Before running for mayor of Annapolis, restaurateur Gavin Buckley ran in high heels and a skirt during a men-in-high-heels sprint at the 2015 Annapolis Fringe Festival. That was nothing out of the ordinary for the South African-born Buckley, who grew up in Perth, West Australia.
Ever since coming ashore in Annapolis in 1992, Buckley has been a proponent of all things local, the arts and West Street. He has exerted influence through his ownership and management of several restaurants, Tsunami, Lemongrass and Metropolitan among them. Some of what he’s done has stuck, as did his victory in redefining what’s permissible in Annapolis’ historic district. He cites his controversy with the city’s Historic Preservation Commission over the Agony and Ecstasy mural painted on the exterior of Tsunami as one reason he ran for mayor. Other things — a dog park near upper West Street — never took hold.
Buckley’s enthusiasm and vision are forces to be reckoned with. He wants to make Annapolis into an arts, gastronomic, historic and sailing destination. If he can maintain and expand support from the city’s 39,000 residents and thousands more who live outside the city’s 8.1 square miles, many of the ideas he favors could gain enough traction to change the face of the 10th oldest city in the United States.
Bay Weekly spoke to Buckley about three months into his first year as mayor. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Bay Weekly You’ve often talked about the dynamic of drawing locals in and tourists following. How do you see that working?
Gavin Buckley Starting from the top would be keeping the Sailing Hall of Fame here. We call ourselves the Sailing Capital of America, and if we’re not willing to put our money where our mouth is, we should take the sign down. Whether [the hall of fame is] housed in a boutique hotel or not, the sailing industry, the boating industry need to feel supported by the administration.
A City Dock boutique hotel is an idea I’m putting forth. Called The Maritime, maybe it could be four stories, maybe it could have a rooftop that looks over Spa Creek, some conference rooms or meeting space above the Sailing Hall of Fame.
Bay Weekly How does that vision extend beyond the boating industry to people who live here?
Gavin Buckley The main thing I want to focus on is the plaza that we create, called Lafayette Square, and how we program that plaza. It would still have to be hardscape that you could fit the Boat Show in, that you could pull a tour bus up to to drop people off and then pull out again. But it should be mainly for pedestrians, and there should be things for pedestrians to do. We’ve taken the team down to the wharf in D.C. to see how they’ve programmed a pretty much blighted waterfront area and turned it around.
We’re bringing in Fred Kent, a famous place-making guy that was here seven years ago to do another presentation. The next day, we’re going to bring him back, put a big tent at City Dock and have a workshop that anyone will be invited to. That workshop can be about how we feel our public space here wants to look, so it’s organic, it comes from the people who live here. It comes from the locals … And you’re a local if you live in Arnold or Crownsville or Edgewater … it’s still your downtown, so getting people invested in it and committed to it, that’s our goal.
Going up Main Street, we envision a bike path and a trolley line coming down one side of Main Street. We envision expanding the sidewalk and creating outdoor cafes coming down — on the right-hand side — from the Treaty of Paris all the way to Acme and Chick & Ruths.
Bay Weekly City Dock is vulnerable to sea level rise. What measures are you planning to counter rising waters and the issues that come with them?
Gavin Buckley The historic district and the water are two of our greatest assets, but the water is also our greatest threat. We have to be mindful of that or we won’t have a historic district.
We’re talking about a nine-foot increase. We have to prepare for that. We will appoint a resiliency officer or director who will focus on how we do that. How we’re going to deal with it is to identify the city’s assets, cultural and physical, and the city’s needs and prepare for the next 50 years. Then we’re going to come up with plans that involve the private sector.
Bay Weekly Have you gotten to the hows?
Gavin Buckley We should incentivize an international contest. You look at what they’ve done in the Netherlands and in countries that have had to stop big masses of water. If we put a big idea out there and included the county in the plan, we could do things that involve dikes or things like that that could save massive communities that sit on the Severn River or Spa Creek.
Take the boutique hotel idea. If we put the parking underground, and we put the last level of parking six, eight, 10 feet above grade, that could be the creation of a sea wall for the historic district, if we decide to go that route.
Using the private sector will be a big thing for us and bundling, coming up with ideas that are blessed by the city, maybe some even pre-permitted by the city, and taking them to the private sector so that we get civic investment is the goal.
Bay Weekly In terms of mitigating climate change, you say you’d like fewer vehicles. How will you move people around?
Gavin Buckley The trolleys — we’d like them to be electric. We would like to audit all the city buildings for efficiencies and try to operate those in terms of that. Getting people out of cars and making it a much more walkable city. We like the Danish model. We like it that half their country goes to work on a bike. So if you make bike paths safe, it’s a consideration. We’ve got two bike bridges planned and pretty neat bike paths that go from the historic district down to the mall and from the Poplar Trail to the B&A Trail, from the library over to Quiet Waters Park. We’ve got a lot of ideas like that that can move people around without burning fossil fuel.
Bay Weekly How would the city work with the county to do some of these things?
Gavin Buckley Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh has a dedicated bike specialist on staff. He’s been talking about bringing the B&A Trail to the stadium. I have to intersect that with a bike path across College Creek that intersects it from the downtown area. We have to work together — use Open Space money to fund certain things.
Bay Weekly How do you foresee integrating green technologies into areas managed by the Historic Preservation Commission? Will that require changes to ordinances?
Gavin Buckley We have to consider substitute materials. We have to consider whether the environment trumps preservation in some things. I’m hoping to appoint somebody with that kind of experience on the historic preservation board soon. Then maybe somebody with a building background, too, who understands changes from that angle.
Bay Weekly How do you propose integrating more of the city’s history into everyday spaces to develop a greater sense of community?
Gavin Buckley The Market House is going to be a central area for everybody in the town, whatever race, rich or poor, I think it’s going to be a town center again.
We need to do events that are inclusive. We’ve done that on West Street, and we should do that downtown as well. Kids in marginalized communities should get to see role models who’ve come out of this town and done great things, and know what a rich history we have. We have a mural coming up, Daniel Hale Williams coming to West Street, near Asbury United Methodist Church. He wasn’t just the first African American, but the first person to do successful heart surgery. Another mural we’re trying to do is Thurgood Marshall next to the courthouse. And another is [local DJ] Hoppy Adams; Chick & Ruths is another wall where we can do that. So just some inspirational characters who’ve come out of here.
Bay Weekly You’ve mentioned wanting to create a no-discharge zone all around Annapolis.
Gavin Buckley We’re formulating it with the county because they’re on the same page. I want people to realize that we care about the water. This is a good place to swim. I get frustrated when people say, I’m not swimming there. I’m not eating anything from there. Cities and countries all over the planet with waters all around industrial towns bring them back to pristine condition. We should be fighting for that, too. With Steve Schuh, we’re working on legalities and how we craft it. I know it’s going to affect some boating businesses, but I think we’ll gain more than we’ll lose.
Bay Weekly Through what specific ways do you intend to bring people together?
Gavin Buckley We all need to get to know each other a lot better. My staff are diverse. We are inclusive — age-inclusive, race-inclusive, sexual preference-inclusive. It’s about leadership and how you conduct yourself. Events are diverse. We just did a big plaque at City Hall that celebrates all the elected African American officials in city government; the first-ever elected African American in the state of Maryland was a city councilor. Next we’re going to do another plaque next to that for all the women that have been voted to city council — and just start to draw attention to the fact that other people have worked much harder to get there as opposed to us old white guys. I get mad at old white guys, then I realize I am one. (Laughs.)
Bay Weekly Which cities do you look toward for the things you would like to do?
Gavin Buckley The Austins, the Boulders, the Charlestons, the Burlingtons, the Ashevilles. Even locally, Frederick’s done well the last couple of decades. I read up on different mayors and best practices. If I see a good idea, I bring it to our team and see what they think.
Bay Weekly Speaking of ideas …
Gavin Buckley We love ideas. Just because we put an idea out there doesn’t mean it’s going to happen; it’s the start of a conversation. I definitely don’t surround myself with people that just think the same way I do. I need other people’s perspectives. If the majority of people don’t like something, we don’t do it. But I think we have a lot of untapped potential and need to try things.
Bay Weekly What’s the best way for people to reach you?
Gavin Buckley[email protected]. We go through the emails every couple of days, or if there’s a meeting needed, set them up.