NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

July 1, 2013

NRA gets grant for much-awaited test borings on waterfront

Newburyport City Notebook
Dyke Hendrickson

---- — The central waterfront has been discussed for decades, and now a new question for over-the-coffee-cup conversation has arrived: What will the test borings show?

Members of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority Saturday revealed they have received a grant from MassDevelopment, and now will move forward with the borings, which are being taken to determine whether soil on the NRA’s 4.2 riverfront acres is appropriate for construction.

This is a crucial moment. If borings show that underground parking for residential units (about 60 vehicles) is not feasible, then the current proposal developed by Union Studio cannot be carried out as planned.

If the borings are OK, then the development of a Request for Proposals will move forward.

The central waterfront has hosted many filthy industries over the years, including a rail center and a coal-storage business.

It is mostly fill and debris, but even experts don’t know what to expect.

Question to Joe Brown, member of the Waterfront Trust: “What will the borings show?” Answer: “I don’t know.”

Question to Joe Teixeira, chairman of the Conservation Commission: “What will the borings show?” Answer: “I don’t know.”

NRA officials say that borings on both the east and west parking lots will start in several weeks. The results could frame the next steps in this debate.

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Merchants and business professionals have not had much to say about the proposed NRA plan.

When municipal leaders were considering a parking garage in the Green Street lot years ago, numerous small business owners came forth to oppose the plan.

They feared that chaos created by the construction would discourage shoppers and that they would lose business for months, if not years.

Such opposition has not been heard about the NRA plan, though it has been in the public domain for at least a year.

Saturday’s session underscored the prospect that if completed, the number of parking spaces will fall from 336 to 172 (that is the conservative estimate).

While the 70,000-square-foot project is being built, the area will be awash in heavy equipment and tons of building materials. Parking will be severely compromised.

Can merchants and restaurant owners survive one summer and possibly more if two of the city’s largest lots are on the disabled list?

And if the Ale House (442 seats) is built at the corner of Green and Merrimac streets, will there be any parking for those coming into the city for a riverfront meal or a ride on the whale watching boat?

The staging area for the roundabout at Moseley Woods has produced so much heavy equipment and building materials that it could pass for Omaha Beach. Construction on the river would involve much more.

But downtown merchants have not been heard about how they feel about the prospect of several years of chaos in the (once) 336-space parking lots near the water.

(Aside No. 1: Waterfront watcher Bill Harris recently suggested that a parking level be added to the Green Street lot — under street level.

Aside No. 2: Mayor Donna Holaday has been peppered with complaints about the inconvenience of the roundabout construction, but she indicates that a “return to normalcy” (Warren Harding’s term) is close now that the underground drainage work is completed. Such local issues do arouse the populace, but remember, it was a free, $1 million project funded by the state.)

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Consultant Don Powers, who runs Union Studio, the firm that created the NRA plan for the central waterfront, appears to be taking the project as a personal challenge.

He remarked that architects around the country are watching to see whether the city will “enhance” its downtown with new construction or leave it as public parking lots.

Powers schooled in architecture at Harvard, which is the first piece of information one sees when he presents his plan to audiences.

One can almost envision one of his classmates joking, “Don, can’t you get those clamdiggers up on the Merrimack to sign on for some bricks-and-mortar?”

Many reputations and at least one (mayoral) election are on the line as the maneuvering on the central waterfront continues.

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The following meetings are scheduled this week and are open to the public:

Tonight

School Committee, 6:30 p.m., mayor’s conference room, City Hall.

Waterfront Trust, 7 p.m., police conference room, 4 Green St.

Tuesday

Conservation Commission, 6:30 p.m., City Council chambers.

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Dyke Hendrickson covers Newburyport for The Daily News. He can be reached at 978-462-6666, ext. 3226 or dhendrickson@newburyportnews.com.