PROVINCETOWN — A hotel that’s taller than Whaler’s Wharf and would include a nearly 264-foot pier was heralded as “bold” and derided as “ugly” on Nov. 21 at a zoning board of appeals hearing.
Christine Barker is proposing to redevelop 227R Commercial St., the condemned former Old Reliable Fish House, which still has rights to a former fishing pier.
Ginny Binder, a consultant and longtime Provincetown historic preservationist, described the spot as “the jewel in the crown” of downtown. Lately, it’s been little more than a homeless camp and fire hazard.
Barker wants to build a 38-foot-high three-story hotel with four condominiums, a bar, a restaurant, and a working recreational pier. The hotel would be set atop a 15-foot platform, raising the total building height to over 50 feet. Given that the height limit in Provincetown is 33 feet, the developer needs a variance or a special permit — there is some dispute among attorneys on this point — to exceed it.
Zoning relief is also needed for the dimensional scale of the project, parking requirements, and its mixed-use status.
The Proposed Design
The hotel has been designed by Machado Silvetti, the architects of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum and, among other high-profile projects, the renovation of the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. Architect Jeffry Burchard described the firm’s specialty as “going into unique places and designing architecture for those situations. We don’t have a specific style to express ourselves. We are interested in the place.”
He designed the building to look like two long houses atop the pier, joined in the middle with two towers, one for an elevator and the other — the one closer to the water — reminiscent of a widow’s walk, he said. In between the two long houses and hidden by gables is a flat roof with a roof garden. Inside would be 31 hotel rooms along with the bar and restaurant and a meeting room about the size of Provincetown Town Hall’s Judge Welsh Hearing Room, Barker said.
It would be built far out onto the beach on the 15-foot-tall platform, which would turn into a pier. Even at high tide, people would be able to walk underneath it, Burchard said.
The location is behind the former Pennsylvania Company building, whose owner, Scott Ravelson, has some problems with Barker’s plan.
“I want to make very clear we are not here to say that it shouldn’t be redeveloped,” said Peter Freeman, Ravelson’s attorney. “We do have serious concerns about safety and traffic and height. We want to be cooperative and we do think changes should be made, not an outright denial. I think there are more studies that need to be done.”
Ravelson has some rights to the 12-to-16-foot-wide alleyway leading from Commercial Street to the building, Freeman said. This alley would be the pedestrian and vehicular access to the hotel.
“The benefit of public access simply cannot happen without my client’s permission,” Freeman said.
The Biggest Hurdle
Of all the requests, the most challenging regulatory issue will be relief from the height limit, because, the town’s attorney said, that requires a variance, which should be given more sparingly than a special permit.
Barker’s attorney, Eliza Cox of Nutter McClennen & Fish in Hyannis, said the law was ambiguous, and her interpretation is that relief could be granted by special permit.
“The only thing I can say is they are over the height limit, so they do need a variance,” Provincetown’s counsel asserted.
In order to grant a variance, the ZBA must find circumstances relating to the unique soil conditions, shape, or topography of the site that constitute a substantial hardship, financial or otherwise, to the builder.
The Old Reliable is almost entirely within the velocity zone and thus must be built on pilings in order to obtain insurance. Without insurance, the entire project is not economically feasible, Burchard said. The fact that it must be raised at least 13 feet, with an added two feet for extra storm protection, means that without zoning relief the height limit will cause the building to lose an entire story, Cox said. Onsite parking for 14 vehicles would also be lost. The spaces are planned underneath the structure, Cox said.
Without zoning relief, Barker said, “there will be no meeting space, no pier, no hotel. It just won’t be financially feasible.”
The pier is not required but would provide the greatest public benefit from the project, according to David Gardner, acting town manager.
Freeman, Ravelson’s attorney, argued that a hardship cannot be based on building rules that don’t work for the developer.
“FEMA regulations are not soil or topography,” Freeman said.
The Public Reaction
The project received 33 letters of support and just one in opposition.
“Provincetown needs bold, daring projects,” said architect Doug Dolezal, a resident.
Restaurateur John Yingling said that the town needs to adapt to changing conditions.
“I own five buildings near there,” Yingling said. “We’ve lost hundreds of restaurant seats and hundreds of hotel rooms…. All the buildings on that side of the street are going to get raised. It’s the future.”
Both Christine Walker, CEO of the Provincetown Film Society, and Jeff Peters, owner of East End Books Ptown, supported the project and attested to a need for year-round hotel rooms, which are necessary for them to keep offering year-round programs.
Strong opposition came from Rob Davis, a part-time resident who said, “The structure is horrendously ugly, the scale is ludicrous, and the impact is massively understated.”
Patrick Patrick, owner of Marine Specialties, a neighbor, said, “I do applaud the applicant” for taking on such a difficult project. But, he added, he questions the height.
“Don’t be surprised if I come back in a few years and ask for the same thing,” Patrick said. “But is it the best for the community? I’m not sure.”
Bill Docker, of the public landscaping committee, said he would like the board to add some “teeth” to promises of public access and a pier. He said Fisherman’s Wharf owner Chuck Lagasse promised to build a 10-foot-wide walking path leading from the town around his pier. This still has not been done.
The board will meet again to discuss the project on Dec. 5.