, Newburyport, MA

July 1, 2013

NRA changes plan

Opposition remains as adjusted waterfront proposal is unveiled


---- — NEWBURYPORT — Officials of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority Saturday unveiled a “revised” master plan for the central waterfront, but there was no change in attitude by many who listened: Significant opposition still exists.

The new configuration offers three buildings rather than two, but still envisions about 70,000 square feet of buildings.

And the new tentative plan calls for more grassy areas, better bike paths and improved parking.

No action was taken, but the meeting appeared to be an opportunity for the NRA to assert that it has made changes as a result of resident feedback.

More than a dozen members of the Committee for an Open Waterfront carried placards urging no construction, and more asked probing questions. Other opponents were also present.

However, many listeners appeared to be supporters of some commercial development there.

The morning session started in the Firehouse Center for the Arts and moved outside to the adjacent parking lots so visitors could get a sense of where the three buildings would be sited.

The NRA owns 4.2 acres on the riverfront, much of it now used for parking.

A plan to develop anything on the property has been stagnant in recent months, but NRA members Saturday said that MassDevelopment, a quasi-state agency supporting the NRA, has approved a grant of about $16,000 to be put toward the cost of soil test borings. The borings will determine what is in the soil; the site was for centuries a seafaring commercial area, and large amounts of fill have been dumped over the years.

The news that borings analysis will start soon appears to be a step forward for the five-member NRA.

“We have learned that we have a grant, and we have contracted with a local engineering firm to do the work,” said Adam Guild, treasurer of the NRA. “Borings can start in two to three weeks.”

The revised plan was presented by Don Powers, a principal in Union Studio, a consulting and architectural firm in Providence.

Powers had presented here twice in the past, and on Saturday said, “This plan remains true to our earlier outline, which is to improve the park experience without commercializing the waterfront.”

After an illustrated presentation by Powers, NRA Chairman Tom Salemi invited the crowd of about 140 out to the parking lot where markers had been set up to demonstrate where the buildings will placed, and how large they will be.

But some opponents of the NRA plan objected to leaving the theater, stating they wanted officials to answer specific questions about the new plan.

A battle of wills ensued between emotional opponents and determined NRA board members. Eventually, questions were permitted and Powers answered queries both in the theater and, later, outside in the parking lot.

NRA members answered questions as well.

One theme that Powers repeated is that the city has the opportunity to improve the waterfront and to make better use of land that is serving “only” as parking lots.

He said that it would cost between $3.5 million and $5 million to expand and enhance a park on the riverfront.

Powers repeated Union’s tentative outline that calls for a commercial project including shops, a restaurant and residences to provide the capital to develop a park.

The city could derive enough money on such a project to invest it in a new park complex, he said.

Consultant Barry Abramson later said that the city could realize about $300,000 per year in tax revenue from such a private development. It might cost about $50,000 to maintain the park, he estimated.

The NRA’s land consists of about 182,000 square feet and the “footprint” of the three buildings would be about 24,000 square feet, officials said.

Powers commented that architectural professionals “around the country” feel that the city is missing an opportunity to enhance the riverfront property by linking the downtown commercial area with a complex on the river that would include restaurants and shops.

One troublesome aspect of any riverfront development appears to be parking, urban professionals seem to agree.

Union Studio officials estimated that if the tentative plan is followed, spaces in the two parking lots will diminish from about 336 spaces to about 172.

Also, developers building residences would have to allow for two underground spaces (perhaps a total 60), and some residents questioned whether enough ground for parking can be found.

The next step in consideration of the central waterfront appears to be administration and analysis of test borings, city officials say.

Elizabeth Heath, who heads the COW organization, said, in a statement: “The NRA’s ‘Newburyport Waterfront Revised Master Plan’ is pretty much the same old same old.

“I saw nothing even resembling a change for the better. Apparently they have decreased the square footage from 72,000 sq. ft. to 70,000 sq. ft., and they have moved the building on the west lot slightly to the southwest allowing it to now sit completely in the parking lot and not impinge on existing parkland as it had previously.

“And this new plan further reduces parking — taking the available number of spaces from the current number of 375 down to only 172.

“COW’s opposition to the path that the NRA is relentlessly pursuing remains as determined as ever. We repeat — no new buildings, don’t sell or lease the land. Keep the waterfront open, with free access for everyone in perpetuity.”