, Newburyport, MA

May 1, 2013

Finding a compromise on the waterfront

Newburyport Daily News

---- — What should Newburyport’s central waterfront look like? And more importantly, what is it that the majority of Newburyporters want?

The first question may have as many answers as there are residents. But the second question has shown a trend of opinions that should be the guiding light.

This year could be a pivotal one for the 4.2 acre parcel on the city’s waterfront, owned by the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority. The five-member public board has advanced a concept to build two large buildings on its property, while leaving the rest of the land for grassy parks and parking. It’s a major departure from plans the NRA has proposed in the past, plans that have focused on large-scale hotels, retail, residential, and even convention center-type development.

Last week, the NRA’s most vocal critic, the Committee for and Open Waterfront, or COW, presented its counter plan. It was what one might expect from COW -- no buildings at all, with the land turned over to a sizable public park and a parking lot.

These are dueling visions of the waterfront. They are not as far apart as they once were in the past, yet they do not gel together at all.

We think both sides have some practical foundations. In between these positions, a solution should be reached. In the end, the best outcome for Newburyport will be completing the redevelopment of the waterfront, a saga that has been in the works for 45 years.

One of the strongest arguments in favor of COW’s position is public opinion. It’s safe to say that the overall results from surveys taken in the past favor limited, or no, development on the waterfront. But unfortunately, surveys are not crystal clear indicators. Both the pro-development and pro-open sides can legitimately pick out strings of data that support their arguments.

The bottom line is, letting surveys dictate public policy is not a good way to make decisions.

The current pulse of public opinion has not been tested, though an argument can be made that the mayoral election of 2009 was an indicator of the public’s mindset. There were very few issues on which the two candidates, Donna Holaday and James Shanley, differed. The key split between them was the waterfront — Holaday favored an open waterfront, while Shanley favored limited development. Holaday won that election by a healthy margin, and certainly the open waterfront was a notable component in her win.

Holaday sees the NRA plan as fitting with her vision of an open waterfront, a position that COW and others sees as a change from her election platform. We agree -- we think the general public considers an “open waterfront” to be an NRA parcel that has no buildings on it.

Yet for practical purposes, it may not be possible to redevelop the NRA land and keep an open waterfront. And in the end, it is not the best use of the land.

Downtown Newburyport has become a tourist destination and a tourist/visitor economy. It requires the kind of infrastructure that tourists expect -- a central information center and public bathrooms for starters. A section of the NRA land would be a good spot for this.

Another practicality is how to pay for the new parks. COW’s arguments that there are grants available is thin. If anything, the flow of grants for large scale projects has become much weaker in the past several years, and it is hard to imagine that it would increase in the future.

A park will be an expensive proposition, and the NRA’s plan at least addresses that point in a reasonable manner. A limited retail/residential area, unobtrusively sited, would provide real money to fund it. It would also help provide some vibrancy and life between the water’s edge and the downtown.

There are some key factors involving the waterfront that are unknown, yet will have major impacts on the NRA land -- for instance, what will developer Steve Karp do with his land on either end of the waterfront? What impact on parking will we see from the proposed ale house on Merrimac Street? Will ground boring tests on the NRA land throw a wrench in the NRA’s development plans?

These details will play out in the months to come. Hopefully, the end result will be the completion of the NRA’s mission.