NEWBURYPORT — The future of the city’s central waterfront has been debated, sometimes angrily, for close to four decades. But last night it appeared that a new era might have been broached — one of compromise.
The scene was an open meeting of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority at the public library, and the program room there drew an overflow crowd of close to 100.
Mayor Donna Holaday set the tone by opening the meeting with a call for compromise, “a common ground so we can improve the riverfront and get rid of the dirt lots.”
Holaday said she had met earlier yesterday with members of the Committee for an Open Waterfront, which ardently opposes any commercial development on the riverfront. The mayor said she is open to more dialogue so that residents can come to some kind of consensus.
The meeting ended after 1 hour and 45 minutes without a compromise. But many residents seemed relieved that their ideas were being aired.
“Whatever we do, let’s try to find an 85 percent buy-in,” veteran waterfront-watcher Tom Gould said. “Let’s compromise because we don’t want the community divided if plans move forward.”
The NRA has been working with MassDevelopment, a quasi-public state institution interested in generating commerce, and Union Studio, a Providence urban-planning consultancy, to create a vision for the 4.2 acres it, not the city, owns along the riverfront.
Though the NRA conducts regularly posted meetings and manages its own website, last night’s session was one of the first designed to elicit reaction from residents. Other public sessions have featured planning professionals discussing the potential of the park.
There was still a wide gap in how citizens view the NRA’s tentative vision of developing two commercial buildings with condominiums in order to generate funds to expand the park.
Resident Jim Roy said, “The future of the entire waterfront involves (developer Stephen) Karp downriver, and Karp upriver.
“Some day, he (or his company) will go into action and we will be happy we kept this land open.”
Karp’s Newburyport Development owns about 50 parcels on or near the waterfront.
But Paul Dahn, who identified himself as a member of the Harbor Commission, said the vision that Union Studio has advanced is an appealing one. “I support the development that will bring improvements,” he said.
Several other speakers expressed support for the tentative vision that calls for two commercial structures and a larger public park.
NRA Chairman James Shanley stressed that his board has not finalized any plans and that it is open to more input. He said one of the organization’s goals is to open the waterfront to more uses such as shops and restaurants, so more people can enjoy it.
NRA members stressed that two commercial buildings, which could include 30 to 35 condominium units, are important components if enough money is to be generated to create a park.
In answer to questions, NRA members said they did not have hard numbers on what it would cost to build a park and maintain it. That could come when an official request for proposals is extended, and there is no date for an RFP to be released.
Former Mayor Mary Carrier said that the NRA should not sell the land to developers. “We’ve done that in the past, and it cost us thousands to straighten out the situation,” she said.
NRA members say they haven’t decided whether to sell or lease their property.
Several leaders of the COW organization said they would like to look into raising money to develop a park from private sources.
Though no action was taken, the session marked greater involvement by city officials in finding consensus.
Last night, city Planner Andy Port and senior project manager Geordie Vining took major roles in explaining possible scenarios and in moderating the spirited debate.
Holaday, who appeared to be refocusing the parameters of the debate, was the lead figure and she said she is willing to look at an alternative plan soon to be proposed by architects retained by COW.
That plan is expected to be made public within a week and reportedly has one salient characteristic — no commercial structures.