NEWBURYPORT — Architects, city planners and municipal officials last night made public a proposal to develop two buildings and more parkland on the central waterfront, and publicly expressed reaction from the crowd of over 200 was overwhelmingly supportive.
“This is the best proposal that has ever come along,” said one listener. “Where was this plan years ago?” asked another.
Though the suggestion of making changes on the waterfront has been discussed for several decades, a capacity crowd at the Firehouse Center for the Arts indicated few have lost interest. Every seat was occupied, and late-arriving residents were forced to stand in the doorways to get a peek at the colorful presentation of what the park could look like.
Under discussion was 4.2 riverfront acres controlled by the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, most of which is now used as parking lots.
The NRA, in conjunction with MassDevelopment, a quasi-public state economic agency, has retained Union Studio of Providence to conceive of a plan to improve the acreage.
Though about a dozen proponents of an “open waterfront” — with no changes — held signs outside the venue prior to the meeting, virtually all of the comments during the public-comment session reflected support for a new approach as put forth in the NRA presentation.
Indeed, when Donald Powers, the principal of Union Studio, finished his adroitly illustrated presentation, the applause was spirited — and sustained.
Michael Early, a Newburyporter who operates a livery, was impressed with the plans and praised the NRA for showing initiative and guts. He said the opinion of 80 to 90 percent of his fares is that Newburyport’s waterfront ought to be completed.
Some, such as David Strand, asked how the public could help see the plan through.
The plan faced some critical questions. Janet Marcus, a former NRA chairwoman, questioned whether the planning team’s statement was correct that enough money would be raised by the sale or lease of the building sites to pay for improvements to the land, and whether a dedicated stream of revenue could be set up in perpetuity to pay for maintenance.
There was also criticism of a plan to run the city’s bike trail through the middle of the waterfront park.
Though much of the design work has been done by Union Studio and MassDevelopment, city officials have also been closely involved.
Andy Port and Geordie Vining, the city’s top planners, expressed support not only for proposed commercial development but for extension of the community’s popular rail trail through the expanded park.
And Mayor Donna Holaday, who answered questions at the two-hour convocation, said she is impressed with these plans for change.
“This plan feels right,” said Holaday. “Everyone wants the best for the waterfront and we all want an open waterfront, but we need to enhance it.
“I was timid (about changes) at first because the price tag of the park was always a problem. But as this plan developed, I began to listen. A lot of thought has gone into this. I hope that the residents will listen to what is being proposed.”
The plan is designed to expand green space, adding trees and foliage.
It also calls for two commercial buildings on either side of the Firehouse, which would be developed by the firm that is chosen through the upcoming Request for Proposals process.
At least one detail has not been finalized: It hasn’t been determined whether the city will sell or lease land to the developer that wins the bid for construction.
Planners said the structures would be about three stories, with retail and restaurants on the ground floor and the top two floors designed as residential units. Parking would be under the buildings.
Almost all in attendance were seeing these buildings for the first time. But few expressed opposition to ceding a small percentage of NRA land for a significant gain in appearance and sustainability.
Some who lauded the presence of commercial buildings called for a hotel near the riverfront, an idea which also has a history here.
But municipal leaders and planning professionals alike quickly stated that a hotel is not being considered.