Absorbing Change

How important is the cohesiveness of Chatham's downtown business district?

Historically, the town's main business district – what folks refer to as “downtown” – has tended to shift. At one point, many businesses congregated around the neighborhood we know today as the Old Village. Businesses were interspersed with residences, and more often than not they were one and the same, with shop owners living on the same property where they sold their goods and services. That pattern persisted as downtown gradually migrated to its current position along Main Street from the Old Harbor Road-Stage Harbor Road intersection east. The street-level floors of houses along the way were converted to shops while second floors remained living space, until either the entire building was taken over for commercial use or moved or demolished so new commercial structures could be built.

The east end of the business district was always somewhat vague, with houses continuing to be interspersed with shops, until zoning codified the boundary between commercial and residential districts in the 1950s and '60s. Still, for many years east end businesses struggled to attract pedestrians who seemed to view the slight rise in Main Street just past Tale of the Cod as the end of the shopping district. In recent years, the extension of the sidewalk on the north side of the street, the addition of two crosswalks and the agreement by voters to purchase the former Eldredge Garage property for public parking were all aimed not so much at extending the business district as ensuring that its east end received the same attention as the rest of Main Street.

Last week's focus on a proposal to convert the former Helene's Gift Shop at 443 Main St. into a single-family home – which it was built as and used for most of its 80-plus-year existence – brought into sharp focus forces that are pushing back against the efforts to preserve the east end's commercial properties. While the zoning board leaned toward not approving the proposed change – indeed, it was withdrawn when it was clear the votes were not there – it had in the not too recent past approved the residential conversion of the Chatham Beach Dog property a few doors to the east of Helene's. A number of business owners and merchants sounded the alarm last week, worried that breaking up the integrity, the cohesion of the Main Street business district would negatively impact businesses in the east end.

But go even further back and remember that the Dolphin Inn and several other business properties in the east end switched from commercial to residential use. What's at work here is something that's sinking its tendrils into almost every neighborhood in Chatham, not just downtown. Residential property values, driven largely by the second home market, have far outdistanced commercial property values, especially in desirable areas near downtown or the Old Village. On one hand, this can be seen as threatening to fray the edges of Chatham's downtown, so much the envy of many other Cape towns. But in a sense the east end has for more than a century been something of a vacillating buffer between business and residential. Given the actions taken in recent years, and the pending addition of a public parking lot, the likelihood of any radical changes, the wholesale conversion of east end businesses to homes, is slim. The loss of one or two links won't break the strong chain of shops now stretching from 400 Main St. to the rotary. Chatham's downtown, including its east end, is safe, and flexible enough to absorb the change.