NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

February 21, 2013

NRA plan doesn't fit Newburyport brand

Viewpoint
Jim McCauley

---- — I’d like to add my voice to the growing discussion about the NRA’s development plans for the waterfront lots. I came into this discussion with an open mind, but after studying the issue in depth in a “balanced” approach, I find the current NRA proposal to be the wrong one for Newburyport’s central waterfront.

I’m reminded of a similar proposal a few years back in which the city administration at that time worked with Mass DOT on a proposal to rebuild High Street. Mass DOT consulted with the city on a plan, would own the majority of the costs and the city would reap the benefits. And then we saw “the plan” that called for four lanes of traffic, no trees, etc. The opposition rally was “High Street not a High-way.” In short, the “standard” plan as proposed by the state agency did not fit with Newburyport and thus we did not move forward with that plan. I can’t help but see the striking parallel to the NRA working with MassDevelopment (and their team of consultants: Abramson Assoc., Union Studio, etc.). What might work in Boston, Cambridge or Marina Bay doesn’t fit the Newburyport brand, specifically our history of communal use of our waterfront.

Additionally, not only is the size and scope of the proposal out of proportion to the voters’ wishes, but more importantly, this project is non-compliant with every regulation enacted for clean water, tideland use restriction and other environmental issues (think highly contaminated soil meets Clean Water Act). This project, as presently defined, would subject the taxpayers of Newburyport to the potential of long-term litigation from federal and state agencies, citizens groups and the unlucky developer once all the restrictions are publicly disclosed.

To make its case, the NRA has consistently floated the notion that this project could be worth $20 million or more. The fact is the City of Newburyport would only see a small fraction (maybe 2 to 4 percent) of that money. The big money is made by the developer and those involved in selling the condos or the commercial space. In short, there is little to no long-term upside for the citizens/taxpayers for having a building on these lots. These lots are already generating revenue. The NRA currently takes in a bit less than $100K a year for their portion of parking revenues as a result of the city’s implementation of paid parking, which they are spending on consultants in support of this proposal.

In my opinion, the better way to move forward would be for the NRA committee to change tack and move on those items that can be addressed immediately (and on which we all seem to agree), namely, softened boundaries with the Waterfront Trust park, more efficient layout of parking, inclusion of the path to the waterways (in agreement with the Waterfront Trust) as well as the linkage for the rail trail paths. Also, I’d propose the inclusion of a “flex” area that can support rental opportunities for civic/group functions (think temporary tents for weddings/corporate events, or pop-up stores/kiosks with food stands, mobile-retail, etc.). With the combination of paid parking, plus fees for the use of the “flex” space, this area could generate as much revenue (for the city) as with commercial buildings. With a bit of focus and a new cooperative spirit, all this could be accomplished by Yankee Homecoming of 2013! (OK, maybe 2014), which would then allow for the NRA to stand under their version of a “Mission Accomplished” banner, declare the lot “developed,” transfer ownership to the city and finally cease to exist.

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Jim McCauley lives in Newburyport