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Draw the Line

I appreciated the East Hampton Star’s August 25th editorial “(Re)Building Wave. I thought most salient was the admonition and call to action regarding the commercial redevelopment plans pending across town: “Residents and visitors alike may not be happy with the cumulative changes these and other proposals represent and they need to put maximum pressure on elected officials to put community before profits. And the owners of small businesses…should be wary of projects that…would gobble up scarce resources including parking and workers.”

And, I was also thankful the editorial gave readers an early heads-up about the just-emerged application to redevelop 136 Main Street in Amagansett -- a significant and problematic proposal for hamlet and town.

For anyone not familiar, 136 Main Street is on the south side of Rt. 27, just east of Indian Wells Highway and west of Jack’s Coffee, and across the road from the important Schellinger Farm Complex site and Miss Amelia's Cottage. Town code formally designates 136 as not only part of the Amagansett Historic District, but specifically enumerates it (per Chapter 225 Appendix A, Section A-5-C-(1) and A-6-J--(1) & (2)) as one of the nine core historic commercial buildings, referring to it as “the Amagansett Garage.” The site primarily houses long standing local businesses, including the small business center, Pet-Stop and Balcun’s Service Station.

I only became aware of this application the week prior when I checked to see what was on the Planning Board’s August 24 agenda and clicked on the item “Site Plan Review -- Hildreth Advisors Amagansett.” Reviewing the materials posted to the agenda, I was dismayed by what the new owner, a NYC-based real-estate developer/transaction company, has proposed.

(By the way, though "Hildreth" is a name that has deeply local connotations, as far as we can tell, this applicant/application has no relationship with the history of that family or the original general store in Southampton.)

Having reviewed the site plan and renderings submitted, read the entire Planning Department memo, and watched the one-hour-twelve-minute-long Planning Board discussion, (which begins at the 36 minute mark in this linked LTV video), I will say that the utter disconnection from and lack of understanding or respect for Amagansett – for its historical context, its modest scale, its community character, its current pressures, and its residents – demonstrated by this application is stunning.

Overall, a low-key, gently trafficked parcel, authentically rural in character and encompassing important historical assets and local businesses will be transformed into an over-scaled, multi-use business complex, resembling a suburban strip mall, and with as many as 17 uses (plus apartments) that could generate hundreds more daily vehicle ins and outs right smack in the biggest traffic pain point in the hamlet.

The scope, scale, design and potential retail intensity do not appear in any way compatible with the character of Amagansett overall, with Chapter 255, Exhibit A dealing with Amagansett Historical District Guidelines, with the codified goals and guidelines for its historic Central Business District, with the town’s special permit standards including Chapter 255-5-40 , and 255-5-50, or --from what I’ve gleaned so far -- the wants and needs of our residents.

I will say that the utter disconnection from and lack of understanding or respect for Amagansett – for its historical context, its modest scale, its community character, its current pressures, and its residents – demonstrated by this application is stunning.

The August 24th session was what’s known as a “preliminary site plan review” -- a particular privilege accorded commercial development projects giving applicants the opportunity to pre-screen their intentions with the Planning Department and Planning Board to get their overall impressions, pulse-check individual members’ reactions, and see if there are any “deal breakers.” Most importantly, the applicant can take in guidance on how to improve the application around problems and gaps needing to be addressed before submitting the final application, proceeding to formal review, and winding their way to the board’s ultimate vote. Many projects take years to get from preliminary site plan review to final approval.

In terms of existing conditions, 136 Main Street is a long, rather narrow, one-acre lot that abuts residential properties on its south end and includes two connected buidlings: (1) The modest 1,409 square-foot, two-story white building fronting Montauk Highway, and behind that, (2) a one-story, roughly 4,500-square-foot shingled building. These historic structures cover just 13% of the lot, with the rest being graveled parking lot, storage areas and open space.

Existing Conditions at 136 Main Street in the Amagansett Commercial Historic District.

The developer has proposed to build a large “multiple-business complex” on the site. With respect to the street-facing two-story white building, its façade will remain intact but renovated internally, but the applicant wouldn’t confirm their intentions regarding internal configuration or any planned use changes.

Regarding the existing one-story shingled building/garage structure, the applicant classifies what it will do as a “renovation.” Though they might be able to exploit some technicality, perhaps preserving a wall or foundation, calling this a “renovation” strains credulity. The renderings applicant submitted make clear that for all intents and purposes, this is demolition and complete rebuild of the structure that will transform the historical integrity and rural character into an expanded suburban shopping center aesthetic, with the addition of a lot of glass, a large metal roof and 6 new retail storefronts

Applicant's.renderings of the complete rebuild of the existing historic shingle garage building.

The developer also plans to construct an additional 7,200-square-foot, 30-foot-tall building that, according to their renderings, will house another six storefronts anchored by a Starbucks on the first floor, and four “affordable” apartments on the second floor. Most of the rest of the property will be paved for 54 parking spaces plus truck unloading areas. All in, the plan explodes total lot coverage to the maximum allowable of 80%

Applicant's rendering of the new, additional 7,200 sq. foot structure with six retail storefronts, anchored by a Starbucks.

Finally, the applicant says that they will include four "affordable" apartments on the second floor on the new 7,200-square-foot retail structure. But I find this claim questionable, as the developer provides no narrative of what they mean by "affordable," how tenants will be selected or who will live in them when. The applicant indicated they might be apartments for people related to their own seasonal workforce, as opposed to being available full time for East Hampton residents.

The "trojan horsing" of affordable units appears to be a something of a growing trend among developers across our hamlets, as they try to max out their plans and think they can ease their approval path forward by dangling the prospect of adding a few units of workforce housing to an otherwise problematic application.

Indeed, "Housing Affordability" is one of the six core pillars of Build.In.Kind/East Hampton and we believe the overdevelopment trend of the last decade is the root cause of our current affordable housing crisis. I continue to work towards the development of significantly more community housing units and options. I know we have an extrordinarly large affordable housing deficit in East Hampton.

However, no matter how “desperate”-- as one board member put it at the Planning Board session-- we may be, that cannot justify speculators and developers who want to exploit that need and use the placement of units to curry favor with boards, silence public concerns and distract from other issues for projects that are otherwise totally over-scaled and incompatible with the purposes of our code, and the needs/interests of our community overall. We can and will do better.

The "trojan horsing" of affordable units appears to be a something of a growing trend among developers...However, no matter how “desperate” we may be, that cannot justify speculators and developers who want to exploit that need.

The August 18 Planning Department memo, core to site plan review, details about a dozen issues, gaps and problems regarding what the applicant has submitted thus far, among them that:

  • “The preliminary application lacks an adequate project narrative to describe the existing and proposed uses.”

  • “The current proposal does not meet the preference…to be well below total coverage.”

  • "As currently proposed, this development would exceed permitted density.”

  • “Architectural renderings of the proposed building… does not evoke consistency with the historic character or current visual character of Amagansett.”

During the meeting, each member articulated issues to be addressed, with traffic being the unanimous concern among them. One board member asked: “How much worse are we gonna make [traffic], because it’s already really bad?” Other concerns cited included ingress/egress positioning, parking lot navigation problems, amount of paving, setback encroachments, significant increase of density/intensity of use and maxed-out coverage in a limited space, addition of too many unspecified retail uses, “chock-a-block” storefronts, no clarity about apartment usage, insufficient open space, and appearance not looking “Amagansett-y” enough.

Yet, several members were also sounding positively inclined to the developer’s dreams and desires. Statements included: “there’s a lot of good things I like about the project,” “I think it meets all of the special permit standards,” “it meets the central business guidelines,” “I love the idea of affordable apartments,” “overall I like the project, you just have to work on a few things,” “you’ll be in good shape with the sanitary transfer rights,“ “the site is primed for this kind of redevelopment,” “I’m glad the storage area will be cleaned up,“ “this could work out very well…as a destination to buy things you can’t get elsewhere,” ”I’m not so worried about the number of stores—in fact it might be a nice thing,” “It’s a lot, but I remain very, very open…there’s probably a path forward assuming traffic is not prohibitive.”

And then Chairman concluded “I think it can work, but needs to be scaled back…a bit”

A bit?

I was surprised by the rather quick endorsements for an application of this significance and currently rife with gaps, uncertainties, non-compliance and incompatibilities. Overall, I came away from watching the meeting feeling the applicant was left with the impression that it was mostly a matter of tweaks, rather than a complete rethinking/redo, needed to move ahead.

After the 136 Main Street session concluded, the Board moved on to a long-pending, contentious commercial application in Montauk. As part of that discussion, planning board member Randy Parsons posed the following to his fellow board members: ”We have to draw a line with overdevelopment. When are we going to stop approving applications for overdevelopment? You have to decide where you’re going to stop…It’s death by a thousand cuts. You have to decide you either want this place in the future to be overdeveloped, congested, have water quality problems or you don’t.”

To the query, Chairman Kramer responded: “For good or for ill, we deal with applications one at a time…and it’s hard to draw that line.” Others agreed there is a place to draw a line, but regarding the Montauk application before them, five of seven felt it wasn’t that line-drawing moment.

In my mind, Mr. Parsons’ query clearly needs to be posed for the application for 136 Main Street, Amagansett – it is indeed a place to draw the line on overdevelopment. Citizens, grab your pencils.

In my mind, Mr. Parsons’ query clearly needs to be posed for the application for 136 Main Street, Amagansett – it is indeed a place to draw the line on overdevelopment. Citizens, grab your pencils.

We are in a time now where dominating all spheres of development in East Hampton are outside speculators, corporate interests and mega investors, who possess little-to-no insight or regard for our core needs and character, and whose sole motivation is to extract maximum value for themselves as quickly as possible rather than building any real value for the community. And critically, were are at a point where our Town infrastructure is overwhelmed by -- indeed is breaking under -- the overdevelopment pressures. So I would venture that our residents, in each of our hamlets, should be central to determining what amount of and what type of additional commercial capacity and uses are needed and desired, and not the other way around. That is good business. That is "good planning."

However, one of the problems with these application review procedures is that the public is brought into the process formally most often in the very late stages of review, sometimes years into it. Often a pubic hearing just precedes the board’s vote to approve or deny, but by that point, as the saying goes, the paint is nearly dry.

I believe that timing has to change, and that change can happen two ways. First, our codified procedures should be ammended to formally solicit public comments much earlier and several times over the process. And separate from formal procedural adjustments, individuals and organizations in the public can and should proactively offer their views about these types of proposed projects via several outlets, among them, by writing letters to the Planning Board and/or the Planning Department. Overall, I encourage citizens to get in the habit of following what is on the agendas of our town Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and Architectural Review Boards and tune into meetings when key items are on the agendas.

These projects are too big and the stakes are too high for us to simply sit quietly in our seats with our hands folded, waiting to be called upon. We need to be proactive. This is a call to action.

(Note, A shorter version of this piece appeared as a Letter to the Editor in the September 8, 2022 edition of the East Hampton Star under the title "A Call to Action." )


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