“Oh my god, we have a dirt parking lot!
“Oh no, what should we do?”
“Quick, cover it up with a hotel or condos!”
Why do we have a dirt parking lot 20 years after the hotel option was closed and the Old Port plan to build a road through the Waterfront Park was shot down? Why does the NRA only offer two options, do nothing or build large buildings? The answer is simple. The NRA organizational structure can only deal with two options. Leave it as a dirt lot or sell it and develop it.
There are two reasons for this. One, the NRA, with a handful of volunteer members, doesn’t have the mandate or resources to anything more. Secondly and most important, the NRA “owns” the property, creating barrier to any new ideas, funding sources and motivation for anyone to do something. The NRA works under the assumption that it must find a way to pay for any improvements, including adding on to the park. The only way to pay for it is to sell off the development rights. Even after several surveys that found that most people want minimal development and more park, the NRA can only pursue its single-minded course of action. It is following its mandate and its mandate was never to listen to the people.
While the NRA was perfectly capable at directing the downtown urban renewal, it is not designed to tackle building a park. Imagine what would have happened if an NRA-like board had been placed in charge of the abandoned rail lines. It is likely that the lines would have been sold off to abutters. In fact, one lot was. It took the creativity of citizen groups to envision what was possible. Without the passion that volunteers brought to the rail trail idea, the city would never have been motivated to find the funding. The rail trail is now the largest and most used park in the city and will double in size in a few years.
Imagine what might have happened 20 years ago if the NRA had turned the waterfront over to the city. The park would have evolved as the community found new and better ways to use it and fund it.
Parent groups would have formed to create and fund a playground just as they have done in playgrounds around the city. Sculptures and gardens that creative civic groups have championed would now extend into the NRA domain.
Interested groups would have suggested new ideas for using the waterfront. Exercise groups might ask to build a workout station. Chess groups might raise money for outdoor tables. Music or theater groups might raise funds for a small stage.
The city would have been motivated to institute paid parking as a funding source years ago. For 20 years, the city would have had the option to seek grants. Projects like the half million or so spent on the new granite curbs and paving of the Inn Street parking lot might have been redirected to the waterfront lot. Progress could have been made incrementally and still can be.
All of this is only possible if the city owns the waterfront. Building a park is a civil endeavor that needs a wide spectrum of ideas, volunteers and government initiative to succeed. The NRA can never bring those resources to the table. They have to fall back on the “sell land to pay the park” mandate.
There is no issue that will shape the future of our city more than the choosing the between the options of park or development. Our mayoral candidates can choose to let the NRA’s condo and shops shape the future of the city or let our civic organizations shape the future with a park that we can all be proud to visit. It is a choice between believing that we can or accepting that the politicians won’t try. I will be voting for the mayor and city councilors who can make the right choice to shut down the NRA.
Tom McCarty lives in Newburyport.