, Newburyport, MA

February 19, 2013

A way to keep central waterfront open

Newburyport Daily News

---- — To the editor:

When the U.S. government funded the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority in the ‘60s, an early action taken was hiring a real estate consultant to enable the acquisition for renewal of the core of our city. That person was my dad, Roger W. Foster.

In the late ‘70s I became involved in the ascent of Newburyport as Foster Properties, Ltd. and renovated five buildings on State Street, extending from Market Square to the Phoenix Building. As part of that renovation the Phoenix Room was returned to public service, and the Phoenix Office Suites were built.

In 1986, with the NRA’s downtown renewal completed and thriving, Foster Properties and Nielsen Architects answered the NRA’s request for proposals (RFP) to develop the central waterfront. One year later Foster Properties was designated as the NRA’s developer, beating out 10 other teams.

The ‘90s brought opposition to a waterfront hotel. Lawyers got involved, and in what now seems like a mere flash of time, I found myself on the other side of 11 years, and over $1 million invested. I defended my beliefs before 13 judges, winning over all of them, except the last. The NRA then terminated their contract with me. With this history in mind, it is my worst fear that we will all become ancestors before our waterfront gets solved.

There is another option, another way forward.

Within the bundle of rights the NRA holds in its waterfront land, there are two valuable assets: its land and its right to develop that land. These are two distinct, separable and transferrable assets.

Consider these facts and logic: The zoning envelope of any real estate is defined by zoning bylaws. As an example: In answering the NRA’s RFP in 1987, we stayed within the zoning envelope and designed 160,000 square feet of hotel, retail, office and residential space. The NRA approved our plan under those bylaws. Though Newburyport zoning has since changed, for sake of discussion, the metrics of the envelope are similar. If the NRA chooses, and the city approves, there could be a transfer of development rights (TDR) to any other location in Newburyport.

The value of the TDR is quantifiable and could be granted in many forms: assigned to designated areas like the Route 1 traffic circle, the industrial park, allocated to affordable housing or sold to one or more developers. Ultimately, there are many possibilities, determined by the will of the people, and written into the city’s laws.

Consider that 160,000 square feet of quality construction costs about $350 per square foot. Depending on how this idea is implemented, the cost of build-out could be about $56 million. The residual value of the development rights owned by the NRA would be about 15 percent, or approximately $8 million.

Yes, Newburyport’s density would increase, but instead of new buildings on the central waterfront, the volume gets spread throughout the city, so the impact is nearly invisible. The result could be $700,000 in annual tax revenue.

The NRA’s potential purse is enough to keep the central waterfront open, build a world-class park and endow it forever. Reflecting on 50 years of NRA successes, there has never been an easy meeting or an easy decision. This is difficult stuff, but consider the scale of the dream. There is a way.

Roger Foster