Affordable housing is a problem not just here, but nationwide, so it makes sense, especially given its size, that the 79-unit affordable housing complex proposed for downtown Sag Harbor by Adam Potter, head of the Friends of Bay Street Theater, and Conifer Developers is generating spirited conversation and debate. The building, which would rise out of a floodplain in the village's newly created office district, between Bridge and Meadow Streets, would also contain 34,000 square feet of retail space.
Business owners have an interest because affordable housing, sometimes termed "work-force housing," could give their employees a place to live. Local families priced out of homeownership in a challenging housing market pay attention. And village residents take interest because the project will directly impact their quality of life for years to come, during the construction phase, and after.
"Everyone is committed to finding solutions to affordable housing," said April Gornik, an artist and founder of Save Sag Harbor, during a meeting at her house last weekend. "But we have to measure the cost of it." Ms. Gornik, who pointedly refers to the proposal as a "shopping mall with an affordable housing component" worries most about the lack of village government transparency involving the development.
Ms. Gornik and others contend that the complex shouldn't be judged alone, but as part of a larger scheme to potentially place a new Bay Street Theater where 7-Eleven once stood. People should also consider the possibility of a widely rumored multilevel parking garage, she says.
In "an open letter from concerned members of our community" that she sent Tuesday, she wrote that it "is especially important" that the state environmental quality review process "require an assessment of all proposed projects simultaneously."
Mayor James Larocca, reached over the phone, acknowledged the speculation about a multilevel parking garage. "Ten years ago, I never heard the idea come up," he said, but it's discussed more now. He was quick to add that it's not being "officially discussed in the government" because there is no current application for such a garage.
During the last couple of trustee meetings, he has publicly asked Bay Street to communicate its intention regarding a new theater building to the village. "The fact is the Bay Street Theater folks have not applied to build a new theater," he said. The theater has offered controversial plans for what it hopes a new building on Long Island Avenue would look like.
"Proving a negative is impossible," he said. While he's sympathetic to the amount of speculation brought up by the Potter proposal, he was "struggling to keep the conversation on what is real. Policy discussions all require that we are operating from a common set of facts," he said.
"This aggregate project is itself a mini-master plan, and in fact a master plan that no one has seen," said Maziar Behrooz, a village resident and architect who was at the meeting with Ms. Gornik over the weekend. "It will have a most enormous impact on Sag Harbor."
"It's way too preliminary to speak about it yet," said Michael D'angelo, the owner of Emporium True Value Hardware, when reached over the phone. Projects have a way of changing over time, he said. "Do you remember the early renderings of Steinbeck Park? It looks nothing like that." He worried, however, about flooding. "They better create some sort of system to control the water. Any groundwater from that area must not go anywhere near Main Street or the surrounding properties."
Nilay Oza, another Sag Harbor architect, also worried about designing the building before the engineering challenges were tackled. "A project of this scale," he said over the phone, "proposed on some of the lowest lying land in the village, has water runoff issues today that will become far more serious with tidal flooding in the future. Due to this fact, expertise on this matter is required now in pre-design, not after the fact."
Bryony Freij, a social worker and co-leader of East End YIMBY, a pro-housing group, says she's "optimistic about the possibility of adding 79 affordable housing units" to the village. She's also a bit cautious and says while "our initial analysis leads us to believe the current proposal will meet the community's goals and standards and will deserve support, there is much to be defined by the developer, and resolved by the village government and its committees."
Susan Mead, who dialed into the meeting at Ms. Gornik's house, and who, until recently, served as chairwoman on the village zoning board of appeals, said the development was "an opportunity to fix a lot of the infrastructure." She worried that with poor planning, the village could miss the chance, and even "make it worse."
"In a nutshell," said Ms. Gornik, "if you have a theater, a tiered parking garage that could be 36 feet high, and a shopping mall with two stories of affordable housing on top, you have three enormous buildings in a part of Sag Harbor that's a gateway from the west and looming over the village." She's concerned that 34,000 square feet of new retail might threaten village businesses. Without a plan to limit the size of stores in the proposed retail area, she wondered if the village would be able to prevent big box stores from opening.
Michael Daly, a real estate broker and founder of East End YIMBY, sees the degraded characteristic of the lots involved as part of the appeal of the project. He said the development is an "opportunity to reimagine and reinvigorate a currently underutilized and unhealthy part of the village that will only get worse if left in its current state."
"Opposition from those who are out of touch with reality is to be expected but clutching onto the past stands in the way of adequately planning for the future," he wrote in an email.
Kathryn Levy, a village poet who attended the meeting at Ms. Gornik's house, said, "Village residents need to be informed and have forums outside of board hearings where they can learn as much as possible" about the project. "There are so many rumors circulating, the public needs to hear more facts."
"The massing of the building doesn't have anything to do with urban planning or smart growth, but with New York State funding algorithms," said Mr. Behrooz. "The assumption that we must abide by the algorithm instead of proper planning is deeply problematic. YIMBY doesn't mean development to the max using the lowest-grade architecture and spatial configurations that are brutal."
From an architectural perspective, Mr. Behrooz takes issue with a single entrance connecting many living spaces with a single long hallway. The lack of outdoor spaces, minus a retail courtyard, or balconies, is troublesome, he said.
"It's a terrible bit of pressure and a false choice to say you can either have affordable housing or keep your village intact," said Ms. Gornik. "I don't think we should be given a choice like that."
Her "open letter," published Tuesday, had 101 signatures by early yesterday morning.
"We need to find a way to have a large public discussion with more transparency," said Ms. Levy. "We need to find a way to debate this in an amicable fashion understanding that we're all on the same side. We need to try to be careful to not go down a road of divisions," she said.
"The best outcomes for projects like this always involve community involvement," added Ms. Gornik.
Mr. Potter, for his part, after hearing some of the comments on the project, both for and against, said over text that there was "no real change," and that he would "have more updates after the first few meetings." He also denied a rumor that he had purchased the American Legion building.
Meanwhile, per his lawyer Tiffany Scarlato, the application for his Residences at Sag Harbor is still incomplete. Which means there will be at least one more village board meeting, this Tuesday, where the project is not formally introduced.
In the meantime, conversations continue.