Do you ever get that sense of déjà vu? You know, that eerie, “I think I have been here before” sense of dread as if something ominous is just around the corner. I am feeling this once again as I read about the plans to sell off part of the downtown open space to developers.
If you haven’t given it much thought, I have a suggestion. Go to the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority website and download the proposed plan. Now, let’s take a walk. We will cross Merrimac at the Green Street intersection and begin walking toward the Firehouse Arts Center. Now look toward the water. You see the parking lot, but your eye doesn’t stop there. It continues to the boardwalk, then over the river to the Salisbury shore and onto the horizon.
Now, turn down the path to Market Landing Park on the waterfront. Look west, you see the Gillis Bridge. If it’s sunset, the sky is filled with pink and orange clouds. Keep walking. Make your way around the bandstand and back up the east path toward the Firehouse. Stop and look toward the mouth of the river. There is the parking lot in front of you, but beyond that is the harbormaster’s office and then the river and eastern horizon. You can see the boats coming in.
Walk out into the middle of the park. Look around. You see a green space bordered by trees and the low expanse of the parking lots. It is not paradise, but it gives you a feeling of openness. The sense of a park.
Now let’s fast-forward to post-NRA development and begin the walk again. On Merrimac, look toward the river. No, I’m sorry. Look up, 10 feet, 20 feet, 30 feet, 40 feet of new brickwork, shop windows and two floors of condominium balconies. As you walk along, you realize you are looking at one of the largest buildings in Newburyport. Keep walking down Merrimac into the park. Keeping walking and walking. The 40-foot wall of glass and brick is still there. You are drawn not to the park, but to the shops. Walk to the other side of the park and you find you are in the shadow of the same 40-foot wall of shops and condos.
Now walk out to the center of the park. What do you feel? When I did this walk, I felt Waterfront Park transformed into the front yard of a residential shopping district. What is this open space we have on the waterfront? It’s our central park, our downtown park, our commons. Enclosing the park with two long, 40-foot walls of shops and condos changes our perception of what it is. It becomes more like Inn Street than a common. The park becomes an extension of the shops and condos, not a refuge from them. It changes how we feel about the space. It is no longer public space, but private space the public is invited to use. It is a very different space from what we have today. It will change downtown Newburyport forever and forever is a long time.
We are not done with our tour yet. Now look where nobody wants you to look. Look behind the historic Unitarian Universalist church. What do you see? An expensive three-story parking garage. The parking ramps and stairways would, of course, be Federalist style in keeping with our historic downtown and perhaps have flower boxes on the edge of the rooftop parking level. While parking lot advocates seem to be on hiatus lately, once the condos are built, and the new 450-seat restaurant, and the new Karp hotel on Merrimac Street, and the new whatever is built at the flea market by the Custom House, the same people who are promoting the waterfront development will promote the parking garage. With it, and all the other changes, Newburyport as you know it will be gone. But you will be able to buy scented candles.
Marcel Proust said, “The true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.” He may have been thinking about public spaces the NRA is asking us to give up forever. A better idea is to give up the NRA. Its job was done some years ago. It is time for the city to take responsibility for the most important open space we have left.
Tom McCarty lives in Newburyport.