, Newburyport, MA

January 15, 2014

Waterfront talk should include NRA's sunset

Newburyport Daily News

---- — The year 2014 is already shaping up to be a momentum changer for Newburyport’s long-stalled central waterfront redevelopment.

We are pleased to see that the official discussion is shifting somewhat away from the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, and into the purview of the City Council and mayor. It’s a starting point that we hope will conclude with the dissolution of the NRA and the turning over of its waterfront land to the city. City ownership of that land will provide the financial backing and public accountability that is needed to finally complete the central waterfront.

Next month, the mayor will host a roundtable meeting between the NRA and the council to discuss “all aspects of the redevelopment plans, so that further progress can be made toward the creation of a larger and more vibrant central waterfront park which is better connected to our historic downtown.”

Mayor Donna Holaday said the starting point of this discussion is the NRA’s so-called Union Studio plan. Close followers of the NRA plan will recall that this conceptual plan includes the construction of three multi-story commercial/residential buildings on its waterfront land and a significant expansion of the waterfront park. Some parking will also be maintained.

It may be the starting point of the conversation, but it is not the ending point.

What has become clear over the past several months, particularly in the several weeks leading up to the November election, is that the majority of Newburyport citizens don’t support this plan. The NRA’s plan became a litmus test for City Council candidates and the mayor during the election. The stronger voice heard in the election made clear that citizens want an open waterfront, reflected in the councilors elected to office.

Further undermining the NRA’s plan is the mayor’s position — she opposes having residential condos and an underground parking garage on the land. By the NRA’s own assessment, this would make the plan financially unfeasible, given the constraints that the NRA must work under.

But if this land were in the city’s hands, two major hurdles would be crossed. The city has the financial resources to develop the land without the need for revenue from residential condos. And the land would fall under the auspices of elected officials, directly accountable to the public. The NRA is an independent board: four members appointed by the mayor and one by the governor. There is no direct line of public accountability, certainly not at the voting booth.

The NRA’s stated mission, dating back to its beginnings in the 1960s, is to develop its land to enhance the city’s economic vitality. It was a plan drawn up at a time when Newburyport’s downtown was dying and desperately needed an infusion of new ideas and new life.

But times have changed, and Newburyport’s progress has moved in directions not even remotely imagined by the crafters of the original NRA plan. In that original plan, the commercial redevelopment of the central waterfront was seen as a key element in the success of the downtown. The waterfront remains undeveloped, yet that did not deter the downtown from becoming an economic success story.

Today, the central waterfront is seen in a different light, one that makes the NRA’s mission antiquated, as well as the NRA board itself. It’s time for the board to dissolve and let the city do what is best for the land.

We think 2014 is starting off as a year of promise for the 46-year struggle to redevelop the NRA’s central waterfront. Perhaps it will also be a year of fulfillment.