CHATHAM – For years, downtown merchants worked to lure pedestrians to the east end of the Main Street business district, lobbying the town for crosswalks and an extension of the sidewalk on the north side of the road and holding special promotions to highlight shops in the area.
Slowly the improvements came, with the January approval of the town's purchase of the Eldredge Garage property for parking at the east end of the district serving as the effort's crowning achievement.
Over the past several years, however, concern has mounted over the cohesiveness of commercial properties at the east end of Main Street. Two former commercial buildings west of the Eldredge Garage property were converted to residential use several years ago, and more recently the former Chatham Beach Dog building at 416 Main St. was allowed to become a single-family residence, breaking up the continuity of shops at that end of the business district.
So when Chatham Merchants Association officials learned that the owners of the former Helene's Gift Shop were seeking approval to convert the 442 Main St. building to residential use, an email blast went out urging members to attend last Thursday's zoning board of appeals meeting or sending an email opposing the change.
“We are fortunate to be home to one of the most desirable main streets in America. It is important that we protect the commercial landscape that exists today. The property in question is a vital link to our east end merchants,” the email from the merchants association read. “Without a show of opposition to the petition, it is likely it will be approved.”
At the hearing, reaction to the proposal from the public and business community was mixed. Board members were also split, and lacking the four votes necessary for approval of the needed special permit, owners Sara Wilson and John Morave, trustees of the Helene Wilson Trust, opted to withdraw the proposal.
“We just want to take a step back and evaluate everything,” Wilson said in a followup phone interview.
For most of its 86-year history, the 2,322-square-foot Cape was a single-family residence. In 1999 Helene Wilson bought the building and moved her gift shop there from the Wayside Inn, which was co-owned by her husband Grant. Kevin Boyar of B&D Custom Builders said the business was Helene Wilson's “hobby” and that the heirs who inherited the property upon her passing in January did not want to run a business or serve as landlords. They put it on the market for five months but could find no buyer.
“They're looking only to return to the original use,” Boyar said.
Sara Wilson said after spending time in the building, “it really does feel like a home.” While she doesn't share her mother's passion for running a gift shop, she does share her love of the community and thought converting the building back to a home for her family was a worthwhile thing to do.
Some members of the business community agreed. Bess Howes, owner of the neighboring Tale of the Cod, welcomed the return in a letter to the zoning board. David Alten of Buffy's Ice Cream also supported the conversion, as did David Oppenheim, owner of 443 Main St. and the late Grant Wilson's former business partner.
Others opposed the change. Judy Smith, owner of 459 Main St., said the property should stay commercial. “I don't think it's going to help the downtown businesses by turning it back into a residence,” she said. Sims McGrath, a former Orleans selectman who, along with his wife Heather, owns Simpler Pleasures at 433 Main St., said the conversion of the house to a gift shop years ago helped create a continuity along that end of Main Street; to reinstate gaps will weaken that cohesion, and is especially unwelcome at a time when the town has committed to spending $2.5 million for the Eldredge Garage property, he said.
In an email to the zoning board, merchants association president Rebecca Voelkel, owner of Mahi Gold, said the change could have a negative impact on the economic landscape of downtown.
“The area in question is a key link to our east end merchants,” she wrote. Breaks in commercial properties make it less likely that visitors will continue walking along the street.
Zoning board member David Veach, co-owner of the Chatham Candy Manor, said he couldn't go along with that “doom and gloom” outlook, noting that the pedestrian traffic in the east end has been “greater every year.”
“I honestly don't think allowing this to convert back to residential use is going to effect that,” he said. Robert Hessler agreed, saying that parking at the Eldredge Garage will draw more people to that end of Main Street and conversion of the Wilson property to residential is “not going to make or break the east end of town.”
“This is not a general trend,” concurred Don Freeman. “It's a specific situation.”
Other board members said five months was not very long to have the property on the market. Paul Hemple said he was “reluctant to dice up that side of the street any more than is absolutely necessary.” Chairman David Nixon said he voted against the residential conversion of the Beach Dog property and felt the same in this situation.
“To me it's a chain, and when you start to break up the chain, you start to break up the number of people who might come down or not come down,” he said. Referring to the Eldredge Garage purpose, he added, “The town has stepped up to the plate saying we are committed to the businesses down there, and so therefore we should do everything we can to increase business down there and not restrict buildings.”
Approval of a special permit requires a super majority of four votes; without that, Boyar asked that the proposal be withdrawn without prejudice, meaning that it can be resubmitted in the future. The board unanimously agreed to the withdrawal.
Sara Wilson said she was surprised by the suddenness of the opposition. She had reached out to some of the neighbors and hadn't heard any concerns, she said.