, Newburyport, MA

September 16, 2007

Parcel 8: Urban renewal’s only new building in downtown Newburyport

Victor Tine

Newburyport’s claim to fame is the restoration of its historic downtown buildings, but there is one piece of new construction in the 22-acre urban renewal area.

Merrimack Landing at 1 Merrimac St., opposite the Firehouse Center for the Arts, was completed in 1984, but not before three other development projects were tried and failed on what was known for many years as urban renewal Parcel 8.

Parcel 8 was created in 1968 when the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority demolished six or seven vacant buildings that had formerly housed George Gagalis’ barber shop, Ruthie’s Diner and Al’s 66 Service Center gas station on Merrimac Street, and Burke’s Furniture and the Newburyport Hotel on the corner of what was once Bartlet Street. What was left was a vacant lot, 240 feet long, between Market Square and Unicorn Street, about 17,500 square feet in area.

The first Parcel 8 development proposals were received in September 1971. Eight months later, on April 11, 1972, the NRA selected the Merrimack and Atlantic Co. of Salem to develop the land.

In stark contrast to the historic brick buildings nearby, Merrimac and Atlantic planned to construct a modern concrete and glass structure that occupied all 240 feet of the lot. The ground floor was reserved for retail use — including a bank with a drive-through window — and offices would occupy the third floor, but the developers said they were flexible about the uses on the middle floor.

The planned building cantilevered as it rose to its three-story height: the first floor was 56 feet wide, the second 70 feet and the topmost floor 79 feet — faced with concrete.

Publication of a photograph of a design model set off a wave of protest that reached all the way to Washington, D.C.

While petitions objecting to the structure and counter-petitions supporting development circulated through the city, the NRA asked the urban renewal project’s federal sponsoring agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Renewal, for a ruling on the parcel’s relationship to the adjacent Market Square Historic District.

The local Historical Commission and recently formed citizens’ group Friends of the Newburyport Waterfront also requested that the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation study the applicability of the National Historic Preservation Act on the proposed development.

On Sept. 21, 1972, then-Mayor Byron Matthews and other city officials traveled to Washington to discuss the situation with Sens. Edward Brooke and Edward Kennedy, and Congressman Michael Harrington.

That same day, HUD sent a telegram to the NRA, instructing the authority not to convey the land to the developer “until further notice.”

But the very next day, in apparent defiance of the HUD directive, Matthews ordered a building permit issued to Merrimack and Atlantic Corp. Excavation of the building’s foundation began soon afterward.

A “Preliminary Determination of Adversity” report was issued by the National Advisory Council on Sept. 26 and forwarded to HUD, which asked the council to discuss the matter further. The council scheduled a hearing in Washington in mid-November.

The Friends of the Waterfront attempted without success to obtain a court order halting work on the site.

After two days of hearings, the National Advisory Council issued a final report, finding the Parcel 8 design “incompatible” with the neighboring historic district.

The report put the ball back in HUD’s court and, in January 1973, the department advised the NRA to “reduce the incompatibility.”

In April, the authority agreed to draw up an environmental impact statement on the project and ordered construction stopped until the report was completed. Officials of Merrimack and Atlantic told the authority they would have to “re-examine” their participation in the project.

The site remained a large hole in the ground for more than a year. In July 1974, it was filled in.

After repeated inquiries to Merrimack and Atlantic, asking for clarification of its status as developer, the NRA finally “de-designated” the company on Jan. 8, 1976.

Parcel 8 became an auxiliary parking area next to the 212-space Green Street Municipal Lot.

Next week: Part 2 of this story.