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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Gloucester at the Crossroads #4: Harbor Zoning Suspense

Air Date: Week of

In New England, fishing boat operators and scientists continue to debate just how many fish there are in the sea. Some observers say the cod and other groundfish stocks are dwindling to a dangerously low level in the once-bountiful Gulf of Maine. But last month a federal management council backed off from a plan to implement emergency restrictions on cod fishing in the gulf. In the meantime, hundreds of miles to the south, where fishing grounds have been closed for four years, there are signs that the cod may be coming back. This could mean good news for Gloucester, Massachusetts, the nation's oldest seaport, which has had a difficult time adjusting to the economic realities that come with closed fishing grounds. An old icon of the town's fishing legacy has become the focal point of a debate about its economic future. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan has this chapter in our continuing series, "Gloucester at the Crossroads."


CURWOOD: In New England, fishing boat operators and scientists continue to debate just how many fish there are in the sea. Some observers say that cod and other ground fish stocks are dwindling to a dangerously low level in the once-bountiful Gulf of Maine. But last month, a Federal management council backed off from a plan to implement emergency restrictions on cod fishing in the Gulf. In the meantime, hundreds of miles to the south, where fishing grounds have been closed for 4 years, there are signs that the cod may be coming back. This could mean good news for Gloucester, Massachusetts, the nation's oldest seaport. The town has had a difficult time adjusting to the economic realities that come with closed fishing grounds. This summer, an old icon of the town's fishing legacy became the focal point of a debate about its economic future. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan has this chapter in our continuing series, Gloucester at the Crossroads.

(Lapping surf and foghorns)

MAN: Every vessel that has sailed in and out of Gloucester since the 1840s, for 150 years, has sailed past the paint factory, and so it strikes deep in the heart of the meaning of the community.

TOLAN: It juts into the harbor like the bow of an old schooner. Faded but urgent, silent yet full of stories, abandoned but essential.

WOMAN: It's the entrance to our inner harbor. It's a landmark that we've taken for granted forever.

MAN: The paint factory is the cathedral of the fishing industries.

TOLAN: On one side of the rambling redwood building, white letters still call out: Paint Manufactory 1863, Gloucester SeaJackets. The coats of copper paint that protected the city's fleet of fishing schooners long ago.

MAN: Please, please, do everything possible, everything you can to preserve this property. It is absolutely part of our essential heritage.

TOLAN: But the high-rolling days of the Gloucester fisheries are over, and with them any notion that the boom lasts forever. So now, as the industry adjusts, even city icons are up for reconsideration.

WOMAN: Like the paint factory. You know, there's not a use for it now, and there probably won't be a use for it in the future. So, what do we do?

(Fade from surf and gulls to indoor echoes)

HARRISON: What you see before you is a proposition with 8 condominium units, 8 residential units, with a condominium form of ownership. We don't believe this is a negative change for the neighborhood, because now you have a vacant, empty, vandalized building.

TOLAN: On a drizzly night, 50 people crowd into the back room of a neighborhood restaurant. They're here to consider the fate of the paint factory, closed now for a dozen years. All that remains is the shell of the old marine industry.

HARRISON: We own all the paint factory.

TOLAN: Attorney Michelle Harrison represents developers who want to preserve the facade of the paint factory and build condos inside.

HARRISON: And it is the intent of this development project to preserve that landmark. So, you're not going to see it torn down to the ground and something new going up. There is an intent...

TOLAN: It seems a simple proposition: a landmark everyone wants to save and a plan to preserve it. But it won't be easy. To build condos inside the plant, this piece of the inner harbor will have to be rezoned, and in Gloucester that means a fight.

FOOTE: There are millions of dollars waiting to come into this harbor, to come in here and develop. And the word condominium means something. It means something to all the developers.

TOLAN: Across the harbor, City Councilor Gus Foote takes the microphone in a hearing before Gloucester's Planning and Zoning Board. In 1960, when the trawler Agnes and Mernie went down without a trace, Gus Foote lost a brother. Today, he's one of the city's staunchest defenders of the fisheries.

FOOTE: But remember this here: that with all the regulations that we put on the fishing industry, everything is coming back in time. But change this one piece, there will be nothing to come back to. Because if this part of this harbor goes, there will be others to follow. This is how you lose the harbor. (Audience applause follows)

TOBEY: The point of hottest political debate for any economic development initiative that could be proposed in the city, the point will be the harbor, the inner harbor in particular. And what if anything do we allow down there that may be different? And what might it look like if it's allowed?

TOLAN: Gloucester Mayor Bruce Tobey likes to point out that 9 of the city's 10 biggest employers don't deal in fish. They make electronics and medical supplies and light manufactured goods.

TOBEY: Folks still see this place, folks beyond, across the country, as a, you know, a quiet little cove with a group of fishermen huddled and nothing else here. There's a whole lot else here, and it's a much more dynamic picture than folks routinely recognize, I think.

TOLAN: With the fishing industry in transition, Mayor Tobey says, Gloucester must diversify. And that may mean some changes for the inner harbor.

TOBEY: There was a political paradigm in Gloucester, for a long time, that the fashionable thing to do was to slam your fist down on the table and to say, "I will not yield one inch of Gloucester's waterfront or land except to save it for the fishing industry." Which meant nothing happened.

TOLAN: The fight over Gloucester's soul, over how the town can modernize without losing its character, has been going on for generations.

(Gulls call; a boat engine runs)

ANASTAS: Gloucester, too, is out of her mind, and is now indistinguishable from the USA.

TOLAN: Gloucester writer and activist Peter Anastas reads selections from poet Charles Olson. Olson spent years in Gloucester during a time of similar upheaval, the urban renewal of the 1960s.

ANASTAS: Oh, city of mediocrity and cheap ambition. Destroying its own shoulders, its own back. Greedy present persons stood upon. Stop this renewing without reviewing.

TOLAN: We sit near a lone stone building on a hill overlooking the harbor. It's all that remains of a once lively neighborhood of fishermen's homes.

ANASTAS: And most of us, looking back on it, ask ourselves why we let it happen. There was very little protest.

TOLAN: On the wharf below us, men salt fresh-caught herring for bait. The trawlers April Gale and Spray are tied up on a finger pier. Across the harbor a fire boat is being repaired at the marine railways. The scene is surrounded by residential zones of waterfront homes and the occasional condo.

ANASTAS: You have another kind of development pressure in Gloucester today. You have a pressure coming from at least 2 areas. One is housing pressure, a pressure to create upscale, high-end luxury housing, condominiums, trophy houses, expensive subdivisions in which the houses begin at 6 or 700 thousand dollars. And you also have a pressure to rezone your industrial waterfront for non-marine uses. It seems like we never learned. We haven't learned from history.

TOLAN: And history tells Mr. Anastas to move quickly if Gloucester's harbor is to be saved.

ANASTAS: There's a window of 6 months to a year in Gloucester to get a handle on what's happening. Or the place is gone. Gone in that what we live in today will no longer be visible. Within a couple of years Gloucester could be a bedroom for Boston. Then the pressure is when people, very affluent people, move into a community, there are enormous pressures for the community to reflect their values. But when you destroy the real indigenous character of a place, when the kind of work that makes the place tick goes, then the place is worthless anymore.

WOMAN (shouting): Underway!

(A fog horn blares; a whistle blows)

TOLAN: Mayor Tobey boards a Coast Guard cutter, a 270-footer, to give it a send-off after 2 days in port.

MAN: Port stop! Check your rudder.

MAN (answering): Port stop.

TOLAN: We cruise past the paint factory, to some the first domino in a plan to rezone the harbor and turn Gloucester into another Nantucket harbor of pleasure boats and tourist shops. But to the mayor --

TOBEY: It's just bogus, it's panic mongering by folks screaming Chicken Little. The fact of the matter is that that site on the tip of our residential neighborhood doesn't make sense marine industrial. There never was a fish in there, and there probably never will be. And the fact of the matter is the bulk of Gloucester's marine industrial zone in the inner harbor is well protected and will continue to be well protected.

TOLAN: A big chunk of the mayor's campaign funds, thousands of dollars, much of it for an uncontested election, is from developers--some out of town and some local, like the developer of the paint factory condos. These donations fuel local worries that City Hall is prepared to sell out the harbor, concerns the mayor says are way off-base.

TOBEY: They're full of baloney. The record is quite different from those allegations. So anyone who gave me money, thinking that they as developers will get favoritism from me, probably won't be coming to my fundraisers the next time out. I have been out and about this state and doing a lot of marketing of this place, and that has brought me into contact with folks who, you know, have taken an interest and want to be helpful.

TOLAN: Well, what do they want?

TOBEY: I don't know what they want, but I'll tell you what they get: good government.

TOLAN: Others credit the mayor with helping revive the fishing industry in Gloucester, especially with the daily seafood auction.

MAN: Large gray sole, 212 pounds. How much for the live grays?

MAN 2: Four bucks.

MAN 1: Four dollars is the bid. Offered four dollars for those and five, four five four five and ten, ten, ten (another man shouts) and twenty-five...

CIULLA: We're looking at these different species of fish put in their aisles. Rows of scrod haddock, rows of market cod, large cod, cod scrod, flat fish, gray sole, dabs, pollocks, so forth and so on. So then a buyer comes here in the morning. If he wants to look at haddock he goes to the haddock section, as if you were going shopping for cereal in the supermarket.

(Beeping truck sounds)

TOLAN: Larry Ciulla walks through a 31-degree warehouse behind the auction room. Fork lifts wield pallets of iced-down fish into trucks bound for dealers in Gloucester, Boston, and beyond. City Hall and the state provided the Ciulla family with loans to build the facility.

(More beeps, industrial sounds)

CIULLA: If there wasn't a future, we wouldn't have built this, the Gloucester seafood display auction. You know, people look at it and say the industry is symptomatic of one that is dying, but it's not. It's an industry that is changing. And we're changing, a lot of new opportunity.

(Beeping sounds continue)

TOLAN: This auction is revitalizing Gloucester, making it a port of call for ships up and down the New England coast. Fish landings are increasing here, the price per pound is up, and the fishermen who manage to hang on could within a few years be working in a healthy industry. And yet the fish auction is part of the city's effort to consolidate the industry here, encouraging more businesses under fewer sites. For other Gloucester fish dealers, long the middlemen between the boats and the buyers from Boston, this new auction has put their businesses deeper in the red.

CIMITARO: My name's Joe Cimitaro. We're down at Captain Joe and Sons. My cousin Frank and I run the company that was started by my grandfather. We worked here since we were 9 years old.

TOLAN: Joe Cimitaro stands in the fog beside an old pier, slumping concrete atop rotting timbers, nearly falling into the water.

CIMITARO: Yeah, that's our pier. It doesn't look like much but (laughs) I hate to say, I can't afford to make it look all that pretty.

TOLAN: Inside, the place looks healthier. They're trying to survive by selling lobster. But Joe says they're barely making it.

CIMITARO: A lot of people in town would like to keep the old-time piers, and they want to save the entire harbor for the fishing industry. But places like ours and other places are being squeezed out. We're kind of caught in a double-whammy.

TOLAN: On the one hand, the boats that used to unload at Captain Joe's now go to the auction the city and state helped finance. And then, he says, the city and state's zoning restrictions hamper his ability to make adjustments.

CIMITARO: If the city and the state are going to finance the auction to compete against us, the state is going to finance a $13 million pier, and you want to take that away from the smaller businesses, then I say okay, you've got to make a decision. You're going to do that and compete against me, but allow me to diversify, or you don't do those things.

TOLAN: Captain Joe's would like to diversify, maybe a marine research facility, perhaps combined eventually, he says, with a few condos.

CIMITARO: I know that's such a dirty word: condominium.

(A large indoor room with ambient conversation)

WOMAN: It's a pretty great harbor, as he said. All parts of it, I mean, you know, you've got an active art colony and restaurants and ...

TOLAN: Every month, 100 or so people gather in City Hall to discuss the future of Gloucester Harbor. They run the gamut: developers, fishermen, activists, urban planners, each with their own vision of the harbor.

MAN: The question is, what specific improvements would you like to see developed and where, using your blue dots...

TOLAN: But while citizens debate their vision of the harbor, change is already underway, and it's stunning. In the last 2 years, a floating casino has arrived, along with occasional visits from a Caribbean cruise ship and jet skis skimming past the fishing boats. And there's the constant drum beat advocating mixed use: a waterfront hotel, more moorings for pleasure boats. To many it will inevitably move this way, where the big money flows.

MAN: If those cruise ships do materialize, we definitely need trinket shops, you know.

MAN 2: Nah, I wouldn't go so far as to say trinket shops, but I would say...

TOLAN: But a smaller chorus is calling for investments in value-added products, using the older wharfs for things like fish meal, canned herring, or smoked salmon. This vision, says Gloucester economist Carmine Gorga, cannot coexist with residential use.

GORGA: Either we take the road of continuing industrialization of the city and especially the harbor, or we take the other, the service road, of tourism and residential. We cannot have them both, because the people will occupy those places. First, they are going to be wealthy; second, they are going to be powerful--politically powerful. So the day after they come in and they set foot on the harbor, they are going to say, "I'm sorry, you know, I'm here to raise my children here. I do not want the dangers of the trucks, the noise, the smell, and so on and so forth." Either we choose one or we choose the other. We have to decide now.

MAN: We cannot sell Gloucester out. We can't afford to sell one piece of the waterfront out.

WOMAN: This isn't a series of condos ringing the harbor. We're talking about one small piece of marine industrial property that is not anywhere near the rest of our working harbor.

MAN: Can you people hear us clearly in the back?

TOLAN: At the crucial City Council vote, 200 people crowd into an auditorium to debate the future of the paint factory in Gloucester Harbor.

WOMAN: What happens tonight will be a turning point in Gloucester's future.

MAN: The Gloucester waterfront is changing. Like it or not, forever. Our zoning laws must be studied and revised to reflect the reality of the times we live in.

MAN: You will be remembered by your decision tonight. Act fearlessly, as fishermen did. Don't give up the waterfront. The paint factory is a tolling bell. (Audience applause follows)

TOLAN: The debate rages on past 1 AM. There's shouting and cheering from all quarters. Then the stakes are raised one last time. The paint factory's representative steps forward. He tells the council that this deal must go through, or the building's fate will be sealed.

MAN: I hope you appreciate the significance of the decision you folks are going to make tonight, because voting against rezoning this property puts the potential and probable course of action in play. And that is the demolition of this property.

MAN: Councilor Webster?


MAN: Councilor Foote?


MAN: Councilor Giacalone?


MAN: Councilor Grace?


TOLAN: The developers need 6 votes to change the zoning law. They get 5. In the end, concerns about a domino effect override the town's love of its old icon. Zoning restrictions, the councilors decide, are more important.

MAN: This harbor, industrial, is not for sale to big money or anyone else.

(Cheers and applause from audience follow)

TOLAN: The zoning stands. The building may fall.


TOLAN: Late August, the first cool whiff of fall in the air. At the Gloucester Marine Railways, a man sandblasts a metal plate to weld it to a tugboat in for repairs. Business is down and the facility is in bad shape. Despite the City Council vote, Sam Novello and Joe Sinagra say development pressure hasn't led up on harbor property.

NOVELLO: I think it's going to be happening all the time now, because there's probably going to be more money, more money. People are going to see it, more people are going on vacation, you know,.

SINAGRA: Gloucester's a beautiful place. Look what they did to Cape Cod. You know, it's all bought up. Here's another cape; it ain't bought up yet. Some beautiful panoramic views, you get up there on the hill, I shouldn't even talk about it. Hey, Gloucester's a horrible place, it stinks here, don't come here.

TOLAN: The Railways is treading a middle path between slow death and sell- out. It rejected the developer's $2 million buy-out bid, but accepted a proposal to restructure the business with local investors. The cash infusion, along with the income from a maritime museum to be built on the property, could help the Railways survive long term.

SINAGRA: The business has been the mother to this port for years and years. You know, just because your mother's sick for a little bit you don't throw her own the goddamn window.

(Sandblasting continues; fade to lapping surf)

TOLAN: As for the paint factory, the day after the City Council vote, the landowner took out a demolition permit, as promised. And so on this Saturday morning, the City Conservation Commission meets with the foreman of the demolition crew in the shadow of the old red building. As opponents try to raise money to buy the site and come up with their own preservation plan, commissioners discuss how best to take down the old factory. Some believe the developers are bluffing, making one last attempt to pull at the town's heartstrings and change its decision. Some in Gloucester are glad, saying the demolition will show the do-gooders a lesson. Others wonder, what's the use of saving a facade, putting wealthy outsiders inside a building that once kept afloat Gloucester's mighty fleet? Better, they say, to sacrifice the beloved building and protect the city's fisheries for better days to come.

(Gulls and surf)

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, with Emily Wong, this is Sandy Tolan in Gloucester, Massachusetts.



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