BY DYKE HENDRICKSON
---- — NEWBURYPORT — It would be unusual for a restaurant proposal to go unnoticed when it calls for 591 seats in one of the busiest sections of the city.
Restaurateur Joe Leone appeared at a public hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals Tuesday night seeking a “special permit for non-conformities” so he can convert a structure at 40 Merrimac St. into an eatery and bar, tentatively called the Newburyport Ale House.
The building is at the base of Green Street, and until recently housed Davis Auto Parts. Leone proposes to offer 591 seats in summer (with outdoor deck) and about 350 in the colder months. This was a higher capacity than had formerly been announced.
His proposal was opposed by some and questioned by others, and in the end the ZBA continued the matter until late February.
Leone and his team have also appeared before the Waterfront Trust and the Historical Commission.
Leone currently operates the Black Cow restaurant on the riverfront and the Black Cow in Hamilton. City officials say he bought the building at 40 Merrimac St., but he leases the Black Cow here.
Lawyer Lisa Mead, representing property owner David Murphy, a principal in the Brown’s Wharf building to the rear of Leone, said that the restaurant would be “detrimental to the neighborhood.”
She expressed concerns that refrigerator units and docking facilities at the rear of the structure would “add to the building’s footprint” and generate noise and traffic.
Mead added that a venue of this size would call for 147 parking spaces, which she suggested would mean that many visitors to the waterfront wouldn’t have space to put their cars.
The Ale House would be one of the largest restaurants in the city; the largest existing restaurant, Michael’s Harborside, offers about 440 seats in summer.
Leone, who spoke sparingly at the hearing, indicated that he and Murphy had been unable to come to agreement on where cars could be parked, and thus had not been in communication.
However, the architect that Leone has retained, Douglas Trees of Hamilton, said that Leone and his team would work with neighbors on parking and with concerns about refrigeration and a loading dock.
Another speaker at the hearing was Bill Harris, a veteran of waterfront issues here, who said he is concerned that restaurant guests might displace those who come to the riverfront to patronize boating activities.
Harris, who said he was representing the Friends of Newburyport (a citizens’ group organized several decades ago), called for the city and for private interests to work to develop solutions for more parking.
He quoted a recent study that said parking in the lot of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church off Green Street might be considered as a off-site lot for visitors.
Harris, who stated he was also representing a group called the Newburyport Chapter 91 Citizens’ Committee, offered a six-page, 25-point package of comments regarding uses of the building at 40 Merrimac St. and for the acreage.
Several speakers at the hearing said they could support the restaurant proposal if alterations in plans are made.
Doug Locy, co-chair of the Waterfront Trust, said his organization is working with Leone to ensure that a walkway is maintained from Merrimac Street to the river.
And some residents, including Peter Fitzsimmons and Bill Taplin, said the opening of a restaurant in an empty building could result in a gain for the city.
But they said they would like to learn more about how the venue would mesh with other developments in that part of the riverfront.
Others asked how the commercial project proposed by the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority nearby would fit into the scenario of a large restaurant taking its share of parking places.
Indeed, the discussion of the Ale House application appeared to revive issues that have come up in recent months: The city is drawing more visitors, it needs to provide adequate parking and coordinated planning should take place so that the result provides a win-win situation for those of both commercial and residential interests.