, Newburyport, MA

April 19, 2013

Ale house draws frosty reaction

Plan undergoes frequent changes


---- — NEWBURYPORT — A proposal to develop the 442-seat Merri Ale House at the busy downtown intersection of Green and Merrimac streets is encountering opposition from several community organizations.

At a meeting of the Planning Board Wednesday night, objections were made to elements of the plan proposed by restaurant developer Joseph Leone at 40 Merrimac St., which until recently housed Davis Auto Parts. The property is located less than 100 yards from the waterfront.

Leone and his team have appeared before four boards, the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Historical Commission, the Waterfront Trust, and previously, the Planning Board.

None of the four panels has substantially opposed the project but spokespeople from at least two organizations on Wednesday expressed opposition to the plan in its current state.

Bill Harris, who said he represented the Newburyport Chapter 91 Citizens’ Committee, said that there has been a “lack of fair notice and due process” in the discussion of the property.

He said that numerous versions of Leone’s plan have been circulating among municipal decision-makers.

“Late-filed changes without copying interested parties has the effect of denying fair notice and due process,” said Harris, a lawyer and longtime waterfront watcher with special interest in the interests of the Waterfront Trust.

Harris urged the board to “re-publish and re-notice the Site Specific Plan and supporting documents.”

Harris also expressed concern that the expansive venue would create parking problems that could threaten three private boat excursion companies.

He said that visitors to the waterfront -- including those who buy tickets for waterfront — are important to the economic and cultural viability of the downtown.

Harris said that a parking displacement, traffic circulation and public safety study should be required because the applicant is providing no off-street parking and no shuttle to off-street parking.

Douglas Trees, an architect representing Leone, said that the Ale House development team has been using an October parking study which said that the area has an adequate amount of parking, with the exception of some summer days (18) when capacity is reached.

Elizabeth Heath, who heads the Committee for an Open Waterfront, said she concurred with the objections of Harris.

In addition, she expressed concern that the Ale House, when renovated, would impinge on the property and interests of the Waterfront Trust.

The Leone team has made numerous changes to its original plan as a result of requests by the four different boards. Indeed, they say that the request for changes means that its plan is constantly changing through no fault of theirs.

The venue developers have redrawn plans to facilitate a public walkway from Merrimac Street to the boardwalk on the east side of the structure; has moved the location of refrigeration units in accordance with the request of nearby property owners; and has made alterations they say will facilitate the movement of traffic.

Such changes appear to have gained the support of owners of the Brown’s Wharf office building, and some members of the Waterfront Trust.

Doug Locy, chairman of the Waterfront Trust, Wednesday night said that he wants the adjacent Riverside Park “to be more like a park,” and he indicated the public walkway and promised added foliage would enhance the value of the park.

In a letter to Leone dated April 12, Locy said, “This letter is to confirm that the Waterfront Trust agrees with and authorizes your proposal to construct a brick walkway and associated landscaping on its property . . . this will benefit residents and visitors that frequent the waterfront.”

The Planning Board took no action at the session, and Jim McCarthy, acting chairman, said that more discussion will take place at its next public meeting slated for Wednesday, May 15.

He said the board will be listening closely as part of its role of applying the city’s site-plan review regulations.

“Projects on the waterfront attract special interest,” said McCarthy, who chaired the panel after chairman Dan Bowie recused himself. “This is a complex project, and we will be listening to all speakers again (in May) as part of our role in representing the city.”