Some Want The "New Downtown" Scaled Back. The Planning Board Says It Has Little Leverage

Jason Graziadei •

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Rendering of the view of the proposed development looking east on Sparks Avenue.

As the members of the Nantucket Planning Board reviewed one of the largest proposed commercial developments the island has seen in years last week, a handful of residents implored them to scale it back and consider the impacts of such a large-scale project in the congested mid-island area.

The so-called “new downtown” development on Sparks Avenue would include a three-story, 17,000-square-foot mixed-use building featuring 32 apartment units, a 50-seat restaurant, and an eight-lane bowling alley with a second restaurant and an arcade.

But as they heard from island residents - including Val Oliver, Charles Sayle, Rick Atherton, Galen Gardner, Chris Young, and Meri Lepore - the members of the Planning Board made it clear that there wasn’t much they could do to allay their concerns about the development.

“We’re not giving the developer a free pass on anything,” Planning Board chair Dave Iverson said. “They’re building this by right. That makes it difficult to exert pressure, to be honest with you. That’s the position we’re in.”

Whether it was the size of the proposed building or the number of parking spaces the developers are planning to make available to residents and patrons (a total of 80 spots), the Planning Board indicated it did not have much leverage.

“We have no purview on the massing of the building in this project - regardless of how we feel or how the public tells us they feel - there’s very little we can do,” Iverson said. “The purview for that is the HDC…They’re not asking for any waivers - the parking situation is not based on waivers. It’s based on the zoning bylaw in the mid-island overlay district. They’re not taking anything that isn’t available to them through the mid-island parking district.”

Chris Fiumara, who leads the development team for the project, said the building has already been “dramatically” scaled back to address some of the concerns that have been expressed during the Planning Board review process, which has now stretched on for more than a year. There will no longer be a basement, he said and gone are the plans for a bank and other commercial spaces.

“I’m excited to do this for Nantucket,” Fiumara said. “This is for the public and Nantucket residents, year-round residents. I want to see the lights on 365 days per year. It’s not going to be a seasonal place…Change is difficult for people to accept. I would hope the community supports us, and most people I’ve spoken to are behind this. But what I’ve learned in life is you can’t make everyone happy. It’s not a possibility in life.”

And those people who are not happy with the scale of the proposed development and fear its impacts on the mid-island area made their voices heard last week.

“My biggest concern about this project is its over-aggressive size – it’s so out of context,” said Val Oliver, a member of the Historic District Commission who has recused herself from the HDC’s review of the project due to her outspoken criticism. “It’s a big one, and it’s going to have a huge impact, not just on mid-island, but the island as a whole. Take the time to make the best decision for our island, not the developer. We’re getting pushed into fast-tracking everything by commercial entities that see our island as a hot commodity. We’re going to lose the irreplaceable treasure that we have.”

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While the Planning Board has emphasized that it has little leverage over some of the aspects of the project critics feel strongly about, it is attempting to influence both the affordability aspects of the housing component of the development, as well as the layout of the parking and the entrance and exit to the 1.6-acre site.

Planning and Land Use Services staff have issued a series of proposed conditions for the elected members of the Planning Board to consider if they proceed with approval of the mixed-use development. Those conditions include a ban on short-term rentals within the proposed apartment units and a requirement that the developers reach an agreement "on affordability and/or year-round restrictions" on those units before the issuance of a building permit.

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Last week, Nantucket’s municipal housing director Tucker Holland updated the board on his ongoing discussions with Fiumara and his team.

“Obviously, there are many many factors that you all are dealing with in considering this development, but I’m here strictly on the housing front and if this project is going to be built, it could do a lot of good for the year-round community,” Holland said. His discussions with Fiumara have centered around making eight of the 32 proposed housing units be permanently deed-restricted to people making 80 percent of the area median income or below, and for the whole project to serve strictly year-round residents.

“That’s an intention that Mr. Fiumara has represented to me has been his goal from the very start,” Holland said. “To the extent this project can service year-rounders with 32 units of quality housing, I would be very supportive of that.”

A decision on the project by the Planning Board is expected next month.

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