The name, Sea Captains Row in Hyannis, connotes images of old-timey Cape Cod with period homes neatly arranged just off the water, not far from the famous Kennedy family compound.
In reality, Sea Captains Row is part of the underbelly of Cape Cod that most tourists never see: a strip of neglected buildings, a hangout for homeless people and drug addicts, littered with used needles — evidence of the grip of the opioid epidemic on the Cape. The rich maritime history is hidden behind boarded up houses and parking lots for visitors of the nearby ferry.
Now a proposed development that would demolish several of the nearly 200-year-old homes is pitting preservationists who believe the revitalization of the area lies in restoring the captains’ houses, against some residents and business leaders eager to remake a sore spot in Hyannis and attract new visitors and their money.
In the pre-Civil War era, Pleasant and South streets were considered the most prestigious section of Hyannis for the Greek Revival houses built by retired sea captains that were inspired by their travels during a golden age of sail.
Today, people on both sides of the issue agree the section has become a blight— just blocks from multimillion dollar homes. They also agree that revitalization of this storied village is long overdue. Where they diverge is whether to preserve and rebuild, or start over, with the issue coming to a head Thursday when the Barnstable Town Council is set to vote on the proposed development.
The estimated $16 million project by developer Robert L. Brennan Jr. would demolish five of six existing homes along Pleasant Street and one on South Street, and replace them with 60 units in nine multifamily structures, mostly rentals.
The project has divided Barnstable officials, with some saying the permitting process was rushed without a required review from a volunteer commission that has input on historic properties in this part of Hyannis. Sea Captains Row falls within the local historic district, which makes it the purview of the commission. It is also within the Pleasant-School Street Historic District designated by the National Register of Historic Places; and last year was placed on Preservation Massachusetts’ list of most endangered historic resources.
Brennan’s company, Capebuilt Pleasant Street LLC, sought and received a waiver from town planning officials to keep the project from being reviewed by the volunteer commission — a move that has confounded some members of the Hyannis Main Street Waterfront Historic District Commission, including vice chair Taryn Thoman.
“We can tell people they can’t tear down a 200-year-old chimney, but we can’t tell them they can’t tear down five 200-year-old sea captain houses?” said Thoman, a 30-year town resident. “It’s a dangerous precedent.”
Neither Brennan nor his attorney returned calls seeking comment. Elizabeth Jenkins, Barnstable’s planning and development director, also did not return calls seeking comment.
Thoman is at loggerheads with the chairman of the historic commission, Paul Arnold who, despite not having enough votes from the commission to do so, sent a letter to town planning officials mainly voicing support for the project. Video from a commission meeting in October shows Arnold acknowledging he sent the letter out without running it by the commission first.
Although he apologized, he told the board that “given all things, I’d probably do it again.”
Arnold declined to comment on his actions. However, he said the project is sorely needed in a prime area of town that needs new housing “badly, badly, badly.”
“And of course, what’s there right now is these historic homes, which were neglected for 40 years,” Arnold said. “Unfortunately, it is what it is. But Hyannis bears the brunt of nonprofits and many, many group homes, homeless and otherwise, so it’s kind of begging for more housing on a middle-class level. And that part of town could use a rejuvenation. It’s a nice looking project.”
In addition to being in a historic district, Sea Captains Row falls within an area town officials have identified as a “growth incentive zone,” to make it easier to attract new development.
Marilyn Fifield, a member of the Barnstable Historical Commission and the Barnstable Community Preservation Committee, argues that preservation and revitalization of the area don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
“They want to develop those apartments — that’s not what you think of when you think of Sea Captains Row. I don’t know that tourists want to travel to see apartments and plaques,” Fifield said. “Both [goals] can be accommodated, but first make sure you preserve the sea captains’ homes.”Katheleen Conti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.