Update: The Strangling Of A Resort - 27 East

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Update: The Strangling Of A Resort

author on Aug 3, 2015

Last Saturday at the East Hampton Library, as part of the Tom Twomey lecture series entitled, “Conversations With … ,” Pulitzer prize-winning architecture critic, contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and part-time East Hampton resident Paul Goldberger revisited his extraordinary 1983 New York Times article, “The Strangling of a Resort.”

At the time of publication, this well-researched and astute piece in the magazine section chronicled the unbridled development that threatened to destroy not only the physical essence of the Hamptons but also the fabric of the community. Thirty-two years later Mr. Goldberger, to a packed room, sat down for a question-and-answer chat with library board member Chip Rae, to share his perceptions of the situation then and now.In 1983 Mr. Goldberger noted the general level of anxiety on the editorial page of The East Hampton Star regarding rampant development. When he wrote “The Strangling of a Resort” he learned more about the nature of the Hamptons, and because of his research, he became amazed at the diversity of a landscape consisting of fields, meadows, moraine, ocean, hills, bays and great swaths of flat open spaces. In retrospect, what was troubling to him then looks “tame” now. His level of concern has risen with the years and he sees a profound and serious paradox: “If we save land we also make this a more elitist community—an affordable community is inherently contradictory if saving land is the goal.”

While the Community Preservation Fund, or CPF, didn’t exist in 1983, Mr. Goldberger said that creation of the CPF legislation for the protection of farmlands, private lands and community is the single most important thing to have happened here since.

Even though Nantucket has been more innovative (the 2-percent transfer tax was actually invented there), the island is “insanely” expensive and lacks small pockets of affordable housing. As an island, however, it has an inherent limit on the number of cars. Here in Sagaponack, Bridgehampton and East Hampton we continued to develop huge amounts of land. Mr. Goldberger speculated on another paradox regarding “stop the highway“ (the proposed limited-access highway through the Hamptons that was nixed by public outrage). Although he confessed that he didn’t know if the community would have been better off if the highway had been built, development probably would have happened anyway. More significant upzoning, he noted, should have been done at that time because, with the highway dead, the community failed to realize back in 1983 that the huge band of lands off Scuttlehole Road, set aside for a potential highway, would be developed “wildly,” and those open spaces are all filled with houses.

Mr. Rae asked why East Hampton has always been so successful in reinventing itself, to which Mr. Goldberger responded, “East Hampton has held onto itself. There is still more of this place that is still much more like what it was.” The center of the village “is still one of the most breathtaking villages in America,” he said. He didn’t mention, however, the fact that the village also has a historic district, which has been expanded over the years. The commercial establishments in the village provide “useless things” as opposed to what people need, and he called that loss “sad.” He also remarked on how miraculous it is that East Hampton has not turned into high-rise condos on the beach, given its proximity to New York City.

With regard to summer traffic, the stakes have become high, what with civil disobedience of the young and the wealthy all coupled with a sense of entitlement. He’s observed this in other places and feels that the social fabric seems a little frayed today. He said that the community has also changed in other ways having nothing to do with growth and development. Mr. Goldberger also lamented, for example, that traffic might have been less of a problem if the LIRR, in response to demand, had been a two-track railroad with a track going in either direction.

Compared to 1983, the community has become ethnically diverse, and this has contributed to a rise in tension. Jokingly Mr. Goldberger said, ”In 2015, if we think that Trump could be a good president, then why are we surprised at people misbehaving in parking lots?”

Mr. Rae asked Mr. Goldberger to explain the often cited claim that East Hampton has been seen as a laboratory for residential design over 150 years. In response Mr. Goldberger talked about raising standards, saying however, that the concept that a family of four could not survive in a home of less than 12,000 square feet was ridiculous. In the early post-war years this area was, to use the title of Alastair Gordon’s book, a “Weekend Utopia” full of small, modernist houses, which were eventually torn down to make way for a tsunami of money, a desire for traditional things, and more space. McMansions, according to Mr. Goldberger, were a reaction to all of the bad modern architecture being built. Initially, the first neo-shingle houses actually seemed refreshing to Mr. Goldberger. Later, however, they turned into a far worse cliché than the bad modernist houses. The Farrell McMansions represented this trend and he called the ones on Old Station Place in Amagansett particularly “grim.” The conclusion to be reached from these comments is that it all seems to go full circle, as the early modern architects turned their backs on the original great houses.

The Q and A ended with a hypothetical on what these towns could have done better. Southampton’s County Road 39 corridor, according to Mr. Goldberger, serves a purpose by providing services as a commercial strip. While entering the village from Hill Street is very nice, County Road 39 keeps visitors away from the center of the village, and Mr. Goldberger suggested that there’s something elitist in keeping it for those who “know.” However, this seems rather speculative when contrasted against the established Southampton land use patterns from the 17th century. In East Hampton, one has to drive directly through the village to proceed farther east. Changes that have occurred in Sagaponack, Bridgehampton and Water Mill are particularly distressing to Mr. Goldberger when he thinks of how the fields used to roll down to the sea.

“We needed to be much tougher on zoning and should someday find mechanisms to acknowledge public benefits of privately donated properties,” he said. Mr. Goldberger cited the Maidstone Club in East Hampton as a potential example for its open vistas, which would be a benefit to all. He ended by saying that today one needs to intervene to hold onto what is of value. “If we do not become activists in the natural progression of things we will lose it,” he said.

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