NEWBURYPORT — An appeal by the attorneys for Brine Oyster Bar seeks to reverse the zoning administrator’s determination that modifications to the windows at the former Fowle’s News at 17 State St. require a variance under the Downtown Overlay District ordinance.
In January, restaurateur Nancy Batista-Caswell announced that Brine, located at 25 State St. for eight years, would move next door to a bigger space with nearly double the seating.
Caswell, who also owns Oak + Rowan in Boston, closed her other State Street restaurant, Ceia Kitchen and Bar, late last year.
In moving into the longtime former home of Fowle’s News, Caswell knew she would need to preserve the space’s history while incorporating her restaurant’s needs.
Despite initial concerns expressed by the public on social media, the neon blade sign — which Caswell recognizes as an iconic part of the downtown’s history — will remain where it hangs from the building’s second floor.
She has asked to hang her Brine blade sign above the restaurant’s entryway in a way that does not block the view of the Fowle’s sign.
Caswell has proposed removing the art deco banner sign, which reads “News Store/Fowle’s/Soda Shop,” for potential preservation and installation elsewhere. Depending on the state of the sign, Caswell said she would be open to hanging it indoors or in another way that preserves it.
In trying to make her restaurant as accessible as possible amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she is also seeking to modify the windows so that they fold up and allow airflow for safe, indoor seating.
Her attorneys at Mead, Talerman & Costa LLC submitted an appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals in March, calling for a ruling that the proposal to modify the windows would not require a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals or a special permit from the Planning Board.
The full appeal can be found at www.cityofnewburyport.com/zoning-board-of-appeals/agenda-items/17-21-state-street.
Prior to pursuing an appeal, Caswell said she invited City Council President and Ward 2 Councilor Jared Eigerman, the principal author behind the Downtown Overlay District, to walk the space and hear her proposals.
Caswell also had private conversations with a few members of the Historical Commission and the Planning Board to gauge their feelings about what she wanted to do.
Following those conversations, Caswell said she was concerned about the process, particularly with meetings taking place over Zoom, and whether she would be able to fully convey the reasoning for these proposals.
Caswell saw that the process could carry on for months and worried about people tuning in and only hearing parts of her proposals, rather than the full scope.
While she pursues these proposals, Caswell also has employees who are furloughed until she can open again.
Coming out of the pandemic, restaurant owners are focused on making customers comfortable, Caswell said. This means airflow, air purification systems, socially distanced and outdoor seating options, etc.
Without outdoor seating and airflow for indoor seating “that’s going to be the kiss of death for a restaurant,” she said, noting that customers call ahead to ensure those options are available.
Caswell saw what previous tenants — Superfine Food and CR Moulton’s, also known as 17 State Street Cafe — tried to do to survive in the former Fowle’s space. She said the landlord, New England Development, had nothing to do with the demise of those businesses.
“Going to appeal directly to the ZBA was not to insult or diminish the responsibilities of people who volunteer their time on these committees,” she said.
“We’re not asking to make Fowle’s go away,” Caswell said. “We’re not asking to blow the space up and paint the brick green — that’s not our interest.”
Instead, she wants to find a way to balance paying homage to Fowle’s with allowing her business to flourish in the space.
Eigerman wished “great success” to Caswell as she moves Brine into the bigger space.
Though grateful for the owner’s interest in preserving the neon Fowle’s sign, “I regret their attack on Newburyport’s very ability to protect its Federal period buildings from destruction,” Eigerman wrote in an email.
“The Downtown Overlay District was adopted unanimously by the City Council over seven years ago to ensure that what we nearly lost to the wrecking ball in the 1960s cannot be summarily destroyed,” he said, citing the great efforts and funding that went into rebuilding the city.
“Without the DOD, there is no regulation to stop wholesale demolition and replacement with strip malls, tomorrow,” Eigerman said, adding that the appeal is “entirely without merit.”
“The city of Newburyport can, should, and will defend its ability to use its home rule powers to protect its beloved downtown, to the bitter end,” he said.
Tom Kolterjahn, co-president of the Newburyport Preservation Trust, said the city benefits from the framework established by the ordinance.
“I think it’s been very helpful in preserving downtown Newburyport,” he said. “Before then, we didn’t have any real protections.”
The appeal is on the agenda for the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting May 11 at 7 p.m.