---- — I’m beginning to sense the need for a new pubic advocacy organization which, tongue firmly planted in cheek, I have dubbed POWER (Protect Our Waterfront from Erroneous Redevelopment). Right now it seems it would be an organization of only one (myself), but I hope others would be drawn to the cause. We would advocate for certain principles to govern the waterfront design, opposite those being followed by the NRA, yet different from COW’s regarding development. Together we would help to shape a more powerful vision of what the waterfront could become.
Principle No. 1: Keep the waterfront in the public’s hands, solely for public benefit, now and forever.
If I were a real estate developer, I would be salivating over the NRA’s plans to turn over significant parcels of the central waterfront to private developers. Who wouldn’t want exclusive private access to such prime (and extremely rare) waterfront real estate? Our waterfront is a priceless public asset, one we would be foolish to carve into pieces to sell to the highest bidder. No matter what price received, it would not be enough.
I’m not against any development whatsoever, only that which takes what is available for public use and makes it private. Hence Principle No. 1.
Principle No. 2: Preserve the open, airy feel.
To their credit, NRA revised their proposed design to respond to one of the objections that has been raised, namely the encroachment on existing parkland along the west parking lot. But standing on the rescued spot and seeing the footprint and height of the proposed buildings, I felt a visceral shock — a claustrophobic reaction to such a massive structure right in front of me. Union Studio believes that enclosing the park with three-story brick structures on three sides is a good thing. I disagree, and think that doing so completely changes the sense of space from a light, expansive feeling to a subdued, confining one.
Any new development should sit lightly on the land, using low-profile structures and light-enhancing materials. Hence Principle No. 2.
Principle No. 3: Plan holistically and collaboratively, integrating other community initiatives into a unified, strategically phased plan.
Treating waterfront plans in isolation places a huge constraint on the design, as it requires that any costs incurred on the waterfront be matched by revenues generated on the waterfront. Furthermore, it limits the reduction in parking that can be tolerated. Both of these constraints impose a severe burden on the design, making any solution sub-optimal and failing to realize the waterfront’s full potential for our community.
We will be living with whatever decisions are made for a very long time. Hence Principle No. 3.
My personal vision: Create a community focal point that draws residents and visitors alike to downtown and the waterfront, and showcases all that Newburyport has to offer.
In keeping with the above principles, below is an alternative I can envision that would maximize the waterfront’s value to the neighborhood and the community as a whole. It would need to be designed in collaboration with multiple stakeholders and implemented in phases, allowing time for funding and other details to be worked out and ensuring that all the pieces fit together. Key elements include:
With voter approval, the planned senior/community center would be relocated to the west NRA lot, along with an expanded year-round visitor center/public restrooms. The current Bresnahan site would be rezoned and sold to a developer as a means of generating funds for capital improvements and maintenance of the waterfront.
In keeping with other waterfront structures, the center would be two stories high, with upper and lower decks, and an exterior of clapboard or cedar shakes (similar to the look of the current public restrooms). The building would be designed to maximize the light and views and little, if any, of the existing landscaping would be disturbed.
The community center itself, and the waterfront as a whole, would offer a range of activities and services, designed to allow seniors and other residents, especially those with limited mobility, to spend much of the day on site throughout the year. Possibilities include a small lending library, convenience store, on-site lockers, Internet café, ATM, among others. All-day dining options include a café and/or food court, along with both indoor and outdoor dining tables (with umbrellas and second-story water views) open to the public throughout the day. Proximity to downtown shops and services would provide even more choices.
Done in phases, most public parking would gradually be shifted from the NRA parking lots to a nearby parking garage (opposite the potential Titcomb hotel site). Limited parking and drop-off areas would continue to be available on site. Future phases might provide a shuttle van to/from key points of interest for residents and/or visitors. As parking on the waterfront is released, the space would be redeployed to other public uses.
As space and funding became available, outdoor space next to the center might include botanical gardens, quiet space for reading and WiFi access, perhaps an area for lawn games. The east NRA lot would gradually be converted to other uses, such as a carousel, pavilions, marine uses and so forth. A visitors program would highlight points of interest and the calendar of activities — cultural, historical, natural, recreational and marine — on the waterfront and throughout the community.
This is just one person’s vision, and while the idea of a POWER organization was meant tongue-in-cheek, the principles are not. Others who subscribe to the POWER principles may have a different vision, and that’s OK. What’s important is that we unify around the principles to discourage the NRA from surrendering our most precious asset forever to narrow interests, rather than preserving it for all.
Mary Krajci lives in Newburyport.