, Newburyport, MA

April 4, 2014

Public meeting called for waterfront plans

Chairman resists call to dissolve board


---- — NEWBURYPORT — City officials have scheduled what might be called a central waterfront summit for May 10 in an effort to develop consensus on how to utilize the 4.2 acres that the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority owns along the river.

“We’d like residents to be neutral when we meet,” said Mayor Donna Holaday at a meeting of the Waterfront Trust Wednesday night. “No buttons, no banners, no bumper stickers.

“It’s important that we work cooperatively as we move forward.”

The open meeting is being called a charrette, defined as “a final, intensive effort to finish a project, especially an architectural design project, before a deadline.”

Municipal leaders and residents will be invited to discuss the much-discussed riverfront and the meeting will include 10 tables of about 10 people at each — although all who attend will have the opportunity to participate.

Each facilitator will focus on a given subject, such as a visitor center or a public park.

The event is tentatively scheduled for Saturday morning, May 10, in the hall of Central Congregational Church at 14 Titcomb St.

Holaday said that planning for the future has been complicated by the fact that the NRA, which now owns the land, does not have a quorum and thus cannot take action.

There are three openings on the five-member panel. Holaday has the authority to name two, and the governor holds the appointment power for the third.

She said she has received interest from five individuals who want to serve on the NRA, and she is seeking more candidates. One interview is scheduled for next week.

It is unclear what the role of the NRA will be. Holaday and other municipal leaders have said the NRA should begin taking steps to dissolve itself. The Waterfront Trust plans to discuss how the dissolution of the NRA would affect contracts and agreements between the two organizations, whose land abuts each other.

However, Tom Salemi, chairman of the NRA, who attended the meeting Wednesday night, said that he does not necessarily agree with the notion of dissolution.

The subject was not discussed at length, though Salemi at one point said, “I don’t want my silence at this meeting to indicate my agreement” with putting an end to the NRA.

City Hall observers say the matter of dissolution is moot for the moment, since a quorum of the NRA would be required to take any action.

In other developments at the Trust meeting:

Geordie Vining, senior project manager of the Department of Planning and Development, said work on Phase 1 of the bulkhead overhaul project is on schedule to be completed on May 16. The bulkhead is the metal structure along the riverside of the city’s central boardwalk; it prevents the river from undermining the boardwalk.

On a separate matter, Vining said that planners have encountered a potential problem in developing an improved harbormaster headquarters on the boardwalk. If the new headquarters is to be equipped with water and sewer, construction managers will have to run pipes from Water Street to the site.

The most practical route would be through property owned by the New England Development company, but executives there have been reluctant to grant permission, city officials say.

Bill Harris, a land-use lawyer and longtime waterfront watcher, said he will seek federal “closeout” funds relating to restoration of the area.

Harris said that years ago the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development offered grants to communities that were finishing major projects that aided the community. Newburyport was recognized for pioneering preservation efforts and Harris said he will see if grants are still available.

“This is not low-hanging fruit,” said Harris. “There are no guarantees.”

He said grant money could be used to bring in clean soil to land areas that were historically fouled, and possibly to provide flood hazard protection to low-lying land.

Restaurateur Joe Leone, who is developing the Ale House at 40 Merrimac St., received permission to swap parking spots with the Trust so he can offer parking for the handicapped in proximity to his restaurant.

City officials have said that Leone needs only fulfill his obligations to handicapped patrons before his paperwork is done.

With acquisition of handicapped parking spots next to the 442-seat restaurant, his paperwork appears to be done.

Leone Wednesday night said his team is beginning engineering studies for interior work. But he said that annual construction won’t begin until fall “at a time when the tourist season is just about over.”

Also, the Trust voted to award its seasonal landscaping contract to McCarthy and Sons, Ipswich, for $23,396. Members of the Trust, which has a balance of $197,847, said it was the lowest of seven bids that were received.