Pictured Above: Roger Ferris & Partners’ design for the new Bay Street Theatre.
Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor first showed off plans for its new building on the edge of the village’s iconic waterfront, by architects Roger Ferris & Partners, in early April, setting off a buzz of excitement in the village.
But the scale of the proposed project, put together by a separate non-profit, Friends of Bay Street & Sag Harbor Redevelopment, along with word that other nearby parcels are also in contract to be purchased by the new non-profit and its partners, have many in the village suspicious of massive changes that could soon be coming to the village’s downtown.
In response to the controversy, the Sag Harbor Village Board held a special, outdoor, in-person meeting in the John Steinbeck Waterfront Park, adjacent to the proposed new theater, on April 23. While representatives from Friends of Bay Street were invited to attend, Sag Harbor Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy said they’d declined. The non-profit is holding its own community meeting on May 1 at the theater’s current location at 2 Bay Street.
Friends of Bay Street announced last year that they had purchased the building containing West Water Street Shops, a massive, one-story retail complex that includes a busy 7-Eleven that was slated to close by the end of April. The building is adjacent to the John Steinbeck Waterfront Park and three new also-controversial condominiums under construction.
Bay Street plans to build a new, 299-seat theater, with a double-gabled design, partially constructed of wood lattice, to blur the line between indoor and outdoor space. According to the announcement of the project, it will “be much lower than the building next door (a 42-foot-high condominium overlooking the harbor), though the design will need to be tall enough to accommodate a flyloft above the stage.
Friends of Bay Street have also announced they are in discussions to purchase 2 Main Street, long known derisively in the village as “Fort Apache,” another retail building at the foot of the iconic bridge to North Haven, and use that property to expand the waterfront park.
Several other developments adjacent to the property are also in the works, village officials confirmed at the April 23 meeting.
Village officials said Friends of Bay Street has reached a deal with National Grid to lease the parking lot on the site of the former big blue “gas ball” that was removed more than a decade ago and was the site of a massive environmental cleanup. Currently, that site is being used for public parking.
Adjacent to the gas ball property is another vacant lot owned by members of the Schiavoni family, who had to tear down a block of retail stores there in 2007 due to the environmental remediation of the gas ball property. The Schiavonis have an existing deal with the village to be allowed to replace the buildings that were there.
Village officials also confirmed that a partner in Friends of Bay Street has purchased the former Dodds & Eder building, which sits just east of the gas ball property at 11 Bridge Street.
“We can’t put a bubble around Sag Harbor. We have to keep changing,” said Ms. Mulcahy at the April 23 forum, adding that property owners have a right to build on their property. “[The village] can control the use, size and scale and the character of what will be put in Sag Harbor.”
The village currently has a building moratorium in place along the waterfront, which ends in August, while it puts together a new zoning overlay district for the waterfront.
“This is not a pro-Bay Street or anti-Bay Street discussion,” said Ms. Mulcahy. “I’m thrilled Bay Street bought this property and I hope something beautiful will be built here.”
Village Trustee Jim Larocca said he isn’t thrilled that Bay Street bought the property.
“We had a live application before the Town of Southampton for a CPF acquisition” of the Water Street Shops property, he said. “Bay Street bought the building out from under us.”
He added that he believes the former site of the gas ball would be a better location for the theater.
Mr. Larocca also said he’s not sure if the new code “will make it easier or harder for developers to build big buildings,” adding that there are no environmental representatives on the committee drafting the code, but there are “plenty of lawyers for developers.”
Members of the public, particularly those who had lived in Sag Harbor for a long time, were outspoken about the Bay Street proposal.
“I think this would overwhelm the village. This is an egregious example of the road we don’t want to go down,” said Kathryn Levy. “We don’t need Lincoln Center here. Change is brave, but not change that would drown the village.”
Former Village Trustee Robbie Stein, a psychologist who has had an office in the area, questioned whether the project took climate change into account.
“This whole land cannot take in a big rainfall,” he said, adding that it is about four feet above sea level. “Being farsighted environmentally is really important.”
Louis Grignon, who owns the Sag Harbor Yacht Yard, said he needs to replace a work barn on his property, and he hasn’t yet heard from the village if he will be prohibited from doing so under the new code.
“What is this village going to do to protect the working waterfront?” he asked. “It’s already difficult to get people to work in Sag Harbor.”
Mr. Larocca said he would ensure the new code protects the historic uses of the waterfront.
Jane Holden, a lifelong Sag Harbor resident, said she’s been a supporter of Bay Street Theatre from the beginning, when Julie Andrews gave a concert at the Old Whalers Church to raise money to start the theater.
“I don’t understand why people want this ugly building to stay here,” she said of Water Street Shops. “We’ve got to work together.”
Pamela Kern, a former school board member whose father was on the village board for 25 years, has seen a lot of change in the village — she was long the manager of the Harbor Heights gas station on Route 114.
“My father would be rolling in his grave,” she said. “I don’t understand how the Army Corps of Engineers said all of Long Island Avenue is wetlands and we’re still building on it.”
“I myself had to move out of the village, and my family’s been here 200 years. My kids are scared to death they’re going to have to leave here.”
“I’m sorry. We’re not all rich,” she said, then asked if normal people have to hold the village board’s feet to the fire to get them to act in the community’s interest.
“Do you have to hold our feet to the fire? Yes.” said Mr. Larocca.