“Stop this renewing without reviewing.”
–Charles Olson, “A Scream to the Editor”
What do the proposed “Soones Court” Back Shore luxury housing project and the recently floated ideas for the development of Ten Pound Island have in common, aside from the fact that they have provoked vociferous public opposition?
These are projects that have no foundation in planning. They were neither anticipated nor considered as part of an overarching plan for the growth and development of Gloucester or the protection of our natural resources. Why is this? Simply put, it is because the city effectively does not have a Master Plan that is currently valid. Our Master Plan is neither valid nor relevant because, having last been drafted and voted upon in 2001, it is fifteen years out of date. As such, it does not—and did not—anticipate major projects like Gloucester Crossing or the Beauport Hotel on the Fort, both of which also stirred divisive public opposition.
The purpose of good planning is to avoid such controversies as much as possible and make clear in a democratically created document what is needed for the orderly growth and development of the community; in other words, what should be built in the future and where it should be built. Such a plan also provides for what the community wishes to preserve in terms of landforms, historic sites and buildings, neighborhoods, or cherished places— iconic locations like the shore side of our Back Shore, Ten Pound Island, Dogtown, or the Magnolia Woods. It is possible through planning to set aside such “magical places,” as Janice Stelluto, who shepherded Plan 2001 from the talking stages through to its completion, called them, so that they would remain undisturbed to be enjoyed by future generations of Gloucester citizens and visitors drawn to the natural beauty of our city.
Good planning also anticipates the impact on the economic and social well- being of the city of foreseen growth; for as a community considers what it hopes to live with in the present—which amenities it needs, what kinds of new business might be provided to create necessary jobs, how new growth and development will affect tax base—it also looks at what is not wanted. It provides for the preservation of what is valued like the untrammeled view out to Thatcher’s Island from the Back Shore, or Ten Pound Island left in its natural state for students to study its geology and birdlife.
Plan 2001 did not call for a shopping plaza adjacent to the Fuller School, nor did it consider the marine-industrial Fort as an ideal location for a “boutique” hotel or conference and function center These were not developments growing out of the community’s pressing desire to have them (there was consensus about a downtown hotel but not on the Fort); they were developer-driven projects, coming, as it were, from a vacuum created by a lack of planning. Taken by surprise, as the community was when these unanticipated and unplanned for projects first surfaced, many in the community reacted like we all do when we are confronted with the unexpected. There was anger, frustration and, naturally, resistance, creating rifts in the city, which deepened as one unanticipated and unplanned for project followed another.
To be sure, the planning process cannot anticipate or parry in advance every controversy; nor can it satisfy all sectors of the community. But it can help us to avoid the divisive acrimony we now experience in Gloucester with the concomitant anger against and distrust of government and public officials, neither of which help to promote or sustain our wellbeing as a people, collectively hoping for a deserved quality of life in the place we call home.
Without good planning a city is helpless in the face of the relentless drive to develop that we and many seaside communities like Gloucester are facing, just as a family that does not budget its finances or plan for the future is stymied when there is job loss or catastrophic illness. Good planning can help to avoid the raucous public hearings that have been a sad feature of local life, pitting neighbor against neighbor and ward against ward, only fueling the enmity and distrust of government that have come to characterize national life as well. Good planning can also help the community avoid costly litigation that drains both public coffers and private citizens of funds that could be more wisely and creatively spent.
So, before we get into another battle royal over the next development proposal to come down the pike (and there will be many), would it be too much to ask if we, as a community, could take that superannuated Master Plan off the shelf and revise it? Or better: couldn’t we begin again, utilizing all the experience we have gained during the past fifteen fractious years, and write a new one? Call it a roadmap for the present, or a GPS helping us to navigate our way through the complex terrain of the future. Call it what you will, but for the sake of all of us let’s not move forward without knowing what’s ahead.
(On Thursday, March 4, 2016, the Gloucester Planning Board said “No” to preliminary plans for Soones Court. However, developers have announced that they will return in July with “a more definite proposal.”
On Monday, March 21, there will be a community meeting hosted by Ward One city councilor Scott Memhard, at the Rocky Neck Cultural Center, 6 Wonson Street, at 7 p.m., to discuss “Ten Pound Island: Recognizing its Past, Planning its Future.” All are invited.)
Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucester, is a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.