NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

September 16, 2013

Election brings officials' voices to waterfront discussion

Newburyport City Notebook
Dyke Hendrickson

---- — Two events this week should jolt the worlds of the municipally apathetic: a preliminary mayoral election tomorrow and a borings report from the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority on Wednesday.

Residents filled the Firehouse Center for the Arts at a mayoral forum Thursday to hear three candidates discuss their visions for the city.

Your Scribe was pleasantly surprised to see the performances of Councilors Greg Earls and Dick Sullivan Jr. — not because of low expectations but because they rarely talk in public, and both were articulate before a crowd that overflowed the 192-seat venue.

The job of the city councilor here is one that stresses committee work and offers few opportunities to pontificate.

Earls and Sullivan were well-spoken in giving their reasons for opposing commercial development on the waterfront. Mayor Donna Holaday said that “limited” commercial construction will help link the downtown with the river and park.

Hearing discourse about the central waterfront from elected representatives was refreshing.

For the past year, the most prominent voices have been those of the five-member NRA, which favors commercial development, and its opponents, the Committee for an Open Waterfront.

Both the NRA and COW are composed of members who are not elected by voters. So to hear two councilors and a sitting mayor provide their visions of the waterfront’s future suggested that the waterfront debate is getting serious.

Earls remarked that if the city utilizes parking receipts and a revenue bond, “We could start a new park in April.” He estimated that an expanded park would cost about $2 million.

Sullivan said that with New England Development destined to create commercial buildings near the river, “Someday we’ll be happy we kept this space open.”

Holaday did not define what she means by “limited” development. Earlier in the week, she had written that she did not want condos to be part of construction there.

But if there are no condos, it’s back to the drawing board for the NRA and its architect-consultant, Union Studio of Providence.

Caveat: The belief on the street is that the NRA doesn’t need the approval of the mayor or the council to pursue its plans. The NRA does own the 4.2 acres in question.

But as one City Hall observer said last week, “For the NRA to get permits for zoning, soil quality and actual building without the support of City Hall and all its attendant boards, that will be tough to do.”

Some notable moments from Thursday night’s forum:

Earls and Sullivan both said they’d like to put Kelley School on the market and move its youth activities to the Brown School when the latter closes in June. City Council President Tom O’Brien favors that move as well.

Little known fact: According to Holaday, 46 property owners are doing tasks for the city in order to have $1,000 loped off their real estate taxes through a tax work-off program.

Earls suggested a $5 million bond (if approved by referendum) to fix streets and sidewalks in a planned, comprehensive way.

Meanwhile, NRA chair Tom Salemi says that the NRA will present results from test borings on the east and west parking lots at its Wednesday meeting. Engineers who worked on the project are scheduled to be on hand to explain the results.

The NRA perhaps will introduce data that supports its tentative vision of 70,000 square feet in three buildings.

But what if the city elects a mayor who doesn’t want development? Or one who wants “limited” development with no condominium units or underground parking? Yes, there’s something grand about democracy.

Due to the preliminary and general election, the conversation about the central waterfront has been much enriched.

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

Tonight

Newburyport Housing Authority, 5 p.m., 25 Temple St.

Board of Water Commission, 5:30 p.m., 16A Perry Way

School Committee meeting, conversation with the public, 6:30 p.m., Room 118, Newburyport High School

School Committee business meeting, 7 p.m., Room 118, Newburyport High School

River Valley Charter School Committee on Trustees, 7 p.m., 2 Perry Way

Tuesday

Conservation Commission, 6:30 p.m., City Council chambers, City Hall

Wednesday

Bartlet Mall Commission, 6 p.m., City Hall

Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, 7 p.m., Newburyport library

Planning Board, 7 p.m., City Council chambers, City Hall

River Valley Charter School, 7 p.m., 2 Perry Way

Thursday

Bartlet Mall Commission, 5:30 p.m., City Hall

Board of Health, 6 p.m., 4 Green St.

Parks Commission, 7 p.m., City Hall

Historical Commission, 7:30 p.m., City Council chambers, City Hall

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