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 We don’t see the NRA as a villain, more a victim of its own out-of-date mission statement and its esoteric makeup.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.