Hull’s tortuous dance with development took another twist last week when the developers of the Dunes at Paragon Boardwalk – a five-story, 116-unit apartment building that would replace the pizza stand, arcade, and miniature golf course at Nantasket Beach – abruptly halted their plans “for any future development.” While withdrawing their application for a special permit, they posted on social media that they were offended by … opponents’ posts on social media.
The wipeout at the Dunes brings to mind similar reversals of fortune, from the former Atlantic Aquarium going back on the market to the various starts and stops at the Hull Redevelopment Authority site. Those with long memories may recall that the developer who started it all in the 1980s initially called off the condo plans for the former Paragon Park, “citing hostility toward the proposal,” according to news accounts at the time.
Of course, other developments have gone forward, but few have generated the level of debate and discussion as the Dunes, whether fairly or not, and future plans for this property will attract intense scrutiny, no matter what is proposed and who proposes it.
We’re a long way from “The Key to Hull’s Future,” as the HRA was called in the 1960s, and seemingly, an even longer way from a consensus on what kind of new development the town would like to see within its borders.
The Dunes plans brought out the usual cast of social media commenters who speculated on motivations, alleged collusion, and corruption and blamed town officials (none of whom had yet rendered a decision on the plan) for various offenses. Some critiqued the size and scope of the apartment building proposed for 197 Nantasket Ave.; others mistakenly described it as “more condos”; and others questioned why “they took away Paragon Park” in the first place.
The Dunes had its proponents, many of whom appreciated the work that was put into reimagining the space, tearing down what had been a largely underused, dilapidated building and installing an outdoor space for food service, pop-up fitness classes, and a sand volleyball court. The developer also created the Art Walk, a pathway over the adjacent condominium association’s property (and part of its own land) that connects the beach and bay, lined with works by local artists.
The official withdrawal by the Dunes owners consisted of a one-paragraph lawyer’s letter that did not offer a rationale, but online they decried “the amount of hate, speculation and cruelty expressed on social media” and suggested that those who disliked the project should “stay home and keep throwing shade.”
It’s hard to imagine serious businesspeople deterred from a multimillion-dollar project only by hurt feelings from the keyboard cowboys. Regardless, in forging the path forward, both the developer and residents need to address the divergence of expectations that appears to have derailed this iteration of the project.
Weary from enduring years of inattention and decaying buildings at the beach, many in the community expected more than graffiti-inspired artwork and recycled shipping containers in a bold new development. Local businesspeople who have taken over other locations in need of revitalization have aimed higher to create a grander atmosphere than the “shabby chic” that permeates the Boardwalk.
The Boardwalk/Dunes property is part of the Nantasket Beach Overlay District, a zoning classification approved by voters in 2013 that encourages mixed-use development and sets standards for design that “reflect the community preference for moderate-scale structures that do not resemble “big box shopping centers,” the bylaw states, and “new buildings and/or substantial alterations shall incorporate features to add visual interest while reducing the appearance of bulk or mass, such as varied facades, rooflines, roof heights, materials, and appropriately designed details such as moldings, cornices, bay windows, turrets, arcades, colonnades, brick chimneys or shutters appropriately designed and proportioned.”
It’s not hard to see why the uninspired design of a boxy, five-story building, coupled with the uncertainty over the future of the retail space, didn’t jibe with the low-key vibe that had been promoted at the Boardwalk since 2017.
Not every proposal drawn under the constraints of a broad zoning bylaw is workable in the context of its environment, and as the commentary at public hearings has shown, not every constituent will love projects that max out on height and density allowances.
Parking policy plays a key role in whether a project is hospitable to its community. The Dunes as originally proposed is 20 spaces short of the on-site parking requirement. Pandemic-era parking enforcement in Hull’s neighborhoods, as well as proposed reductions in state Department of Conservation and Recreation and HRA parking capacity recommended within the town’s “Unified Work Plan for Nantasket Beach,” would make the town even less hospitable to car-bound visitors and residents of new developments in the area.
How Hull reconciles its traditional role as a summer tourist destination with its future goals is not the responsibility of this developer, but it will inform how the community responds to the scope and scale of future plans for that property.
The town’s process for developmental review moved the discussion forward, and it’s through these conversations about height, density, design, and compatibility with the community – not the social media echo chamber – where the ultimate consensus can be reached.