NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

November 25, 2012

Wondering about the elephant in the room as important decisions are made

Newburyport City Notebook
Dyke Hendrickson

---- — Two municipal meetings relating to the waterfront are scheduled this week, and both are important to the future of the city.

The City Council is scheduled to discuss tonight the proposed Local Historic District, and an LHD commission that would administer new regulations relating to historic preservation.

On Wednesday evening, the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority is expected to review a request for proposals (RFP) as they relate to the NRA’s goal of utilizing 4.2 acres on the riverfront for a park and two commercial buildings.

Relating to the City Council and the LHD, it appears that the proposal will not earn the required eight votes the way it stands and that guidelines for residential sectors such as High Street will be deleted.

LHD opponents made their point about their insistence on the property rights of homeowners and their aversion to “another” commission to oversee preservation.

Given this change of landscape, key city leaders — including Mayor Donna Holaday and City Councilor Kathleen O’Connor Ives — are repositioning in favor an LHD to encompass the downtown commercial district.

According to planning leaders, including Bonnie Sontag, a member of the Planning Board, and Andy Port, city planning director, the city currently has very weak regulations to govern commercial developers in the downtown.

Yet almost all of the dialogue about the LHD has focused on residential concerns. Now, in what appears the 11th hour, city officials are ready to consider guidelines for commercial land.

As the clock ticks, Your Scribe forwards this question: Have officials adequately considered the elephant in the room — New England Development, headed by business mogul Stephen Karp?

New England Development, operating here as Newburyport Development, owns close to 50 parcels in the downtown. This organization has enormous power over the future of the city, but the company has barely been referenced in the discussion of the LHD.

The aging Karp is a very capable executive, but he isn’t talking about the future; his lieutenants here are reluctant to return phone calls.

But when this billion-dollar construction juggernaut does get rolling amid the improving economy, residents might want some strong laws on the books. (Newburyport Development possesses numerous parcels between, and including, the Black Cow and Michael’s Harborside.)

Put another way: What if the elephant were Donald Trump, the man who never encountered a microphone he did not want to speak into?

It’s likely city officials and residents would know more about what his company is planning, but with New England Development there has been silence.

With more info at hand, residents might stand up at a council meeting and say, “What kind of regulatory framework should we have so developers don’t dictate the look of the waterfront in coming years.”

The NRA might also consider the elephant in the room — or the elephant on the waterfront.

Have members talked to New England Development about the next decade? Will there be a market for shops, restaurants and condos on NRA property (soon to be sold to the developer) when the “elephant” outlines plans to develop properties?

What if New England Development itself bids on the NRA land? Are there enough legislative safeguards to ensure that the city can make private developers work for the good of the community?

It appears that the LHD ball has passed from one court to another: The discussion is no longer about OUR property rights (High Street, the neighborhoods) but THEIR (commercial developers) license to develop the riverfront the way they want to do it.

Pivotal moments await.

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

Tonight

City Council, 7:30 p.m., City Council Chambers.

Tuesday

Bresnahan Qualifications Subcommittee of the Whole School, 6:30 p.m.

Community Preservation Committee, 7 p.m., police conference room, 4 Green St.

Zoning Board of Appeals, 7:30 p.m., City Council Chambers.

Wednesday

Board of the Newburyport Retirement System, 10 a.m.

Solarize Newburyport, 3 p.m. City Hall.

Sewer Commission, 5 p.m., 15 Water St.

School Committee retreat, 6 p.m., high school library.

Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, 7 p.m., City Hall.

Thursday

Ordinance Review Committee, 8 a.m., City Hall.

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

Energy Advisory Committee, 7 p.m., City Hall.

River Valley Charter School Executive Committee, 7 p.m., 2 River Road.

Affordable Housing Trust stakeholders, 7 p.m., municipal library.

Newburyport Parks Commission, 7:30 p.m., City Hall.

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