, Newburyport, MA

February 28, 2013

NRA should be disbanded

As I See It
John Harwood

---- — It’s time the Newburyport Redevelpoment Authority wakes up and smells the 21st century.

The city sure did need redevelopment decades back. When I moved to Marlboro Street in 1987, neighbors told us of the days when banks would not even talk to them about a home mortgage in that neighborhood. Old-timers called that end of High Street “down along,” and it had been down all right. Andre Dubus III of Newbury describes those days in his “Townie – A Memoir.”

Redevelopment didn’t happen by just following the one-size-fits-all plan passed down from Washington. The authority started down the tear-it-all-down path, but then redirected its efforts — after listening to the people — and saved the historic city center.

During the decades since, Newburyport residents, and folks like me for whom the Port is my urban center, have grown to love the open waterfront and have resisted repeated efforts to construct buildings on it. Clearly, the NRA in 2013 is an anachronism that should be disbanded as soon as possible, after deeding its property to the city, leaving elected officials and citizens to consider the waterfront’s future.

Now Mayor Donna Holaday is seeking a compromise, just as she did with the proposed historic district. However, as important as compromise is, it isn’t always possible, as was the case with the recent proposed historic district and as is true with the waterfront.

The atmosphere isn’t right for finding a middle ground either, with the authority opening itself to charges of violating the state Open Meeting Law by giving at least the appearance of having some of its deliberations outside of a public meeting. Newbury and Newburyport officials haven’t done local governments’ rating any favors either by clamping a lid of secrecy on problems with the Plum Island water and sewer system.

Former Chairman James Shanley stepped down Feb. 13 from that leadership post, and new Chairman Tom Salemi was elected by the five-member board. Hopefully, this change is a sign that the authority now will listen to the people, acknowledge that the authority’s job was finished long ago, and help the city move on from the stalemate that has wasted a lot of energy for years and will only continue to do so.

Having caught up to the present requires us all to acknowledge that there is a new threat to the waterfront, one far more dangerous than more buildings and less open space. It’s even larger than the damage caused by one big storm, like a Sandy. Mayor Menino of Boston is calling on our oceanside capital city to prepare for sea level rise, part of climate change. Cities and towns around the Merrimack River’s mouth need to do the same.

Clearly, we need the same survey that has been done on New Hampshire’s little coast and for the Boston area, so we can know what the Atlantic has in mind, when it will occur and what its effects will be. The Newburyport waterfront will be in the forefront of these impacts.

In addition to the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority’s waterfront proposal, there’s also an expansion of waterfront services buildings and the development plans of Stephen Karp to consider. Surely this construction has to take sea level rise into consideration.

While our town and city officials and Plum Island property owners grapple with trying to protect threatened buildings and the water and sewer system on Plum Island, we are fortunate that a new group of scientists and citizens is forming to address sea level rise.

If you think compromise between the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority and the Committee for an Open Waterfront Inc. would be tough, try being on one side of the table with the Atlantic Ocean, Mother Nature and Earth on the other.


John Harwood of Newbury is a retired community journalist and a patriot.