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September 3, 2007

Third time not the charm for Newburyport waterfront

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Editor’s note: This is the third story in a series on the waterfront’s development.

In early March 1989, Newburyport’s Board of Appeals awarded local developer Roger Foster the zoning variances he needed to build a hotel on the city’s central waterfront.

A leading opponent of the plan, City Councilor Laura Rowe, was asked for her reaction to the board’s ruling.

“We’ve lost the battle, but we haven’t lost the war,” she replied.

She got that right.

The Newburyport Redevelopment Authority’s third — and so far final — attempt to develop the central waterfront turned into a protracted war of attrition that, like the two previous efforts, ended in failure.

Even by Newburyport urban renewal standards, it was a lengthy process.

After a hotel-and-condominium development collapsed in 1985, the NRA went back to the drawing board. A new request for proposals was issued in 1986, and no fewer than nine development groups responded.

After a round of interviews in early 1987, the field was trimmed to four. A group headed by Roger Foster, who owned a number of buildings on State Street, was selected in September.

Foster’s original plan showed an 80-room hotel to the west of Market Landing Park and seven Federal-style commercial buildings to the east.

“It was without question the highest point in my career,” Foster said in a recent interview. “It was the beginning of the biggest business challenge I’ve ever faced.”

Obstacles started popping up almost immediately. Rowe and a number of other advocates of public access to the Merrimack River had formed the Committee for an Open Waterfront and succeeded in placing a series of nonbinding referendum questions about development on the November municipal election ballot.

While pro-development candidate Edward Molin handily won the mayoral election, the nonbinding referendum questions showed local voters to be overwhelmingly opposed to waterfront development. A “no development” option captured 75 percent of the votes. Voters defeated an option for a “hotel-and-mixed-use” package by a similar margin. A “hotel-only” option was also defeated, but by a somewhat smaller margin.

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