, Newburyport, MA

March 10, 2014

At forum Waterfront plans debated

At forum, NRA city councilors divided in visions

By James Pouliot

---- — NEWBURYPORT — The Newburyport Redevelopment Authority met with Mayor Donna Holaday and members of the City Council to discuss the future of the central waterfront, saying that the plan for their 4.2 acres of riverfront land could be revised.

During an early morning forum on Saturday, city officials and the NRA discussed the most recent proposal for the development of the NRA’s dirt parking lots. For the past two years, the NRA had been working with MassDevelopment, and Union Studio, a Providence consulting firm, to create a commercial project near the river.

Union’s final proposal called for constructing three three-story buildings offering 70,000 square feet that would be populated by shops, a restaurant, residential condominiums and public facilities such as restrooms. It would require an underground garage large enough for about 60 vehicles.

The plan aimed to open to open the waterfront to new users, create new revenue for the city and “restore the historic connection between downtown and the waterfront,” NRA chairman Tom Salemi said Saturday. It had undergone numerous revisions to reduce encroachment on existing public space and open sight lines to the water.

Salemi estimated that the development would cost $4 million, but repeatedly emphasized that one goal of the project would be to limit the burden on the taxpayer as much as possible. The NRA has said in the past that a $4 million loan paid back by $300,000 per year from taxes on condos.

During Saturday’s meeting, NRA members said that the plan could be altered to instead include a series of single-story retail outlets, an office/condominium mix or simply a scaled-down version of the current Union Studios plan.

But Salemi expressed misgivings about each of these alternatives, saying any plan that included solely business offerings risked being inactive outside of business hours, essentially voiding its utility for many hours each day. And every plan risks failing due to lack of demand for its services.

City councilors were divided on the plan, often disagreeing on how more commercial/high-end residential space might affect the city.

“We are a destination city,” Councilor At-Large Bruce Vogel said. “More commercial development is not necessarily going to bring any more visitors to our community. What it will do is dilute whatever comes into town. We can only manage so much.”

Ward 1 Councilor Allison Heartquist agreed.

“The majority of people in Ward 1 do not want buildings,” Heartquist said. “Bottom line, they don’t want it. I have not heard from any retailers, I have not heard from any restaurants that are concerned with bringing in other commercial space downtown.”

Still others pointed to the fact that valuable waterfront land continues to be used as a space for storing cars.

Ward 4 Councilor Charles Tontar called the space “a monument to urban renewal...a means of making America convenient to the automobile,” rather than a space for community enrichment, while Councilor At-Large Barry Connell quipped that the city had devoted the space to allowing cars to enjoy themselves.

Connell argued that, as a destination city, Newburyport could “grow the pie” for all businesses by constructing a hotel.

Responding to questions over how the city could possibly still be undecided despite having conducted several surveys over the decades, one member of the NRA told councilors that none of the past surveys had been properly designed to determine the exact preferences of the people. Each, she said, suffered fundamental flaws that made it unclear how people would most prefer the space be used.