, Newburyport, MA

July 25, 2013

Return NRA land to historical waterfront uses

Janet Marcus

---- — At the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority’s third public presentation of its plan for constructing privately owned buildings, now up from two to three, on the waterfront, Don Power of Union Studios, the NRA consultant, spent 40 minutes repeating a generalized and tightly controlled presentation of waterfront history, the same old, same old that he presented at the previous two events.

In all three presentations, he chose to show the waterfront at the end of the 19th century until 1960, about 80 years worth of history, the only period when the property had dense industrial development. He purposely omitted the prior 250 years of waterfront history. The railroad on the waterfront, which permitted its industrial development, did not exist until the last quarter of the 19th century.

He also omitted references to those American communities that have, in the last 50 years, cleared their waterfronts of industrial property in order to build parks, recreation areas and open space, a major trend in urban development in the 21st century. As with earlier presentations, the NRA permitted no public input following the presentation in the Firehouse.

Our waterfront began to be used by Europeans, primarily English, in the last quarter of the 1500s. During that time, fishermen came here, spent three months in the summer catching cod (which was said to be so plentiful that they simply floated on top of the river) and drying them out for transport to the Caribbean islands and Great Britain. Once English settlement began here, in the 1630s (a period known as the Great Migration), the riverfront became a center for shipping, as cod, wheat and wood from New Hampshire were transported to the islands and England, and shipbuilding. The first clipper ships, by Donald McKay, were built here in 1850-1852, when McKay moved to Boston.

So for more than 250 years, the property along the Merrimack River was devoted entirely to waterfront uses: shipbuilding and trade. Yes, there were a few buildings on the property but only warehouses devoted to waterfront uses. No one lived on the property and the only items produced there were ship stores, barrels and lines. The Custom House was built in 1837 to service the waterfront trade.

Why not return the 4.2 acres of NRA property to waterfront uses as Chapter 91 requires? Such a plan will restore this property to its historical uses and give us an opportunity to enjoy one of the few open waterfronts remaining in the commonwealth.

Cities that have done this include Pittsburgh. When steel manufacturing closed up in Pittsburgh in the 1960s, the city demolished the factories and related buildings along the three rivers and constructed parks and open space. This program revived Pittsburgh and produced a model that many cities and towns have followed. We could be one of those cities.

Let’s also look to New York; the parks along the East and Hudson Rivers have been preserved and improved, a park along the Battery and the waterfront (the southern tip of Manhattan) was developed, and instead of destroying the rail lines between 13th and 33rd streets for commercial development, a park has been built, keeping this property forever off the tax rolls. The High Line, as this park is called, is now a major tourist attraction and provides a fine view of the Hudson River.

Wake up, Newburyporters. You are close to losing the gem stone of your community.


Janet K. Marcus lives in Newburyport.