Case Study: Gloucester, Massachusetts

Case Study
Gloucester, Massachusetts

City of Gloucester, Massachusetts


Gloucester Harbor (Massachusetts) is the center of one of the country’s most important commercial fishing communities; its docks are lined with vessels of various types and its waterfront is dominated by facilities and services associated with the seafood industry. In recent decades, as groundfish stocks have declined and management measures designed to rebuild the stocks have reduced the size and effort of the fleet, the infrastructure has deteriorated and businesses that depend on groundfish have struggled. City and state regulations effectively protect the waterfront for maritime industrial uses, but contraction of the fishing industry and consolidation of related shoreside infrastructure has left portions of the waterfront underutilized.

In 2009, the city and state adopted the Gloucester Harbor Plan and Designated Port Area Master Plan, which established regulatory strategies to diversify the city’s marine economic base. In 2011, the city had a Harbor Economic Development Plan prepared to guide future actions to retain the traditional maritime use while attracting emerging marine-based industries with growth potential.

The Community Visioning methodology and distillation of community values are necessary to guide plans. The waterfront land, infrastructure, and use inventories and assessments supported regulatory proposals and industry needs. Site plan review procedure is necessary for determining compliance with state and city regulations.

Best Practices
A community-wide visioning process created the community values used to guide the city’s approach to harbor development. The mayor established a nine-member Community Panel that held five listening posts around the city and distilled public comments into core community values.

Full Case Study Description

Fishing has been a way of life in Gloucester since 1623. For almost 400 years, Gloucester Harbor has been the center of one of the country’s most important commercial fishing communities. Even with the decline of stocks and strict federal regulations on the groundfish industry, Gloucester is still a vital working port. During 2010, Gloucester unloaded 88.8 million pounds of fish, ranking as the 15th largest commercial fishery landing port in the nation (NOAA, NMFS data). Because of its facilities and services, Gloucester functions as a regional hub for commercial fishing, with boats from other ports in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island unloading in Gloucester.
Local Context
Gloucester is a city of approximately 29,000 people, located on Cape Ann on the north shore of Massachusetts.
As groundfish stocks have declined and management measures designed to rebuild the stocks have reduced the size and effort of the fishing fleet, waterfront property owners do not have the revenue or access to capital to invest in maintaining and improving the waterfront infrastructure essential for the future of their working port.
State and municipal land use regulations have been effective in protecting the waterfront for the commercial fishing industry. However, as that industry contracts, questions arise whether the regulations provide enough flexibility to allow it to diversify into other maritime and associated uses.
What are the other economically viable maritime industrial uses for the underutilized waterfront property?
Actions Taken
In July 2009, the City of Gloucester adopted a Harbor Plan and Port Area Master Plan, which was subsequently approved the Commonwealth’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs in accordance with the state’s regulations for Review and Approval of Municipal Harbor Plans at 301 CMR 23.00 et seq.   The planning process included a community-wide visioning process that created the community values used to guide the city’s approach to harbor planning and development. A Community Panel consisting of nine citizens was established. It held five listening posts in different neighborhoods, then distilled the public comments into common themes of:
  • Making the harbor a hub of economic activity, being flexible while respecting the working character of the port.
  • Making the harbor a hub of community activity, providing access to, along, and across the water.
  • Ensuring that harbor development respects the heritage of Gloucester: fishing, arts, the scale of the community, preservation.
  • Approaching harbor development recognizing that: 1) the city wants and needs investment in the harbor; 2) the complex regulatory environment must be observed; 3) caution should be used so as not to lose the community’s character; 4) diverse uses provide added economic stability; and 5) a balance needs to be maintained between development and preservation.
Approaches Used
  1. Support commercial fishing both directly, and by seeking to attract and expand the kind of businesses and industries that might build upon the existing marine assets and knowledge base of the community. Such commerce might include research, off-shore energy support services, or training in the maritime trades. This is an effort to diversify on the waterfront in ways that build upon and strengthen the fishing community.
  2. Provide greater flexibility for supporting commercial uses on waterfront property so that waterfront properties have more mixed-use investment options.
  3. Promote public access along the waterfront in ways that do not interfere with industrial uses, in order to create a more appealing environment for investment and to ensure the active use of the water’s edge around the harbor.
  4. Promote change that will benefit the downtown and other areas of the city.
  5. Provide infrastructure and navigation improvements.
  6. Enhance and focus the administrative resources of the city to support and strengthen the viability of the port.
Policy Framework
The Gloucester Harbor Plan and Designated Port Area Master Plan established as policies:
  1. Strengthen the commercial fishing industry.
  2. Expand and diversify the Maritime Economy.
  3. Bring additional commercial investment to the waterfront that is compatible with and enhances the maritime economies in the port.
  4. Improve access and facilities for transient recreational boating and for public boating access to the waterfront.
  5. Highlight and make more available the cultural and historical assets of the waterfront.
  6. Maintain navigational channels to support port industry.
  7. Promote facilities and operations to ease traffic congestion.
  8. Actively promote investment in key underutilized waterfront locations.
The Gloucester Harbor Economic Development Plan established as policies:
  1. Diversify the harbor’s economic base by attracting new industry and supporting commercial uses while sustaining traditional industrial uses such as commercial fishing.
  2. Expand high-quality job and income opportunities for Gloucester residents.
  3. Stimulate property investment and minimize the number of vacant and underutilized properties.
  4. Enhance the area’s role as a center of community life.
  5. Preserve the area’s heritage and character.
  6. Make the area more accessible to visitors and residents.
  7. Broaden the city’s tax base while also supporting non-profit property uses that provide a foundation for economic growth and enhance the quality of life.
Harbor Plans and Designated Port Area (DPA) Master Plans prepared by municipalities and adopted by municipal and state government form the basis for coordinated decision making over capital investments and permitting of land and water uses. Through Harbor/DPA Master Plans, municipalities can tailor the standards of the state’s Chapter 91 Waterways Regulation (310 CMR 9.0) to local conditions and objectives. The plan’s provisions may substitute for or amplify upon the state standards used by the Department of Environmental Protection in granting licenses for activities along the waterfront.
The City’s Harbor/DPA Master Plan allows modification of certain standards of the state Waterways Regulations to increase the amount of and enable greater flexibility in siting the development of “supporting DPA uses.” These are additional uses that can provide financial and/or operational support for marine industrial property owners in a DPA.
The City of Gloucester acquired a strategically located, long-vacant waterfront parcel, held a design competition, and issued an RFP for development consistent with the city’s objectives.
The City of Gloucester commissioned a Harbor Economic Development Plan (May 2011) to assess the economic position of existing harbor industries and identify emerging industries with growth potential that are well-suited to a harbor location. The report lays out specific strategies and implementation steps designed to help sustain traditional industries while broadening the harbor’s economic base with development of new industries. See for updated data documenting the presence, diversity and value of marine-dependent busineses in Gloucester.
The City of Gloucester planned and sponsored (with the US Economic Development Administration and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council) a Maritime Port Economy Summit in November 2011, which brought in experts from around North America to explore and suggest new, desirable industry areas that will not diminish the maritime character of the Cape Ann area, which is embodied in the continued presence of the fishing industry, while providing employment leveraging the local skill set. These include industry niches such as ocean sciences and research, and ocean technologies and product development.
The City of Gloucester formed a Maritime Economy working group of citizens, businesses and nonprofit organizations engaged in maritime research and economic development to nurture marine research and technology development.
The city extended its HarborWalk with a $500,000 grant from the Massachusetts Seaport Advisory Council.
Next Steps
Fostering public/private partnerships to attract and develop development of innovative and sustainable marine industries is crucial.

Key Partners

  • City of Gloucester
  • Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management
  • Massachusetts Seaport Council

Sarah Garcia
Community Development Director, City of Gloucester

Jack Wiggin
Director, Urban Harbors Institute
University of Massachusetts Boston

City of Gloucester Harbor Plan & Designated Port Area Master Plan, 2009.

Last updated 19-Aug-15


  • Northeast

Geographic Scope

  • City

Governance Structure

  • Issues
  • Economic development
  • Regulatory factors
  • Loss or preservation of heritage (cultural, maritime, etc.)

ToolsWaterfront Uses

  • Public access (docks/wharfs/beach/park)
  • Waterborne passenger transportation (ferries, water taxis, cruise ship facilities, etc.)
  • Water-dependent industrial, including powerplants
  • Commerical fishing
  • Fish processing
  • Charter fishing
  • Charter boat tours (general sightseeing, whale watch, etc.)

Digital Coast Snapshots
Flood Exposure
Wetland Benefits
Coastal & Maritime Jobs