To the editor:
It seems from the messaging on the waterfront plans by the NRA and its supporters and by COW that deciding on development along the waterfront is a now or never, either-or, black-or-white issue. It seems to me that reality, as is often the case, is more grey scale than that.
We have a desire as a community to honor the historical legacy of Newburyport. Newburyport as a hot bed of the early American Revolution. Newburyport as a clipper ship anchorage. Newburyport as a 20th-century urban renewal success story. The NRA’s waterfront and its physical and archaeological reality is one of change and evolution, sometimes by benign neglect and sometimes by good or bad planning.
The waterfront will change more. It must because change is constant. We can’t turn back the tide of technology, globalism and private investment or disinvestment. The only question is: “How do we go forward with plans that have the best chance of looking wise 50 years from now?”
The best way forward for the waterfront, in my opinion, would start small and evolve toward the ultimate vision. Start now with leasing some land for one building with no residences to the west along Merrimac Street. Seek proposals that focus on maritime, environmental and cultural business and retail uses that honor our history. Offering the “air space” above some parking, but not the spaces themselves, for installation of solar panels for electricity use by the new building would sweeten the pot. See how that works and see what evolves.
Keep community control by leasing the land so that in distant future years the city can reshape itself to reflect the realities of that time. Would any developers be willing to build on land the city would continue to own? Why not? Boston’s Marriott Copley Square complex is built on land leased from the Mass Turnpike. Smart business people can run the numbers and see if it works for them. It’s by definition an unknown, as the future always is, but that doesn’t mean that choices can’t be made.
Union Studio painted a pretty picture of an idealized mixed-use waterfront. It’s a good starting point, not a finish line. It’s time to turn away from the “let’s finally do it all” or “do nothing ever” debating points and find some steps, even small ones, we can agree on. We need some clever ideas, some compromise between trying to freeze the city in amber or doing it all right away. It’s time to take some small steps forward.