Public Shares Vision For Eldredge Garage Land

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Conservation , Parking , Historic preservation

The Eldredge Garage property.  ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM Citizens still have more than a month to sound out on the future of the former Eldredge Garage property, but so far, public parking and rest rooms seem to be the most popular suggestions for the town-owned parcel.

Last Thursday, more than a dozen neighborhood residents and other citizens shared their visions for the property with the Eldredge Garage property planning committee. The group will continue collecting public suggestions through Friday, Feb. 23, and at its March 1 meeting will start the process of vetting the suggestions. Ultimately, the committee will present its recommendations to the board of selectmen, which will make a final decision on how to use the 1.4-acre tract at 365 Main St. The town paid $2.5 million for the land.

Heather Ferris, owner of a nearby clothing store, said the continued availability of public parking on the land, with new public rest rooms, would be a welcome addition to the east end of Main Street.

“It would make a huge difference, and people would really appreciate it,” she said. Ferris also suggested a small informational sign that directs walkers to the lighthouse. “That’s one question we get constantly.”

In a letter to the committee, real estate agent Tony Guthrie said the property is best used for parking “that is well lit and beautifully landscaped,” with accommodations for bicycle parking as well. The shortage of parking spaces in the summertime “has a very negative impact on our business partners, whose livelihood depends on ample, easy parking,” he wrote.

Committee member Scott Hamilton, who was instrumental in the effort to build the public restrooms at Kate Gould Park and at the Colonial lot, said the plan was always to have three restrooms downtown – but the one on the east end was never built. The availability of the Eldredge Garage land reopens that possibility, he said.

A number of people at the meeting spoke out in favor of saving the small service station building that is now the only remaining structure on the parcel.

“I hope that the original old garage stays and does not get destroyed. Very, very important,” resident Ellen Healy said.

An email from Nancy Koerner of the Old Village Association made five recommendations for the property: restoring or rebuilding the gas station building as rest rooms or for a parking attendant; retaining the current parking area; improving landscaping; preserving open space near the rear of the property; and allowing the association to erect a plaque that chronicles the history of the property.

Abutter David Oppenheim, who helped broker the land deal between the Eldredge family and the town, rejected any suggestion that a portion of the land be used to develop housing – either market rate homes, affordable units or workforce housing.

“I think that would be a breach of faith with the Eldredge family and with the voters of Chatham,” he said. A key goal in having the town acquire the property is to prevent development, he said. Oppenheim said he favors retaining the existing parking area, and suggests that the current gas station building be razed and rebuilt to code. The new building would honor the history of the old structure but would also allow re-use as rest rooms.

Oppenheim said the parking lot is an opportunity to try a new model for downtown public parking.

“I’ve been against paid parking in town, but if you’re going to try it, this would be the place to do it,” he said. He suggested a self-serve kiosk system, with seasonal employees to make sure violators are ticketed.

Resident Florence Seldin said the lot is also an opportunity for officials to consider the parking needs of Chatham residents, “not just the tourists who come to town.” It might also be worthwhile to reserve some parking spaces for people who work at downtown businesses, she said.

Parking is not the only suggestion that’s been made for the property. The committee was also asked to consider an offer by resident George Olmsted to hire his son, noted landscape architect James W. Olmsted, to draft plans for a new Eldredge Park for a small portion of the property. The younger Olmsted is a distant cousin of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed Central Park, Yosemite Park, the Arnold Arboretum and many other public spaces.

Several emails sent to the committee suggested the land as a possible site for a new senior center. “It would give the seniors an opportunity to shop downtown without the need to drive and look for parking,” since the council on aging has a shuttle bus, one South Chatham resident wrote.

Others have suggested reserving part of the property to host food trucks in the summertime.

At the committee’s Feb. 8 meeting, other town boards and committees have been invited to send representatives to sound out on the future use of the property. Public comments will be accepted through Feb. 23 at the meetings or by email at kdonovan@chatham-ma.gov.