By Douglas Feiden
The John Steinbeck Waterfront Park took a giant leap forward, and the hulking 1-800-LAWYERS building edged closer toward its date with the wrecking ball last week.
A luxury condominium complex was radically repositioned — and a grand vision to transform the village’s last major undeveloped waterfront parcel moved a step closer to reality.
After a decade of impassioned debate, the future of the harbor frontage became a bit clearer on Thursday, September 15 when Greystone Property Development Corp. unveiled new plans for the 2.33-acre plot it owns between West Water Street and Sag Harbor Cove.
Executives briefed some 20 members of four village regulatory panels — the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Harbor Committee and Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review — during an unusual joint work session in the Municipal Building in which the dramatically revised designs were presented.
They showed how the vast swath of land behind the 7-Eleven, a long-derelict parcel on which Greystone had planned to build a staggered row of single-family attached townhouses, would be removed from the high-end residential development pipeline.
Instead, the tract would be opened up for recreational purposes and morph into parkland, transforming a veritable no-man’s land into a spectacular gateway graced by a landscaped emerald Eden.
Even the name of the project was changed to reflect its evolution: It had long been branded 1,3, 5 Ferry Road. Now, since most of the parcels bearing those addresses are earmarked for the park, it’s been rechristened 2 West Water Street, the street address of 1-800-LAWYERS, schematics show.
Park advocates were rapturous: “Mind-Blowingly Great News!” exclaimed the subject line in a September 16 e-blast from the non-profit Sag Harbor Partnership. The first line of its message said it all, “Best. Ever. News!”
“I’m happy as a clam,” said activist and artist April Gornik, who spearheaded the Partnership’s big summer benefit, which raised $131,025 for the village to help fund the park. “If this is where the conversation starts, it looks terrific,” said Nick Gazzolo, the group’s treasurer.
The raves came as Gary Brewer, Greystone’s architect and a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, presented images and drawings showing a taller, bulkier and denser condo development now concentrated on the western side of the parcel.
A 3-story, 46.5-foot tall, 33,000-square-foot main building would rise on the site of 1-800-LAWYERS, which is slated for demolition, according to renderings. It would stand 3.5 feet taller than the existing building’s 43-foot ridge — but 12 feet shorter than the 58-foot height of the crowning cupola built by lawyer and then-owner Bruce Davis.
There would also be a smaller, 2-story, 34-foot tall edifice called the “Garden House,” and the L-shaped, two-building complex would be outfitted with 14 below-grade parking spots and house 13 units, all of them facing the water to the north and most facing the park to the east.
Under the new plans, the triangular-shaped area flanking the Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter Veterans Memorial Bridge, on the site’s eastern portion, would be carved out of the property, eventually conveyed to the village and used to develop a significantly larger Steinbeck Park.
How much larger? It appears from design documents that roughly 80 percent of the Greystone site, or more than 1.5 acres, could become parkland, augmenting an adjoining sliver the village already owns. Meanwhile, an estimated 20 percent, or more than 0.5 acres, would site condos, landscaping and grounds.
“The idea is to have a public park with beautiful gardens, an amphitheater, a boardwalk that connects to the water, and ideally, a buffer with planting,” Mr. Brewer said. The Garden House becomes “part of the composition of the park and seamlessly transitions with the park.”
To the west of that open, verdant oasis, the principal building would be “in keeping with the character of Sag Harbor,” the architect said.
“We’ve just started work on the design, and we’re looking at the whaling history and Greek Revival architecture that goes with the whaling industry in Sag Harbor,” he said. “So it would be simple, classical, columns, clapboard, a pair of brick chimneys, wood-shingled roof, operable wooden shutters, a brick base and so on.”
The structure’s main mass would face Water Street, and to pare down its scale, “We have a small entry piece, two stories tall, with simple Greek Doric pilasters marching along, with a double gable and another double gable and a porch with a beautiful balustrade for the main entry into the building,” Mr. Brewer said.
The presentation came as Sag Harbor officials and Greystone executives have quietly held closed-door talks aimed at forging a compromise over the site. Initially, the developer had planned a gated community on the entire property and the village sought to take title to the whole thing for a park.
A deal now seems close in which Greystone would amend its existing application, shrink the acreage of its condo development, and then cede, sell, covenant or otherwise convey property that the village could use to substantially expand the footprint of the Steinbeck Park.
Talks remain fluid. But at the presentation, Dennis Downes, the Sag Harbor attorney who represents the developer, gave a rare public update of their status:
“The reason why we are amending our application is because the trustees have expressed an interest in acquiring as much of the property as possible,” he said. “We’ve been trying to work with them so we can create a park, a big green area, and concentrate all the construction on the 2 West Water Street property, which everyone refers to as 1800-LAWYERS.”
As it turns out, his phrase — “amending our application” — has huge potential legal ramifications.
Asked in a follow-up interview if Greystone was required to provide a certain percentage of affordable housing units on site, or pay into a fund that would provide them, as the developers of Bulova did, Mr. Downes suggested that was not the case.
“This is not a new application, this is an amendment of an existing application,” he said. “We filed our application long before there was a provision for affordable housing, and long before Bulova started in the process. We were a pre-existing case.”
Denise Schoen, a Sag Harbor Village Attorney who represented the boards at the meeting, is researching the issue, but her take was different. She cited a standard in state law that says a project is exempt from new zoning rules only when the applicant has obtained “vested rights” in a building permit, typically by “putting a shovel in the ground” to commence construction.
The Court of Appeals, for instance, has ruled that it isn’t “enough to hire architects, engineers and planners in an effort to obtain a permit, one must actually act upon it,” Ms. Schoen said.
“If that is the standard applied to this case, then the developers would be required to provide affordable housing or pay into the affordable house trust fund,” she said. If there’s an exemption from the housing requirement she hasn’t reviewed yet, “based upon simply filing an application for an apartment building, then Mr. Downes may be correct if what we see today is truly a continuation of that prior application,” she added.
Generally, the project appeared well received by board members, some of whom will ultimately sit in judgment of it. Questions, though limited, were respectful.
“Have you folks considered, or would you consider, public access along the waterfront?” asked John Shaka, chairman of the Harbor Committee. He was referring to a possible easement for a pedestrian walkway.
“It’s under consideration, but it’s not built into the plan right now,” Mr. Downes responded. “I know what your concern is. We’ve heard it.”