What do you want Newburyport to be?
That question hovered over the dozens of speakers at Tuesday’s City Council meeting as they shared their thoughts on the 4.2 acres owned by the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority. Everyone agreed adding to our existing Market Landing Park is wise, but the disagreement that arose of the proposal to add buildings to a small, street-side portion of the lots raised this overarching question.
What do we want Newburyport to be?
Those professing their love for a sea of green along the waterfront have answered this question. They want Newburyport to be what it is — or even what it was. A suburbanish community with a downtown that swings between sleepy and lively. No doubt, the city comes alive during the summer when the cooling sea breezes and refreshing waters draw visitors to Plum Island’s beaches and the downtown’s shops and restaurants.
Expanding Market Landing park alone won’t change things. Our city is rich in waterfront access, blessed with green walkways stretching along Cashman Park, the boardwalk, Market Landing Park and a rail trail plan that will carry folks all the way to Joppa Flats and beyond (and I’m not even counting the views from Maudslay or Moseley). I’m so thankful for that. The NRA lots — if covered in grass — would hardly be the beginning or end of our recreational waterfront; the two lots merely would serve as a way station for people enjoying our growing lush waterfront span.
At best, the sea of green would serve as a oversized pendant on our city’s growing emerald necklace. At worst, the park could choke a fragile downtown. Park-only advocates fail to acknowledge that inserting a wide span of open space in the center of Newburyport’s downtown actually could drive a wedge between our existing downtown and any future plans Steven Karp may have for the Waterfront West sites.
With Michael’s and the Black Cow — the only two waterfront-centered restaurants downtown — as anchors, Mr. Karp could build a stretch of shops rivaling State Street, Pleasant Street and Market Square. This collection of shops would be situated between a parking garage on Titcomb Street and mostly likely a state regulation-imposed stretch of green or public space along the river. Businesses in Newburyport’s “old” downtown could be left out in the cold as private developers build new fortunes along the waterfront.
It’s understandable why many of those pushing for completely open lands along the water hold the position. They view our downtown through a prism shaped decades ago when our downtown was restored. But we should move past that viewpoint.
Voters in the November election clearly favored candidates with a vision. Mayor Donna Holaday earned a powerful endorsement from voters. Every at-large candidate who agreed with Mayor Holaday’s plan won. Three of the six ward candidates who agreed with Mayor Holaday won. (Both Ward 3 candidates opposed her view. City Council President Thomas O’Brien ran unopposed.) One member of the Committee for an Open Waterfront — the primary proponent of NRA and city plans — ran for an at-large seat and came in dead last.
Voters asked us to bypass the past and to develop a plan that broadens our tax base by strengthening our downtown. A park-only plan might complete the story in the minds of some. But a sea of green that we already can’t afford to build or to maintain won’t bolster a downtown and community already blessed with waterfront access. Many advocates for the expanded park plan point to Portsmouth’s Prescott Park as an example we should follow. But Portsmouth’s strength and appeal isn’t centered in a remote green space but in its vibrant downtown. We can have the same.
What do I want Newburyport to be? I’d like to see stretches of historic, charming homes running along well-maintained sidewalks and streets. I’d like our school curriculum to match the excellence of our new school buildings. And I’d like to see an enlarged, vibrant downtown rich in restaurants, shops, businesses and, yes, a stretch of unrivaled green space stretching from the Towle Building to Joppa Flats, all contributing to our city’s overall health.
What about you?
Tom Salemi is chairman of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority.