Pictured Above: Ms. Streeter’s portrait of Sarah Jackson Adams, a Greenport community leader and suffragist who conceived and funded the Greenport Auditorium, built in 1894.
How can we preserve historic buildings and also ensure a vibrant working community can still remain in the seaside villages of the East End?
These are questions being asked by Sag Harbor-based artist Sabina Streeter in an exhibition, “Port & Harbor,” on view in Greenport’s Floyd Memorial Library through Feb. 4, and in recent private and public conversations in the communities of Greenport and Sag Harbor.
Sag Harbor, a historic village alongside the Peconic Bay that has seen some of the greatest recent skyrocketing housing prices on the East End (along with wealth’s attendant speculative construction), serves in many ways as a cautionary tale for Greenport, said panelists at a Jan. 13 discussion at the Greenport library on “Historic Preservation on the East End” in conjunction with the exhibition.
Ms. Streeter, who has lived in a 19th Century whaler’s house in Sag Harbor since 1992, has been drawing a comparative and historical profile of the two villages, along with portraits of historical leaders who helped build these communities over the past three centuries.
“In Sag Harbor, we’re seeing simultaneously development and also the destruction of historic houses,” she said at the Jan. 13 discussion. “In the last year, it’s just become insufferable. In Sag Harbor, the horse is out of the barn, but Greenport has such an inventory of wonderful houses that are still intact and undisturbed.”
“It’s kind of a mourning,” she said of the show, which includes images of pieces of historic homes being placed in dumpsters, with titles like “Save What’s Lost.”
“The histories have been similar in these two village,” she said. “Greenport still has its working harbor. The danger in Sag Harbor is the big developers are really there. There is so much means, and absolutely no interest in affordable housing or sustainable building.”
The Jan. 13 panel was moderated by Greenport Village Mayor Kevin Stuessi, and included Sag Harbor-based architect Maziar Behrooz and Tara Cubie, a North Fork resident who serves as the Preservation Director for Preservation Long Island.
Mr. Stuessi said Jaine Mehring, an Amagansett-based community activist who’s working to change the paradigm of rampant development in East Hampton through the organization Build.In.Kind (buildinkind.com), had come to the North Fork last year with a warning: “I’m coming to you from your future.”
“What is average in Sag Harbor, a $3.5 million house — we’re going to be there in short course,” said the mayor. “All we need to do is look across the water to see what is happening with money and development.”
He added that less than one-third of the property in the Village of Greenport’s one-square-mile area is in the village’s historic district, even though the entire village is filled with historic buildings.
Mr. Stuessi said Jane Ratsey-Williams, chair of the village’s Historic Preservation Commission, has asked the Greenport Village Board to consider expanding its historic district.
“This is something we as a community have to look at much more clearly,” he said.
Ms. Streeter shared photographs of her neighbor’s property — an 1840s Greek revival known as the Hunt-Johnson Home, built for the founder of the Sag Harbor Corrector (a precursor to the Sag Harbor Express), which has been gutted by real estate speculators since it was sold two years ago.
“This was a house that didn’t need to be gutted,” she said. “The house was always lovingly maintained until it was sold two years ago.”
Preservation Long Island, which is based in Cold Spring Harbor, works all over Long Island, and maintains Sag Harbor’s Custom House. Its Endangered Historic Places List includes 12 sites on the East End, including the former Greenport Auditorium, now a furniture store, which is on the market for $3.5 million.
A group of Greenporters looking to restore the auditorium recently received a $385,000 grant for the project.
“Successful preservation is local preservation. It doesn’t happen at a national or regional level. It happens in your community,” said Ms. Cubie at the panel discussion. “The only thing that will protect you is if your community has local landmark legislation that will protect historic resources. It is the best tool we have right now.”
“Unfortunately, in a lot of places like the Hamptons, unless the fines are so prohibitive that they will prevent demolition, it’s often seen as just an extra fee that developers have to pay to get this done,” she added.
Ms. Streeter agreed.
“All the examples in Sag Harbor are in the historic district,” she said. “There are so many variances in place, and people get away with building enormous additions on tiny lots.”
“The demolition of a historic building in Sag Harbor has a fine of a few hundred dollars,” said Mr. Behrooz, the architect. “You could purchase a historic building, not even have a permit to demolish it, and overnight it would be demolished and a fee will be paid. To build a new building in its place, you would have to go through the Architectural Review Board and various boards, but if you did such a thing, you would probably have a very good lawyer advocating for you…. With the threats of lawsuits, so very often, regardless of what’s in the books, developers tend to get away with what they want to do.”
Mr. Behrooz added that historic preservation for its own sake isn’t necessarily good for a community. He pointed out that in the Village of East Hampton, the “look and feel of a traditional village has been kept, but behind these beautiful historic facades, many of these buildings are owned by multinational corporations…. The residents of East Hampton Township don’t come to the village much. How may Gucci bags and Louis Vuitton dresses can you buy?”
“A way of life should be preserved,” he said. “It used to be that a family would live in a 1,300-square-foot hose for generations. If you lose the lifestyle that supported the small saltboxes we had in the past, you’re just creating a still life museum of historic buildings”
Historic preservation is not necessarily at odds with affordable housing, said the panelists, pointing out that such tools as adaptive reuse of historic buildings, or reverting single family homes to their prior use as multi-family homes retains their historic character while also providing much-needed housing.
“Historical buildings are ideal sites, often, for affordable housing, especially with apartments above stores in places like Greenport,” said Ms. Cubie. “HUD had policies in the past against creating affordable housing in historical buildings, but that’s changing. HUD has been slow in the realization that Main Streets and within historic districts are places where affordable housing should happen.”
A recent update to Greenport’s zoning code permitted apartments above many stores along the south side of Front Street where housing hadn’t previously been allowed.
Greenport Village is in the midst of a community planning effort to envision what affordable housing will look like here in the future, guided by representatives from Pace Law School’s Land Use Law Center, who led a community conversation on affordable housing with the village Jan. 11.
During the discussion, the Pace representatives asked community members their impressions on housing designs ranging from apartments above storefronts, in vacant industrial and office buildings, in conversions of single-family homes and in garden apartments and accessory dwelling units.
Greenport pledged in late 2023 to become a “Pro-Housing Community,” the first such community on the East End, putting the village at the forefront for New York State grant opportunities.
“This is the time to take advantage of those opportunities,” said Ms. Cubie. “We don’t want places like Greenport to become just tourist destinations.”
Mr. Behrooz said he would also like to see local land use laws acknowledge that new construction will take place in historic districts, and guide that process in a more wholistic way.
“If I’m building between two historic structures, I want to be sensitive to what’s around me — to scale and size, not necessarily to gingerbread detailing,” he said, adding that forcing historic features onto new buildings is not necessarily the right tack.
“It’s expensive, and if you do it cheaply, it’s not good,” he said.
“Some are awful. They result in cookie cutter, Disney-like facades that in the end take away from the historic buildings,” agreed Ms. Cubie. “Historic buildings within the district should be allowed to shine the brightest.”
Ms. Streeter’s exhibition will be on view at the Floyd Memorial Library, 539 First Street in Greenport, through Feb. 4. Here’s more info.
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