicles. So it is vitally important that when we think about the future of public spaces in Sag Harbor, we include restoring the balance between the needs of mobility and other street activities, that we insure our streets function in a way that accommodates the needs of the whole community.”

He said thought should be given to the question why Main Street south of the business district “doesn’t function well as a public space. What changes can we make to make it a more pleasant gathering place for people? How can we encourage visitors to stroll further south than the monument triangle?”

He listed as way to draw pedestrians the installation of “flexible public seating, public art, the availability of food, making roads less intimidating to walk across, better wayfinding signage, more public events, restrooms, wider sidewalks,” and rules and regulations that don’t limit and discourage the use of public space.

It was April Gornik, who was in the audience with her husband Eric Fischl, who asked if there was “room for a coffee and ice cream concession at the Custom House and the Whaling Museum,” a question that prompted a scattering of applause.

“I can’t speak for the library,” replied Mr. Cohen, “but there’s been constant conversation about the idea. We’d be excited to do something like that.”

Mr. Fischl commented that Main Street south of Union Street “is a heavily residential neighborhood. It feels private … You’re sort of bothering people.” He asked why not accept that as a parameter of future planning.

“I’m not sure the idea is to go beyond the Whaling Museum and the library,” Mr. Cohen said.

Mr. Cohen also disagreed with Mr. Fischl’s assertion that the library and other cultural institutions favor silence. He said that was an old-fashioned view of libraries, which now encourage conversation.

Panelist James Larocca, a village trustee, spoke of the village’s reorientation toward the waterfront after centuries of keeping its back to the water during the village’s industrial age. “I think Steinbeck [Park] is a good starting example of the reorientation,” he said.

“We still have a waterfront that is not fully reoriented to the new economy, which is tourism, and recreation, or to the quality of life the village now demands,” he said. “The waterfront needs to serve the people who live, work, do business, raise their families and contribute to this community. And the highest and best us of that property in my judgment is not walls of apartments along the waterfront.”

As for the future of Steinbeck Park, he said “we have a body of people who have said to us” they like it the way it is: an open green space, perhaps with a few amenities and plantings, to those who want to see it as ”a fully designed space” with specific amenities and design features. What will happen depends on the “process, the resources and the choices” to be made, he said, and “I don’t at this point express an opinion.” He said he’d be asking the Express to conduct a readership survey on the topic.

Mashashimuet Park board member Linley Pennebaker Hagen, joking that the board is not “a secret society,” urged people to come to the board’s meetings with any ideas for future uses at the privately-operated park. An amphitheater with musical programs and readings and walking trails to connect to the Long Pond Greenbelt, are ideas the board has been considering, she said.

“I think the board feels very strong,” however, “to leave [the park] as open space is a beautiful thing,” she said.

Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy, another panelist, reported good progress on the installation of steel sheeting around Long Wharf, the first hurdle in its ongoing renovation. She reported it is on schedule; that electrical vehicle charging stations will be included near the windmill; that heavy-duty electrical lines will be provided at the transient dock spaces on the wharf so that the large yachts that tie up there won’t have to run their generators; and that the renovation should be complete sometime from early May or early June 2020.

She complimented Mr. Hollander for his wharf layout, which will include a pedestrian walkway and a gathering area at the north end so people can enjoy it “as opposed to F-150s circling and having coffee,” he joked in response.

The mayor also reiterated past reports that “new sponges” will be installed at the filtering system for the drainage outlet at Havens Beach and that rain gardens to catch and filter stormwater runoff will be installed near Havens Beach and Marine Park thanks to funding from the Town of East Hampton’s Community Preservation Fund water quality program.

Among questioners in the audience, Luke Babcock said there was a constituency — dogs — that are “not welcome in public spaces. “Contrast that with Central Park,” he said, which is “very dog friendly.”

“We’ve considered making Steinbeck Park for dogs only,” Ed Hollander joked. Seriously, he added, “I don’t see why dogs shouldn’t be in Steinbeck Park as long as people pick up after their dogs.” On that front, he noted that Highway Superintendent Dee Yardley had agreed to put a trash can back on Long Island Avenue so dog walkers using the trail there will have a place to throw out their doggy bags.

Adam Miller asked if the village wouldn’t consider installing a roundabout at the flagpole at the foot of Main Street, where Tracy Mitchell, executive director of Bay Street Theater, said she and her staff have nearly been hit trying to cross the street.

“Yes, you’re right, that’s a mess down there,” Mayor Mulcahy said, reporting that a traffic control officer would be assigned there during busy periods of the year to help pedestrians cross safely.

But Mr. Hollander said, “You do not have to do harm to the village” by “messing up the very thing you’re trying to” improve. “Before surgery, let’s plan” on finding a way to accommodate cars and pedestrians “before digging up and rebuilding the village.”

Mr. Cohen added that “traffic circles are not easy to design in a pedestrian-friendly manner.”

Silence greeted Mr. Larocca when he later asked if anyone in the room favored the installation of a traffic light at the foot of Main Street.

Helen Atkinson-Barnes, education director at The Retreat, noted that open and accessible public spaces allow people to connect and feel safe and supported, “so I love the effort in the village to continue to improve what we’ve got.” Noting how unappealing the walkway along Long Island Avenue has become because of overhanging shrubbery, she asked how the village would make sure Steinbeck Park is accessible to people.

Mr. Hollander said the development of the park is “an opportunity to bring a diverse community together from all walks of life. Everyone becomes an equal when they’re in John Steinbeck Park.”

When Mr. Cohen noted The New York Times recently ran a column about loneliness and encouraging social interaction in public places, Mayor Mulcahy reported “three people sent that to us.”

Mr. Larocca referred to William Holly Whyte, the author of “The Organization Man” and a sociologist who studied “what brings people into town.” Places to sit down are a key attraction, but “the past couple of mayors in a row were absolutely opposed” to allowing cafes on the village sidewalks. “We have become a much more sociable destination and I think that’s positive,” he said.

Mr. Hagen commented that “the diversity of the community” is not reflected in the public spaces “than what we see walking around.”

“We’re talking about exactly what is missing on the southern part of Main Street,” said Mr. Cohen, because there are no amenities for those strolling downtown. “We can do much more to make it a comfortable, inviting place,” and also to make it findable.”

Jesse Matsuoka, an owner of Main Street’s Sen restaurant and K Pasa, the taco eatery located at the foot of Main Street, said he was considering launching a taco truck next summer but wondering “if there is any discussion of the safety of the sidewalks,” which he said in some locations are crooked and pose a hazard.

“Next week Dee [Yardley] and I will look at every one” in the village to develop an inventory of needed repairs, Mayor Mulcahy said.

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