, Newburyport, MA

July 18, 2013

COW presents vision to NRA

Groups disagree on role of waterfront park, funding


---- — NEWBURYPORT — The Committee for an Open Waterfront presented its vision for the central waterfront last night to the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority and both sides seemed to agree on at least one thing: There is a need for a larger and better park along the river.

But the two sides remain in conflict — and the difference of opinion is quite vast — on how to achieve that goal.

The NRA owns 4.2 acres of riverfront property, much of it taken up by parking lots. The five-member NRA panel has developed a tentative vision on how to increase green, open space, while not costing the taxpayers money.

Its vision includes selling or leasing the land to a private developer, and central to that plan is construction of three buildings that would house shops, a restaurant and perhaps 30 to 35 condominiums.

In response, the COW organization has created its tentative vision that calls for a larger park and improved parking — with no buildings.

Before a standing-room-only crowd in the library, COW offered a sophisticated, digitized presentation designed to show that a larger park and improved parking opportunities can be achieved without buildings.

Lon Hachmeister, a key leader of COW, said, “Our vision is similar to the NRA’s park plans; we just don’t have buildings.”

John Morris, an NRA member, almost agreed. “I’m on the board of the Essex County Greenbelt (organization),” Morris said. “I believe in parks and open space, and I like some of the ideas of the presentation.

“But we’ve got to be able to pay for things. We’ve had 30 years of missed opportunity here. Sometimes you might have to give up something to get something better.”

Though many extraneous thoughts were aired, the crux of practical disagreement appears to be how to pay for a better park.

The NRA plan calls for three buildings totaling 70,000 square feet that could generate about $300,000 a year in property-tax revenue, according to a consultant it has hired.

A municipal consultant several years ago estimated that a park with more grass, trees and sidewalks could cost about $5 million. But Morris said that even it if cost just $3 million, it would be difficult for the city to create it and then maintain it.

COW officials estimated the park would cost about $1.8 million to create and suggested that grants and/or use-revenues would defray the cost.

But several NRA members dismissed the idea that a patchwork of grants would pay for the park as “naive.”

If the two sides disagreed on how to pay for a better park, they also evinced contrary visions on the role of the park.

NRA members said they want to extend the downtown to the riverfront park, so people will shop and reside near the water.

COW members said their vision is to link the park with the river, so users can enjoy nature, family time and learn more about the long history of the community.

The meeting ran the full 7 to 9 p.m. time period that it was allotted, and then librarians quietly requested an end to the session. No action was taken.

One of the few finite assertions was that engineering crews will start testing soil on the waterfront in early August, and results will be ready for the NRA meeting on Sept. 18.

NRA officials have contracted with an engineering firm to run soil tests to see if the land is appropriate for the construction of the three buildings, and underground parking for condo tenants (about 60 spaces).

Both sides agreed that the results of those tests will be germane to future discussions.