All Good for John Steinbeck Park, Billy Joel and Sag Harbor Cinema

Sag Harbor fire rainbow
Photo: Dan Rattiner

There’s good news in Sag Harbor. The property that will hopefully soon be the waterfront John Steinbeck Park downtown is moving toward a positive outcome.

The fundraising for rebuilding the Sag Harbor Cinema is marching forward after the big fire. And it seems the landmark home in town owned by Billy Joel has now gotten a preliminary thumbs up from the Sag Harbor Village Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review after three prior tries to get a thumbs up failed. Though it’s not signed on the dotted line and there are more boards to go, this is a good sign.

Billy Joel has always been attracted to this village. It is a 300-year-old former whaling and fishing town turned blue-collar tourist town that brooks no nonsense with chain stores or high fashion. It’s been a perfect inspiration for him, for songs like “The Downeaster ‘Alexa,’” about the declining commercial fishing industry on the East End. He owned a downeaster Alexa fishing boat and docked it at Sag Harbor, nearby to others. “Allentown” was about that Pennsylvania factory town and the steel workers who were losing their jobs.

Indeed, much of Billy Joel’s music is about the working man and his perils. It’s also about love, and it’s about Long Island’s Great South Bay, where he grew up among baymen and clammers in the post-war era.

Joel’s Sag Harbor home today is right smack in the middle of busy downtown traffic, across from the fishing boats (and his boat), in a house that was at one time a bait-and-tackle shop downstairs with living quarters upstairs. It’s zoned commercial. It faces out onto Rysam Street, with its side facing Bay Street. Joel also owns an adjacent home that faces out onto Rector Street.

His original idea was to connect the two homes with a two-story hallway so as to get from one to the other without having to go outdoors. He also wanted to raise the house up to 34 feet, and turn it sideways so the entry is on Bay Street, rather than Rysam. There was also a plan that the whole thing be set on a raised foundation since it sits in a low-lying area.

The board felt the height of it, as part of the overall changes, would stick out like a sore thumb. They felt turning it sideways and attaching both houses would make it stick out like a sore thumb. And they didn’t like the raised foundation. The whole thing seemed not in keeping with the scale of the town. In other words, they were defending a small town the same way that Billy Joel liked the small town.

Back when Joel was making these applications, I wrote that we should give him what he wants because he’s Billy Joel and we love him. But it turns out it’s not necessary. The new plan calls for scrapping the turning of it sideways, lowering the height to 30 feet (legal limit in the village is 35 feet), setting the connection building back from the street so it doesn’t seem overbearing.

As for the upstairs view from the building, he’s asked that the porch on the second floor facing the boats be allowed to be a screened in porch. He believes the new plan needs no variances and conforms to the building laws.

The good news about the proposed John Steinbeck Park is that the ownership of the property has changed. Now there is just one owner. And hopefully he wants to move this along. The Town of Southampton has to deal with him to make this happen, and if all works out as they had hoped it would with the prior owner, he will get a waterfront condominium complex and the Village will get a waterfront park with a large curved beach. Over the inner harbor, the sun will set. What a beautiful spot.

Finally, the momentum begun by the purchasing of the movie theater after the fire is continuing. It took $8 million to buy the place as-is. They intend to get to $3 million by July for the rebuild. Added to the main theater will be a second movie theater, a screening room, a second-story outdoor café, an art gallery and a conference room. Soon the dirt is going to fly.

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