Leaders at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theatre took to the stage in their rented home of 30 years on May 1 to discuss their plans to build a new theater at the gateway to the village.
After several weeks of rumors and controversy, along with a contentious open-air village board meeting in the park adjacent to the proposed building site, Bay Street’s executives began the dialogue by apologizing to the community.
“I want to start by apologizing for getting out ahead of ourselves and not maybe getting the dialogue started in the right way,” said Bay Street Executive Director Tracy Mitchell. “Today we’re here to remedy that. I think we’re all really here for right reasons and same reasons. We all love our village and we all love our waterfront.”
In early April, a separate non-profit, Friends of Bay Street, which is working on the building project, revealed architectural drawings of its proposed new building, designed by architects Roger Ferris & Partners, at the site of the Water Street Shops just south of the iconic Sag Harbor bridge, and adjacent to the John Steinbeck Waterfront Park, a park that activists in the village had long worked to have built after a series of large condominiums had been proposed on that site.
But rumors began swelling around the village about not only the scale of the proposed building, but also of other real estate deals in the works in conjunction or by people involved with the Bay Street project.
Adam Potter, the founder and chairman of Friends of Bay Street, who was able to retire early after selling his insurance businesses, also apologized, and then shared his vision for Friends of Bay Street and his development plans for some nearby properties.
“I’m sorry we didn’t get off on the right foot,” he told the community. “We all want to make the village a better place.”
Mr. Potter said Friends of Bay Street’s only real estate venture is the West Water Street Shops building, where they propose to build a new theater. He said the group’s architect had suggested that the approach to the theater could be enhanced by tearing down the building at 2 Main Street, known somewhat unaffectionately in the village as “Fort Apache,” which currently contains a taqueria and a frozen yogurt shop. He’s been involved in forming a separate for-profit corporation to raise money to purchase that property, tear down the building there, and then attempt to sell the property to Southampton Town through the Community Preservation Fund.
The architects had said “we need to create access to Steinbeck Park. We want unbelievable viewsheds to the water,” said Mr. Potter. “Everybody we talked to about it was excited and said ‘sign me up.'”
Mr. Potter said he then personally purchased the Dodds & Eder building on Bridge Street in an attempt to find a way to relocate some of the 11 businesses in the Water Street Shops building. He said he also wants to help encourage more businesses like a dry cleaner, cobbler and butcher to set up shop in Sag Harbor. He added that he has also purchased some houses in the vicinity of Bridge Street in the hopes of providing workforce housing, and he’s working to get that area of the village hooked up to the village sewer.
Sag Harbor’s 7-Eleven, which was in the Water Street Shops building, closed at the end of April, but Mr. Potter said it wasn’t without a serious attempt on the part of Friends of Bay Street to find a way to keep the store open.
He said Friends of Bay Street plans to open a new, locally owned and managed convenience store in the same location, by Memorial Day Weekend.
“They will have the same products and the same or cheaper pricing,” he said, adding that the store will be open from 6 a.m. to midnight, and will be partnering with the South Fork Bakery, which employs people with special needs.
Bay Street’s Artistic Director, Scott Schwartz, explained what would happen programmatically in the new space.
“Theater is all about people coming together as a group to experience something that only happens once,” he said. “It has always been about a community coming together to tell stories and experience art as a group…. We want to be a beating heart of life in the center of Sag Harbor.”
Mr. Schwartz added that Bay Street’s programming has long ago outgrown its rented space in the former Bliss Torpedo Factory at the foot of Long Wharf, and has just two years left on its lease.
“The new building will be accessible to everyone all the time,” he added. “We believe our new home will be a home for everyone in Sag Harbor.”
Steve Hamilton, a co-founder of the theater, remembered the first production at Bay Street was the world premiere of Joe Pintauro’s play “Men’s Lives,” based on a book of the same name by Peter Matthiessen about the baymen of the East End. Many people who were subjects of the play were in the audience, he said, and “on opening night watching these men and women witness their lives and their stories really changed my mind and my attitude about the value of theater in a community. In the 30 years since, I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of peoples’ lives changed by theater.”
“This is a life and death issue for Bay Street,” he added.
Ms. Mitchell added that Bay Street had repeatedly asked representatives of its landlord, Pat Malloy, who owns much of the waterfront property just to the east of Long Wharf, if they could purchase their space. She said that, even with a generous donor willing to step up and pay for the space, Mr. Malloy’s representatives had said “get in line,” and that there were at least seven other entities interested in buying the property.
“Many of us were a bit horrified, myself included, by what went up on the waterfront already,” said Ms. Mitchell, referring to a series of tall condominiums under construction just south of the property. “If someone like us hadn’t stepped up, there would have been more single family homes on the waterfront and it would have been locked off from all of us.”
“Nothing today is set in stone except Bay Street will be building a theater on the 7-Eleven property,” she said.
“We’re afraid too. We’re afraid of the winds of change that everyone is experiencing out here — the wall of money is frightening,” said Mr. Hamilton. “This is possibly the only possibility that Bay Street will be able to build a new home here in the Village of Sag Harbor.”
Attendees were skeptical.
Architect Maziar Behrooz, a Sag Harbor resident, said he was glad to see representatives of the theater had brought some humanity to the discussion, but said he felt the “quilted texture and complexities that exist (in Sag Harbor’s architecture) have been annihilated with your building.”
“You’ve created a singular iconic structure instead of looking at Sag Harbor and saying ‘this is great. We don’t need it to be greater,” he said, adding that it seemed to him the design was more appropriate on the oceanfront in East Hampton than in a small, walkable village.
Mr. Potter countered by saying the theater’s architects had researched “what was here hundreds of years ago and brought that to this building,” adding that many architects would have differing views on the aesthetics of the project.
Mr. Hamilton compared the theater to a factory like the historic Bulova Watchcase Factory, now condominiums, in the center of the village.
“Theater is a place where things are made,” he said. “It has got to be a certain size.”
Duncan Darrow, the head of the non-profit Trust for Sag Harbor, said his group was working to buy and preserve property in Sag Harbor and would offer Friends of Bay Street a 10 percent premium to purchase the Water Street Shops site.
“I don’t know you but you sound like Robert Moses,” he told Mr. Potter. “Someone has endowed you with this massive amount of authority and you’re going to remake half this village in your own image.”
Village Trustee Jim Larocca, who is running for Mayor, said he believes the theater should be on the site of the former site of the “big blue gas ball,” which is now a parking lot since the ball was removed and contaminated soil was trucked away. The theater has negotiated a lease with National Grid to use that site for parking.
“That has been a Superfund site. They spent $140 milloin cleaning up that site,” said Mr. Potter. “National Grid will not allow a building on that lot. Period. End of conversation.”
Sag Harbor resident Ken Dorph said that when he returns from working abroad one of the biggest things he notices about being back in the United States is how little public space there is here.
“The first thing I thought was ‘wow, what an opportunity,'” he said of the plans. “I see Bay Street as a community center… I know a lot of people who are excited to see Bay Street walkable and in Sag Harbor.”
“I’m not an architect, but what I saw looked like a warehouse on a dock in Oslo. That’s what I see,” he said of the current design.
Sag Harbor resident Kathryn Levy said she wasn’t hearing much give and take in the conversation.
“You need to rethink this design, make it conform to the village and make it smaller,” she said. “If the building next door is the new standard for Sag Harbor, it’s too large.”
Ms. Levy added that, even after hearing Mr. Potter’s explanation, she didn’t understand why a separate non-profit was formed for the building project, instead of Bay Street pursuing a capital campaign under the auspices of its existing corporation.
“You could have done that for the purchase of this property. It doesn’t make sense to me,” she said, adding that, as she entered the theater for the discussion, there were protestors at the windmill at the foot of Long Wharf asking people to boycott Bay Street.
“I don’t want a piece of land if we can’t afford to build on it,” said Ms. Mitchell. “What do I want that liability for? That’s not mine to have. We’re here to produce theater. Our board has already said it doesn’t want the liability. We have enough on our plate.”
“It’s completely legal and completely transparent,” added Mr. Schwartz. “We did something different than you might have.”