After more than a decade of discussion, the fuel silos downtown might finally be on the move.
The massive fuel silos along Nantucket Harbor are mostly empty now, a throwback to an earlier era when the waterfront was industrial. They rise high above the surrounding buildings along Washington and Salem streets and loom over the downtown Stop & Shop supermarket.
The fuel tank farm, currently owned by Winthrop Nantucket Nominee Trust, has long been eyed as a key property in the potential redevelopment of what has become known as Harbor Place, the waterfront area that stretches from Straight Wharf to the town pier off Washington Street. For more than a decade, the town has worked to bring the disparate property owners together to pursue a unified vision for the waterfront, an effort that has produced more frustration than progress.
But lately there have been signs that the pieces may be moving, and an endgame is near. The town is now exploring the possibility of acquiring the fuel tank farm property from Winthrop. The parcel is just one-third of an acre, consisting of the eleven aging fuel tanks previously operated by Harbor Fuel before it moved its operations out of town. The Select Board is now weighing the strategic value of controlling at least a piece of Harbor Place as its future comes into focus.
Select Board member Dawn Hill Holdgate, who was recently elected to her third term, called the area the “Gateway to Nantucket,” noting that the Hy-Line Cruises ferries have become the island’s primary mode of transportation on a year-round basis. The entire access to the area, including the parking lot between Straight Wharf and the Stop & Shop that is owned by New England Development, needs to be reworked, she said, adding, “You have a much better seat at the table when you become a property owner. If we let this opportunity pass and told people five years from now that we could have bought that property, people would come back at us and say, ‘Are you crazy?’ We would get run out of town. It’s one of the most key locations on the island for us to be involved in and reworking.”
Those discussions between the town, Winthrop and perhaps other unknown parties have happened behind closed doors in executive session due to the sensitive nature of the topic. The tank farm property is the last vestige of Winthrop’s once sprawling portfolio of downtown island real estate, which it acquired from the late Walter Beinecke’s Sherburne Associates in 1986. In recent years, it has been selling its holdings, including the most recent sale in December 2020 of the downtown properties where Stop & Shop, The Haulover, Fresh and Hepburn are located to Steve Karp’s New England Development.
In May, Winthrop submitted an application to the Conservation Commission for approval to demolish eight of the eleven fuel tanks. That project is expected to get underway in the fall. Winthrop trustee Peter Braverman would neither confirm nor deny any talks with the town about selling the tank farm property. In general, he said that Winthrop was willing to work with the town to dispose of the property in a way that would serve the best interests of the community. “Winthrop has always been a good corporate citizen,” Braverman said. “If you look over our actions over the last thirty years, we’ve always been a good citizen and we continue to strive to be a good citizen. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t look to maximize profits, but we’ve always tried to do what’s best for the town.”
What’s an example of that? “You got the Stop & Shop,” Braverman said, referring to Winthrop granting a long-term lease to the grocery store giant following the drama in 2012 over a CVS pharmacy potentially moving into the old Grand Union location. “It wasn’t my first choice.”
For Nantucket Planning Director Andrew Vorce, the lack of progress over the past ten years has been frustrating, but he did acknowledge that the recent moves improve the likelihood that the property owners can reach consensus on some type of redevelopment effort. “It took a long time for the owners to come to the table, period,” Vorce said. “But we’re at the same place we left off over a decade ago, which is to talk about the street network and the circulation. That’s really the outline of what the future there will be. This whole process from the very start was how do we bring the interests together and there has to be give and take here. It’s not just a transactional experience where someone wins and someone loses.”
The town has floated various potential designs for the area, including a controversial parking garage concept, as well as mixed-use commercial buildings with open space along the water, and a transportation hub. One of the goals has been finding a way to reduce traffic congestion in the downtown area, a priority that has manifested in the creation of a valet parking program at the National Grid lot, even while the big picture redevelopment remains half-baked.
In addition to the tank farm, the town is also eyeing the potential acquisition of the Nantucket Regional Transit Authority hub, sometimes called the Greenhound Building, which is currently owned by Wendy and Eric Schmidt’s ReMain Nantucket. Hill Holdgate said ReMain had essentially offered the property to the town to purchase, and that it had always been part of the organization’s plan. ReMain purchased the property, which used to be the Island Spirits liquor store, in 2008 and subsequently leased it to the town for $1 per year for use as the transit hub. But with the redevelopment of Harbor Place now on the front burner, having control of the property, even if it’s across the street from the primary parcels of Harbor Place, would be important, Hill Holdgate said.
“The land use policy for what that land should be is an extension of the downtown area,” Vorce said. “It helps that we have one less owner now, with Winthrop removing themselves from the equation. Now it’s a little easier to deal more directly with NIR. The whole picture is becoming clearer and it’s important for us to continue to work with everyone on this.”