If there’s one new idea that has emerged from this election season that holds some fodder for the future, it’s the idea that perhaps the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority has run its course.
Mayoral candidate Dick Sullivan Jr. has floated the provocative idea of dismantling the NRA if it doesn’t conform to his plan for the waterfront —- Sullivan opposes development on the NRA’s downtown waterfront parcels. If elected mayor, he would likely see the NRA dissolved and its 4.2 acres of prime waterfront property returned to the city.
The NRA is the most vilified public board in the city’s recent past, the subject of much public disdain, if not outright hostility. We don’t see the NRA as a villain, more a victim of its own out-of-date mission statement and its esoteric makeup.
The NRA was born out of an entirely different era in the city, with a goal that no longer has the urgency that it once did. The NRA was charged with restoring economic vitality to the dying and decaying downtown, and spurring new growth by redeveloping the waterfront. It was given broad powers, such as the ability to take land, and was intended to be divorced from politics by having its members appointed, rather than elected. The NRA plan, conceived in the mid-1960s, was expected to be completed within a decade or so.
As we all know, history didn’t quite work out that way.
The NRA accomplished a singular goal that should be its lasting mark on the city. It spearheaded the restoration and revival of Newburyport’s historic downtown, creating vibrancy and longevity in a downtown that at one low point in the 1960s was eyed for complete demolition and a shiny new strip mall.
But the redevelopment of the NRA’s waterfront has been elusive, contentious and, in more recent years, very hard to sell to the public. Neither candidate for mayor supports the NRA’s present plan for its land, nor do the vast majority of city councilors running for office. They reflect the majority opinion of the citizens whom they have been engaging for votes. In short, the NRA plan lacks both public and political support. Those are two enormous strikes against it.
At the same time, the NRA has taken on a far more aggressive political stance in the city — hiring a public relations firm, sending out thousands of fliers and working with its grass-roots supporters to drum up citizen support.
The NRA board is aware this is a hard sell. Last week its chairman, Tom Salemi, echoed a position that aligned more or less with Mayor Donna Holaday — that the NRA would be amenable to getting rid of an underground parking garage and residential condos. Yet the NRA’s own study shows that the residential condos are essential to the project’s financial success. By bits and pieces, the plan is coming undone.
The problem for the NRA is it is held to a 1960s standard that has been turned on its ear in 2013 Newburyport. No one in the 1960s foresaw that waterfront parcels surrounding the NRA land would be bought up by a commercial developer — Steve Karp — who has the ability and land to create the kind of development that the NRA was tasked to accomplish. No one foresaw the city’s wealth and economy rebounding without any need for hotels and condos on the NRA’s prime land. No one envisioned such a change in the viewpoints and priorities of Newburyporters.
The NRA can’t really “end” its mission without developing its land in some way, and generating enough revenue to create the park and finished parking that the public wants.
Perhaps the best solution is to look at the NRA land absent the NRA’s mission. What do Newburyporters want to see on that land, and who can accomplish it? More than likely, that goal would be better realized if the city owned the land, and the people of the city had a direct say in its future by leaving the land’s fate in the hands of the mayor and City Council.