, Newburyport, MA

March 12, 2013

NRA's shell game

Joanne Purinton

---- — It is time to recognize the half-truths and deceptions of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority and Union Studios in their plan, labeled “concept,” for marketing our Central Waterfront. Yes, marketing; selling or leasing long term to a developer who will build two massive three-story buildings of 70,000 square feet occupied by condos and retail shops. The building on the west side of the Firehouse is proposed to be about 250 to 300 feet long by 50 feet wide by 45 feet high, as tall as the Firehouse roof. The east side building is about 150 feet long by 50 feet wide. A football field is 300 feet long and 150 feet wide. The combined bulk of these two proposed buildings is close to one-half of a football field.

The west side proposed building is not in scale with the existing downtown buildings, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as “the best preserved examples of Federal Mercantile Architecture in the country.” The belief that the proposed buildings are in scale with the existing buildings in the central business district is repeated over and over by the misguided members of the NRA, who also claim they are giving us an expanded park, when the proposed western building will actually be sited on what is now existing grassy parkland.

The parklands that the NRA claims to be giving Newburyport near the boardwalk are not a gift, but state-mandated. Chapter 91 rules and regulations for tidelands development require that any new buildings dedicate 50 percent to water-dependent uses, i.e., waterfront parks, pedestrian walkways and open space. A 100 foot-buffer setback from the river is not to be built upon.

The slick Union Studio presentation of two massive new buildings provided a deceptive disguise for the bulk of the buildings by showing masses of 25-year-old cheery trees in bloom with distorted bird’s-eye views of the structures from a helicopter’s perspective.

The NRA and mayor keep repeating vague words, “this is only a concept,” and, “we need walls, i.e., buildings to frame (block) our existing water views.” They also say, “We need to bring more people to activate our dead, muddy waterfront. Currently, there are six restaurants abutting the waterfront west with visitors competing for parking, enjoying the boardwalk and park. There are boaters, theater-goers, Montessori School children, bird watchers, band concerts, picnic people, yoga groups, marine education camps, fishermen, whale watchers, shoppers, business people on lunch break, history seekers, etc.

Everyone, including COWs, agree the parking needs landscaping, not $5 million certainly, because the existing three-quarter-inch crushed stone and stone dust is a packed surface, not a “muddy” field. There are many grants available to fund this, to do berms with trees and eco-sensitive, salt-resistant plantings like beach plums, rosa regosa, marsh grasses, evergreen shrubs, which echo our special tidal riverside flora. COW has researched a 150-page report documenting a multitude of potential sources for funding parks.

The NRA has never given the public financial figures for their proposed development, only generalities: $20 million to put up 70,0000 square feet of three-story buildings, $5 million to landscape. This is a joke when the argument for the project is to produce city revenue, taxes. But no detail on the costs to the city of services for 33 condo dwellers, and an equal number of commercial units. The NRA consultant concludes the development needs be 70 to 100 thousand square feet to cover the lion’s share of the inflated park costs, which may include underground tideland-invaded parking for the condos. Who is expected to float a bond issue in the NRA consultants’ report of “a bond for the park costs to be partially supported by taxes”?

Wake up, NRA. You have a public trust to present and future generations to keep our historic waterfront maritime centered and open. It is misguided to believe that Newburyport will attract more visitors because we add retail to compete with the very desirable shops in the 1812 Federal National Register buildings downtown. The Merrimac River is Newburyport’s unique magnet.


Joanne C. Purinton of Newbury is a member of Committee for an Open Waterfront, Inc. (COW).