, Newburyport, MA

March 29, 2013

Residents have always vetoed waterfront development

Janet Marcus

---- — I was deeply dismayed by the letter of Tom Salemi, newly minted chair of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, because of his apparent lack of information about the history of public response to plans for the NRA property.

As a member of the NRA in 2002-2007 and chair in the years 2005-2007, I would like to provide readers with the information that Mr. Salemi omitted. I was chair when the NRA surveyed the public in 2006, the survey that he criticizes as incomplete because the questions were limited to parking and park. Let me tell you why the questions were limited.

There have been three surveys to measure public opinion about the waterfront. The first was a referendum at the polls in 1987 which asked three questions. The first asked whether there should be a mixed-used development of the waterfront. The responses: 4,377, no; 1,004 yes. The second asked whether there should be a 100-room hotel along with an expanded park and improved parking: 3,171, no, 2,308, yes. The third question asked whether the respondents favored keeping the entire waterfront open with expanded park and landscaped parking. The answers: 4,132, yes; 1,434, no. Resounding support for an open waterfront.

In 2000, the NRA mailed a survey along the annual census to 7,820 households; 4,011 responded, an extraordinarily high response for a marketing survey. Again, residents were asked three questions:

(1) Commercial development only, 296; (2) park development only, 2,001; (3) park and commercial, 1,497; (4) other, 217. Add responses to questions (1) and (3), where some commercial development is supported, you get 1,793 votes, notably fewer that the 2,001 who wanted to keep the waterfront without commercial development.

The mayor and council funded a master plan for Newburyport in 2000. This document assumed that the waterfront properties would be developed as a park and for improved but reduced parking, all to be financed by parking fees and foundation grants. Bluestone, the master planner, put a price tag on it, nothing like the $5 million that the NRA throws around.

In the years 2002 to 2007, all five NRA members assumed that the public wanted the waterfront open, based on the overwhelming and consistent results of the two public surveys and the council approval of the master plan. The only question remaining was how much park and how much parking. We decided in 2006 to mail another survey along with the census. There was no need to ask about commercial development at that time, since development had been soundly defeated in the previous two surveys.

Mr. Salemi also makes reference to a survey mailed to business owners (was that in 2000? He doesn’t say). Very few business owners live in Newburyport; many live in New Hampshire and don’t pay Massachusetts income taxes. Most of them don’t own the buildings they work in. The NRA has been quick to criticize the Committee for an Open Waterfront (COW) because a few members, who own property in Newburyport, are residents of another town. The NRA suggests that COW is a foreign intruder. The same applies to business owners. Who of you know a retail business owner who resides in Newburyport?

I would like to add that Roger Foster, who authored a letter to this page this year, sued the NRA on the theory that he had a contract to build a hotel on the east lot. After several years of litigation and the expenditure of $175,000 in legal fees the NRA successful in defeating his claim in 2000. The present NRA is undoing the work of prior NRA’s.

Mr. Salemi responds to criticism that four NRA members are not publicly accountable because they are appointees of the mayor, not elected. He does not mention that the mayor who appointed them won her first and second elections on a platform espousing no development on the waterfront. All of her four appointees should be supporting her platform for an open waterfront, meaning no commercial development. The fifth member is a governor’s appointee but governors appoint that member only after consulting the mayor. Voters in Newburyport are confounded by the mayor’s change of heart about commercial development on the NRA property after having successfully won two elections on a platform of no development.

What the NRA is failing to do, after criticizing past surveys, is to conduct a survey of its own to test public opinion about its proposals. Mr. Salemi claims that the surveys done in the past are old and therefore no longer valid. How about testing the public waters and conducting a new survey? Is the NRA afraid of the outcome if they do so?


Janet Marcus is a Newburyport resident.