Spurred on by the 2017 think-tank evening that called on citizens and designers to imagine ways to “Fix This Town!” the creative minds at MB Architecture came up with a few bold ideas to make the village, once again, a village that actually serves the needs of residents. Here, some specific proposals by the architects: Maziar Behrooz, Bruce Engel, Jeffrey Wong, and Chloe Liang.
A couple of summers ago, we held a discussion at the Parrish Art Museum called “Fix This Town!” After the audience heard from the editor of The East Hampton Star, David Rattray, about widespread inaccuracies in population estimates for the East End, Filipe Correa, an urbanist and professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, fielded questions on urban planning across the globe — and what we here on Long Island can learn from similar, or not so similar, built environments. Correa encouraged the audience to think about a central question: “In what kind of town do you want to live?” So we spent the past two months doing precisely that, envisioning, analyzing, modeling, designing, and drawing — imagining the town, the village, the place we would like to live.
We started by recognizing that town planning isn’t working so well for East Hampton Village, because the village itself is incorporated separately from, and governed independently of, the surrounding Town of East Hampton. Town planners cannot address issues specific to the village, and that means they cannot offer a cohesive plan for its future. In a recent “hamlet study” commissioned by the Town of East Hampton (that is, explicitly not the Village), planning consultants working with input from residents and businesspeople suggested a number of interventions in our hamlets from Wainscott to Montauk — touching on housing needs, green space, traffic, and general quality of life conditions — but none of the ideas addressed the state of the village proper, which, not just geographically but in all ways, is really at the heart of East Hampton Town.
You might ask, So why doesn’t the village update its own comprehensive plan, which was drafted in 2001? Perhaps it’s because the village boards are wary of experimental changes to building and zoning regulations; and from our perspective, they might be right to be wary. Codes can’t just be reactionary. They often become obsolete by the time they are enacted, and the rules are frequently “gamed” by people with the knowledge, or wealth, to play the system. Community leaders and board members may feel that an embargo on any sort of broad-scale planning is better than haphazard or wrongheaded planning, and that sometimes inaction is the best way to conserve the village’s character.
Unfortunately, while a cautious approach does have its benefits for the village — and we think, for example, that a good job has been done in certain areas, from the relative calm that reigns on the village beaches to the well-managed public parking in the business district — it is impossible to stop the changes that steamroll ahead on the East End, and wrongheaded to ignore our present realities. As the population increases (in unknown numbers) from year to year, the streets, services, and public spaces that served their purposes well a couple of decades ago now start to fail. Traffic gets heavier, water quality declines, and decent, anywhere-near-affordable housing becomes impossible to find. The hard truth is that the business district in the Village of East Hampton, the heart of our town, years ago ceased to serve the needs of the year-round community. Residents find little of use in the offerings of its designer boutiques, which in many cases serve little purpose beyond marketing for the international company that holds the lease, and in the winter we are confronted with shuttered storefronts empty but for signs that read, “Thanks for the great season, see you next summer.” The weekend and summer populations, for fear of getting caught in traffic snarls and queue quagmires, avoids the village with just as much dread.
And so we decided to offer a sort of guerrilla plan for the village, unrestricted by bureaucracy, with the intention of bringing urban planning into the conversation. Our goal is to plant the seed for managed growth, holding in mind a belief that we think all residents and visitors would embrace: revitalizing and reactivating the village, while preserving its unique historical, social, and physical character.
Our design challenge was to imagine ways to restore the village’s original walkability, distinctiveness, and variety of uses — it’s “village-ness” — as well as proposing new routes by which people could circulate around and through it. Each of these propositions would represent a practical and feasible enhancement over the existing situation; over time, they would add up to make the built environment more congenial and eclectic.
We hope that bringing these ideas to the attention of the public and of community leaders here, as a feature in the inaugural issue of End magazine, will provoke reader responses and fuel an ongoing dialogue that is more unconventional and therefore open than the usual planning process (regulate, design, town hall, bid, build). We hope you will enter into this dialogue as if it were a new kind of “public space,” to foster deeper engagement in shaping our shared future.
The ideas expressed in this article are those of MB Architecture and do not represent the editorial opinions of End or The East Hampton Star. Acknowledgments from MB Architecture: “Thank you to our advisors who bear no responsibility for the final design: Bill Chaleff, Felipe Correa, Evan Harris, Jee Won Kim, Bob Rattenni, Tom Ruhle, Carl Skelton, Greg Turpan.”
While issues of water quality are constantly in the news, the village does not currently have a waste-filtration facility. Each private property relies on its own septic tank (typically an old-fashioned concrete ring that holds waste, which slowly seeps into the ground, eventually reaching the aquifer or nearby open water). Seeping sewage has caused an imbalance in nitrogen in bodies of water across the East End, leading to toxic algae blooms. As has been widely reported, these algae blooms have caused Georgica Pond to on occasion turn so toxic that a dog was killed after drinking the water.
Our proposal is a “greenhouse” water-treatment building at the corner of Toilsome and Gingerbread Lanes, where there is currently an empty lot; this plant would house bacteria-containing tanks to filter and purify waste water in a process that mimics that of natural wetlands. Unlike their old-school water-treatment brethren, these “living machines” can be integrated into a scenic landscape.
In addition to protecting our water, we propose sustainable year-round intensive farming (hydroponics, greenhouses, market gardens) that could be woven into the fabric of the village. Small-scale farming would edge into the village proper, turning lawns into kitchen gardens or market gardens that work for us. Think: farm stands and farm-to-table restaurants right at the west end of Newtown lane.
We also propose that the unused green space in the middle of the housing block between Muchmore and Pleasant Lanes be re-zoned as agricultural, for use by the adjacent homeowners as a shared community farm.
Our proposal is for a walking and biking loop or “necklace” around the village that would reconnect Main Street to North Main Street. This walkway would provide a safe and pleasant walking experience linking various key buildings and shopping areas. The pathway could be expanded over time to reach north into Springs or Northwest Woods. It could be embellished with rest stops and support amenities such as shaded benches, food trucks, rainwater collectors and dispensers, and even the aforementioned water-treatment tanks.
Park and Parking
Soon driverless cars will make municipal parking lots — which gobble up so much real estate across America — all but obsolete. Until then, parking lots can be reimagined, and their uses multiplied. In our proposal, highly visible solar canopies would edge the Reutershan Parking Lot and wrap around Herrick Park to provide a covered viewing area. We call it the Tailgate Park: When the kids are having a meet, or during the Artists and Writers softball game, trucks could tailgate and enjoy the game. While the parking area could continue, at least in part, to be used for its old purpose in the high season, during the off-season it would be repurpose-able. The overhead canopies, placed strategically over parking spaces, could double as farmers market stands or pop-up booths for fairs. This would restore a central aspect of our public life, serving as a town square, like the existing one in Amagansett, where people could picnic, hang out, watch open-air concerts, and buy food, as well as watch sporting events.
We also suggest that walking distances in and around the village should be given renewed consideration. If the post office, for example, were moved to Newtown Lane, closer to the train station and a future recreation building, it would allow parents to drop off kids and run errands without having to get back in their car.
We’d redevelop the area around the train station as another village hub. We envision a multipurpose recreation building in one of the underutilized light-industrial or business lots between the train station and the YMCA RECenter, such as the existing lumber yard. On one side, the new building would have an activities hall (think: bowling, ping pong, rack climbing, slides, and an indoor playgrounds) and, on the other, food services, small shops, and galleries.
Education and Culture
Within the pedestrian loop and midway between three public schools, we propose a cultural, technological, and education hub for all — children, adults, year rounders, and summer residents. Currently, the East Hampton Library and the East Hampton High School sit at opposite ends of the village, 1.5 miles apart. The library is a destination drive for most residents, but it doesn’t have to be. Our suggestion is the creation of a Culture Triangle on the north side of Newtown Lane that would encompass a new location or expansion for Guild Hall, a new library, and a technology “FabricationLab.” Students from all three public schools would be able to walk to any of these buildings during or after school.
We also propose the improvement and expansion of the playing fields. Today, a large portion of Herrick Park is unused on many days, certainly in summer, even though it is in the center of the village. Herrick Park does not offer support services, food services, or other amenities beyond the public restrooms nearby. And because it is a playing field, no dogs are allowed, which limits its use. Here, we propose an arbor to separate the playing field and the park, so that people and their pets can enjoy it in a broader variety of ways.
We see a need for inexpensive low-rise residential housing within walking distance of Main Street. As we all know, the lack of affordable housing — for everyone from teachers, professionals, and volunteer emergency personnel to senior citizens and seasonal staff in the hospitality industries — is forcing many year-rounders to move away. Meanwhile, this exodus forces the large estates to rely on the traffic snarling “trade parade,” a daily influx of tradespeople (carpenters, electricians, plumbers, landscapers, pool-service people) from points west. We propose the rezoning of certain village blocks to allow for accessory apartments and second floors that, due to their modest size, would be affordable. Property owners could opt to add such structures to their side- or backyards, to derive rental income, or they could split their existing houses for attached legal rentals. A proliferation of granny apartments and coach houses would not just increase the available housing stock but help restore a demographic mix to the village’s population.
Learning from Sag Harbor
Who doesn’t like Sag Harbor? Having developed as a small city rather than an agricultural village, Sag Harbor is distinguished by densely clustered, modestly sized houses that huddle close to Main Street (the liveliest main drag out east). We studied and extracted house sizes in some of the most charming parts of Sag Harbor, such as Rector Street, and used them here as models for infill accessory houses between East Hampton's Muchmore and Pleasant Lanes."
Rezoning and Relocating Amicably
Proposals affecting private property would be tax-incentivized and voluntary. Those homeowners who accepted a cap on accessory-apartment rent, for example, could be offered a tax deduction. For businesses in the path of the proposed new public facilities (such as the recreational facility), transfer of development rights and other tax incentives could be explored.
An incrementalist approach, taking each improvement as a unique design opportunity in the present, makes this strategy robust over the very long term. Every improvement would make the most of new knowledge and changing conditions, as the state of the surrounding village, town, region, and world evolves. The quality of life of residents of all of East Hampton Town would benefit from an emphasis on small, specific village-improvement projects rather than grand, abstract notions of planning and development.