Overlooking the harbor, the seaside fishing cottages along Old North Wharf on Nantucket have become coveted real estate for magnates who usually reside in vast estates. Billionaire businessmen Charles Schwab and Charles Johnson are among those who own one of the quaint properties near the ferry landing and bustling downtown.
But this postcard idyll is under threat, according to many of the cottage owners, by another quintessential character of coastal New England — a clam shack and waterfront restaurant.
Two local men are attempting to revive a popular fish market just steps from the cottages and add a casual, family-friendly restaurant. But it has met staunch opposition from residents who say it threatens the sense of quiet retreat and identity of the historic waterfront.
The “proposed transformation would destroy the ambiance and peaceful nature of Old North Wharf and further contribute to the change in character of the Nantucket Waterfront from an historic site to a mecca for multiple rowdy bars and restaurants,” said attorney Danielle deBenedictis, who is representing several wharf residents, including Schwab and Johnson, a former mutual fund executive and the principal owner of the San Francisco Giants, in a letter to the Select Board. Johnson’s home is directly beside the proposed restaurant.
On Wednesday night, after more than an hour of discussion and public comment, the board voted to approve the restaurant with certain conditions. Last call set at 9 p.m. for the first year of operation. Music allowed only in the interior dining room. The approval is subject to the applicants getting all other permits.
The two businessmen, Gabriel Frasca, 48, and Kevin Burleson, 40, described their venture as “that local clam shack that every Cape and coastal town has on the water” and said they have been stunned by the backlash from their prospective neighbors.
“Kevin and I are really excited about this new venture, and mostly we just want to share it with our friends and our community. And we want to fry some clams!” Frasca wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “And, yeah, it is a little surreal to have Charles Schwab and the owner of the SF Giants trying to stop us. But here we are.”
Formerly known as the Straight Wharf Fish Store, which closed in mid-March 2021, the new establishment will be called the Straight Wharf Fish Market and feature a seafood market and 62-seat waterfront restaurant.
Frasca and Burleson hope to open this summer and are seeking several licenses, including one for the restaurant, one for non-live music, and a seasonal alcohol license for wine and beer, from the Nantucket Select Board.
“Candidly, I think that the two largest drivers for the opposition are misinformation and, sadly, NIMBYism. Everyone wants ample restaurants to go to close by, but not too close by. Which I totally get. But the island has established a commercial downtown for a reason, and our project is within that zone,” Frasca said.
The Nantucket Current first reported on the opposition to the project.
Peter Burke, executive director of the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce, said Frasca and Burleson are well-known in the community and are not opening the business “to cause noise problems.”
“Trying to look at it from a business community standpoint and a tourism standpoint, I think it will be a healthy addition to have another place for diners to enjoy good food,” he said. “And having it at a location that previously served food, I think, is a good indicator that it’s just one less barrier to entry.”
Plans call for 14 seats on a dock overlooking the harbor, and the menu will feature clam rolls, fish sandwiches, lobster rolls, and more-modern offerings. They also hope to offer soft serve ice cream in a nod to a former shop at the location.
The project, which is now under construction, is in the Harborside Commercial area and adjacent to multiple residential buildings on Old North Wharf, according to the license application. Burleson and Frasca intend for it to be open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. from April through the annual Christmas Stroll in town.
Both owners have years of experience in the restaurant industry on the island. Burleson interned for the Boarding House and Pearl restaurants, and worked at the Corazon del Mar and Straight Wharf Restaurant before taking over as operating chef for 167 Raw. His partner, Frasca, took over operations of the Straight Wharf Restaurant in 2006, owned and operated Provisions for almost a decade, and also opened Ventuno.
“We’ve really been touched by the response of our community,” Frasca said. “The feedback has been overwhelmingly, even embarrassingly, positive — with a few notable exceptions.”
But the tight-knit group of seasonal residents along the wharf, some of whom own larger homes on the island but prize the cottages’ waterfront access, have made their objections clear.
Roughly 25 cabins line Old North Wharf, which have become highly valuable over time, the Wall Street Journal reported last August. Many are part of a group known as the Old North Wharf Cooperative, which also opposes the proposed restaurant and its application for an alcohol license. Attorney Sarah Alger is representing the community of homeowners.
A real estate listing for a pair of cottages marketed the area as being “exceptionally private and exclusive.” Several cottages are assessed at more than $10,000 per square foot, which is “in line with some of the most expensive real estate in the world on a square foot basis,” the Journal reported.
Assessor records show that many cottages are quite small — in the 300 to 500 square foot range — and are valued in the millions of dollars. The Johnson property, which their attorney says is just 18 inches from the proposed clam shack, is 1,200 square feet and valued at $6,450,800. Another, just under 700 square feet, is valued at $6,847,800.
Having a restaurant in such direct proximity “will effectively deprive them of the quiet enjoyment of their homes,” deBenedictis said in a statement. “The Johnson’s will not even be able to sit on their porch overlooking the ocean without experiencing noise from the restaurant’s patrons and odors from the restaurant’s exhaust system.”
“There is no need to create another restaurant in this small, already congested area,” deBenedictis said. “The retention of Nantucket’s historic charm, which is already in jeopardy, should take precedence over owner profitability,” she added.
Property records show the Johnsons also own a 13,077-square-foot mansion with seven bedrooms, nine bathrooms, and four half-bathrooms valued at $27 million.
Another opponent is Harvey Jones, the treasurer of the Old North Wharf Cooperative. He said the group already has to hire off-duty police officers as security because of the “revelry” from nearby bars.
“The prospect of a new bar and restaurant immediately adjacent to the Coop is scary and threatens the very quality of life on the wharf,” he said.
Frasca said the licenses he and Burleson are seeking “keep getting misrepresented,” and that they only want to serve wine and beer with food and not even have a bar.
“We won’t have loud music, dancing, a bar, crowds, or late-night hours,” Frasca said, “but we will have a scallop roll that tastes like a party, so maybe we understand the confusion.”
Prior to the Select Board’s approval, Frasca anticipated yet more legal wrangling ahead.
“And then? I don’t know. Maybe the billionaires will sue everyone and then #occupynorthwharf and we will make ‘Clam Guevara’ T-shirts,” Frasca quipped. “Or my hope is that maybe instead we will get a chance to run a community-minded, respectful restaurant. And then maybe someday they’ll just come over and have a clam roll. They’re really delicious. And they calm the soul. Particularly when paired with a glass of wine.”
Tonya Alanez of the Globe staff contributed to this report.