, Newburyport, MA

May 14, 2013

Bennett calls for change in NRA plans


---- — NEWBURYPORT — A major business owner on Water Street has entered the debate about the central waterfront by suggesting that bricks-and-mortar development take place not along the river but on 11 acres of available land near the Route 1 rotary.

Jacalyn Bennett, president of women’s lingerie and nighttime apparel manufacturer Bennett and Company, said she has met with Mayor Donna Holaday and other city officials to argue for open space on the riverfront and the creation of affordable housing on land currently owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority adjacent to the commuter rail line.

At issue is 4.2 waterfront acres owned by the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority. Though she has no official standing in the discussion about the waterfront’s future, she said she is urging all parties to find a compromise that includes the MBTA acreage.

“We can and should come together as a community,” Bennett said yesterday. “We do not need to make someone wrong in order to be right.”

Her search for compromise has resulted in photos, charts and specifics on how competing interests can achieve what they want.

She said that the NRA, whose initial tentative vision called for 30 to 35 condominiums, would have its opportunity to develop shops and residences on the 11 acres. The Committee for an Open Waterfront would realize its goal of keeping the acreage free from structures.

The NRA has full authority regarding what happens to the land. Members are currently waiting for test borings on the riverfront to determine the viability of developing structures there.

The NRA has been considering a tentative plan by Union Studio of Providence that would include shops, restaurants, public spaces and condominium units totaling about 70,000 square feet.

NRA members say the income generated by the development of commercial structures would enable the NRA to enlarge the current park by enhancing open space and saving some parking.

COW recently brought forth its tentative vision that calls for more grass, berm and trees but no buildings.

Bennett’s proposal comes in advance of a meeting Thursday to be hosted by MBTA officials, who are attempting to interest developers in the 11 acres it owns — but would like sell.

According to MBTA officials, “An invitation to bid for land at the MBTA Newburyport Commuter Rail Station is now available. Interested parties are invited to a pre-bid meeting at the TRA offices at 77 Franklin Street, 9th Floor Boston, on May 16, 2013, at 1 p.m.”

City officials for years have been touting the Route 1 circle as an area where “smart growth” can occur. They say that cluster housing near a transportation line would be appealing, especially if some units were designated as affordable housing.

But the MBTA has been unable to interest developers. Last year, for instance, real estate specialists of the MBTA received no bids after the parcel was advertised in the construction community.

Though the MBTA parcel totals 11 acres, only about half of that amount cannot be built upon because of wetlands issues, according the state officials.

The suggestion of developing MBTA land was recently raised by onetime developer Roger Foster. He suggested that the NRA transfer its development authority from the 4.2 acres on the riverfront to the 11 acres near the train station.

But Foster, like Bennett, lacks an official standing in the discussion of the waterfront’s future.

The disposition of the central waterfront has been a contentious issue for decades.

The ball appears to be in the court of the NRA, which is waiting for soil borings to begin. The NRA has chosen an engineering firm but work has not yet begun.

Tom Salemi, chairman of the NRA, yesterday said, “I am grateful she (Bennett) is involved, but I don’t know that we have a place out there (Route 1 rotary). We’re not interested in adding anything to our plate right now.”

Elizabeth Heath, who heads the COW organization, said, “My concern, and that of COW, is reflected in the mission statement of the Committee for an Open Waterfront, which reads: ‘To assure the preservation of an open central waterfront, free from additional buildings and structures, on the shores of the Merrimack River in the City of Newburyport; and to preserve public access to the open central waterfront, on the shores of the Merrimack River in the City of Newburyport; and to maintain unobstructed views of the Merrimack River from Merrimac, Water and Green Streets.’

“Whatever serves those goals is of interest to me.”

The perspective of Bennett, a wealthy apparel executive who owns several buildings overlooking the river, could result in another influential voice in the discussion. Bennett has been actively involved in the long saga of Newburyport’s waterfront development. She fought successfully in court against a plan to build a hotel next to her Water Street property.

She said she funded the recent “explanatory” film that COW is showing to amplify its open-space concept.

And Bennett said she would be willing to pay for architectural renderings for an expanded visitor center that she envisions on Merrimac Street.

She said that developing land away from the city (Route 1 rotary) would result in “vision and positive-phased planning in the right place at the right time.”