FALMOUTH – In the fight to maintain community character, there are big battles and small battles. To the hundreds of people who have turned out for meetings, sent emails and signed petitions opposing the plan to build a 110-room Marriott hotel on the east end of Main Street in Falmouth, this may be the largest battle of them all.
The Cape Cod Commission held a public hearing on the development August 20. After hearing public comment, the commission decided to put the item on its agenda on September 3 for deliberation and possibly a vote. The agency is reviewing the project as a limited development of regional interest under a category the commission calls heritage preservation/community character.
And that is just the element that has energized the opposition movement of townspeople who say the 65,000-square-foot, three-story hotel with a second-story glass-enclosed bridge linking two buildings will be the death knell for the downtown area.
Architect Jill Neubauer came out early in opposition to the project.
Her interest began when she saw an image of the proposed building in the local newspaper.
“I said, ‘Oh, this cannot be,’” she said. She called up other local architects and asked if they would join with her to create a committee to improve a design she saw as monumentally flawed.
She also saw a gap in the town’s committees who are charged with dealing with issues of design. With the Design Review Committee having only an advisory role and the Historical Commission without an architect as a member, the town has opened itself up to a vulnerability when it comes to large developments, particularly those that are part of corporate chains, that do not fit in with the town’s character, she said.
Neubauer said big is not necessarily bad when it comes to new buildings.
“A number of buildings have gone up in the last five years. Some are very good but a number are not,” Neubauer said. “This is incrementally destroying our town. This is one where I said, ‘Nope, we need to do something. It’s time.’”
Among the large new buildings in town that Neubauer said fit in to the town’s character is the new Atria Senior Living facility on Gifford Street.
”It’s a large building but they were so adept at handling the massing. It presents itself quite well. It ties into New England architecture and presents with dignity and character,” she said, though she added that she does not care for the stone entry.
Another large development that Neubauer said works is the new housing to the east of the Stop and Shop on Teaticket Highway that replaced the Veterans of Foreign Wars building.
She said buildings do not have to be historic to be successful.
But she said that the new tire building, Town Fair Tire, also on Teaticket Highway, that replaced a historic home in front of the Falmouth Mall is an example of the blight that comes from bad design.
“That is one of the motivators that we have to stop doing this,” Neubauer said of the tire store. She referred to it as “just a dumb box with a thinly-veiled superficial decoration” and bemoaned its “monstrous lettering” on the side of the building.
“It’s time to say, ‘Beauty Matters.’ We make our living off tourism,” she said.
At a Cape Cod Commission hearing in June on the Marriott project, Neubauer offered to assist the commission and the developer by putting together a team of local architects to improve the design.
“It’s not to derail the process. It’s to make it better,” she said.
But neither the commission nor the developer took her up on her offer.
Neubauer had suggestions of ways the commission could improve its review process. The first was to put the building in context with the surrounding area.
That is why she showed up at one commission hearing with drawings that showed the proposed Marriott building with the surrounding existing buildings shown to scale.
Without seeing how the building fits in with the streetscape, there is no way to gauge its affect on community character, Neubauer said.
“That’s outrageous to not address context,” she said. “The Cape Cod Commission cannot be judging buildings without seeing how they fit in.”
Among the views she said was particularly alarming was the hotel’s relation to the small Lantern Lane neighborhood behind it.
“It’s going to be a gorilla sitting on top of those houses,” she said.
The other problem, Neubauer said, was the removal of tall, mature trees on the lots proposed for the hotel.
“The trees presently give a lot of texture and scale to the street,” she said.
Another issue, she said, is light pollution, because that also has an effect on community character. The developer, Neubauer said, should detail lighting planned for the roof-top pool, as well as the dumpster area behind the hotel and the parking lot.
Neubauer was one among many who expressed alarm at the design of the hotel’s second-story glass-bridge that opponents have dubbed “the Logan Airport bridge,” referring to the glass walkway that connects the airport parking to the terminal.
“It looks like they lopped off a piece of Logan Airport and put two phony New England houses on either side,” she said.
Neubauer said the bridge is just plain ugly but there are other problems with the architecture. She said the hotel design has appeared to try to mimic duplex houses in the design, giving it the appearance, she said of “a mediocre affordable duplex—they are caricatures of housing but not housing.”
She also said, for a large building, the design does not show a solid base. She said the design shows fake shutters and balconies. The low pitch roof, perhaps an attempt to squeeze in a third story, she said, “is just really unattractive.”
The hotel is proposed as one of Marriott’s Springhill Suites properties which are designed mainly to serve business people who would come to Falmouth year-round for appointments at town hall, at Falmouth Hospital or with the science institutions in Woods Hole, for example. Townspeople who have spoken up against the project say there are other more appropriate places where the hotel could go.
Falmouth Selectmen voted to send a letter to the Cape Cod Commission opposing the project this week, citing its negative impact on community character, among other issues.
If the Cape Cod Commission approves the project, it would go before town boards, including the planning board and the zoning board of appeals.
The applicant intends to use properties across the street for parking, a plan opponents say will further congest traffic in an area already at a saturation point. But much to the frustration of residents, the commission is not reviewing the development’s impact on traffic, just community character.
Alison Leschen lives on Lantern Lane the neighborhood that abuts the property where the hotel would go.
“I happen to live in the neighborhood but that’s not the only place I’m coming from,” she said of her opposition.
Most of the more than 550 people who signed a recent petition circulated opposing the development and most of those who have stood up to speak against the project over the last several months do not live in the neighborhood. Like Leschen, they say they are concerned that the development will destroy the character of the town.
“This is just the beginning. This will set a precedent that will make us Anywhere, USA. If this hotel gets built, it’s the beginning of the end of Falmouth as a charming unique village,” she said.
At the Falmouth Selectmen’s meeting Monday, August 17, when the board voted to send a letter to the Cape Cod Commission in opposition to the project, Selectman Rebecca Moffitt echoed that sentiment.
“I think the first time we saw a rendering at the design they were going to do, we were aghast at looking at that because it did not follow Falmouth’s architecture. I thought that issue itself was very loud to us in this town that it did not follow what we regard as ‘the Falmouth look,’” Moffitt said.
Like Leschen, she said the design of the hotel as proposed could go anywhere in the country and the developer’s presentation of a design that does not fit in town shows disrespect to Falmouth.
“We’re a special town,” Moffitt said.
– Laura M. Reckford