, Newburyport, MA

March 4, 2013

NRA plan takes step forward

Study of waterfront soils set to begin


---- — NEWBURYPORT — The Newburyport Redevelopment Authority will meet Thursday to discuss another step forward in its plans to develop the central waterfront: It will open bids for testing soil on its riverfront acreage.

At its most recent meeting on Wednesday, board members indicated they are moving forward with their “due diligence” in assessing the organization’s 4.2 acres along the water. Thursday’s meeting is at 7 p.m. at the public library on State Street.

The test borings are an important step in the NRA’s controversial plan. The proposed buildings will require extensive excavations to accommodate underground parking, and it is not clear what the soil may contain — it’s possible there are pollutants from the land’s many decades of industrial and commercial use.

NRA treasurer Adam Guild said that he has queried six companies about their interest in providing testing services and other “geotechnical” elements relating to the environment.

He stated he has received responses from four companies, and their proposals ranged from “15 to 40 pages.”

Guild said he will be analyzing the proposals in coming days, and he will share information with other panel members prior to the Thursday meeting as the authority prepares to award a contract.

He said that the board will budget $50,000 to $60,000 for the study. The NRA has a total of about $185,000 in its checking and money-market accounts.

The NRA in recent months has indicated it is interested in developing two commercial buildings on its two separate parcels, now used as parking lots, in order to generate money to build and support a park.

Veteran waterfront watchers have expressed concern that the NRA was moving forward on a plan to extend Requests for Proposal for the construction when it hadn’t commissioned soil testing to determine whether the soil is clean enough or compact enough to permit construction.

The NRA’s waterfront property is not the natural topography of the land — it is largely made up of fill that had been dumped over the course of decades. In Newburyport’s early days, the natural riverbank was close to Merrimac and Water streets. The area became a major dockage and shipbuilding area, and over the course of decades many of the wharves and shallow waters were gradually filled in. Warehouses and commercial and industrial buildings were then constructed on the land. Among the industrial uses was an enormous “coal pocket” building used to store coal, and the terminus of a locomotive line. It’s unknown what sort of residue from that industrial past may linger in the soil.

NRA officials have said that a tentative vision of two structures totaling almost 70,000 square feet would cost about $20 million.

Guild said the soil testing on the West Lot would serve as part of the NRA’s effort to obtain information about the soil that could be shared with prospective developers.

In a separate discussion at the Wednesday meeting, NRA board members asked leaders of the Committee for an Open Waterfront (COW) when their “alternate” plan will be ready for discussion.

The COW group, which opposes the NRA plan to develop commercial structures, has been developing a separate proposal that calls for a park but no buildings. It would have no official standing.

Elizabeth Heath. who heads COW, said her group is fine-tuning the architectural renderings that their team has commissioned and will have its proposal ready for review in coming weeks.