It’s been clear now for a while that the enormous Local Historic District proposed for Newburyport wasn’t going to pass the City Council. A compromise was needed if anything were to be salvaged from this year-long acrimonious battle over the LHD.
What City Councilor Kathleen O’Connor Ives has put on the table is a pretty good move in that direction, though we would argue that her proposal is still not quite right. What Newburyport ought to primarily salvage out of this LHD mess is a plan that protects the commercial downtown, and O’Connor Ives’ plan comes the closest to this that we have seen.
The downtown is the economic engine whose restoration in the 1970s set the city on the path to its current prosperity. It was the decision to preserve the historic downtown and maintain a unifying look of brick, mortar and complementary architecture that made the effort successful.
To achieve these goals, the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority put in place restrictions that were meant to protect the look of the downtown. Those protections expired a handful of years ago. They need to be restored, and a historic district is the right tool to do it.
Under the O’Connor Ives plan, the downtown would have stringent controls in place that would protect its historic character. These controls will ensure that there are not major alterations to the downtown landscape without the approval of the Historical Commission.
The boundaries of O’Connor Ives’ plan extends slightly beyond the commercial downtown, and this is where we believe it moves into some illogic. A number of homeowners will find themselves having to adhere to these strict regulations, simply because their homes are on side streets on the border of the downtown. While many of these homes are technically “historic” because of their age, they are not the grand dames of High Street and Fruit Street. Their inclusion in this zone doesn’t make sense.
Wholly excluded from the zone is the bulk of Steven Karp’s “Waterfront West” property that extends from Route 1 to the Black Cow restaurant, but it doesn’t appear to be necessary to include it. The city already has an “overlay” district in this area that encourages developers to build in a manner that complements the historic downtown.
Another key component of her plan is a broad demolition delay district that includes most of the historic area of the city, an area that encompasses thousands of buildings. Buildings in this area will be subject to a two-year delay on a demolition permit if the Historical Commission deems that the building has historic value. If the commission acts in a reasonable fashion, then this will be a valuable law on the books.
“Reasonable” means that there has to be a balance of interests, and a membership that operates in a professional and defendable way. It appears that O’Connor Ives’ proposal has sought to have a balanced board by mandating the inclusion of members representing a variety of professional backgrounds, such as architecture, real estate sales, the Chamber of Commerce and historic preservation. We think it could go further toward balance by mandating at least one or two people with hands-on experience with construction and restoration.
It’s good to see that the LHD proposal is edging toward a more acceptable middle ground. We’ll see what transpires over the next few weeks.