I support the NRA’s plans. I think this is the best plan, with the most compromise of interests the city has ever seen. I hope it can be time for the status quo and the culture of “No” regarding the waterfront to end.
The addition of a 100-foot-wide, raised green buffer along the full length of the boardwalk will greatly improve recreational opportunities and access to water views. I hope it will offer beautiful plantings, fountains, possibly a small playground and historical information. A place to picnic and lay in the grass on a sunny day. It will likely be similar to the ribbon of waterfront park seen in many cities like Santa Barbara, Calif., Portland, Ore., or the Esplanade in Boston. Incorporating the next phase of the rail trail will bring lots more activity to the water’s edge.
From an urban design point of view our waterfront is a mess. We have mostly the back sides of buildings bordering our waterfront space. Only at the back of the Firehouse do we get a hint of what a proper edge can look like. The waterfront is a large, disorganized space that bleeds into the back of stores and apartments, the overflow of cars and the dumpsters of restaurants. Grass and plantings alone can’t stitch together the downtown and Karp’s Waterfront West. There is a gaping hole where our history used to be.
Framing the existing central waterfront park with buildings on two sides will make a three-sided urban “square.” This is an appropriate transition from the center of downtown to the open views of the water. It will frame Yankee Homecoming concerts and create an appropriate feeling of place. Some of the best urban parks are similarly framed. Whether speaking of the tidy squares of Savannah, Ga., Place des Voges in Paris, Tompkins Square park in New York City, Harvard Yard or even our own Brown Square but with views to the river on one side. Not to mention, these new buildings will bring some much-needed commercial activity to the waterfront. And the 24/7 presence that only mixed-use, commercial and residential buildings can provide.
Some may argue that we don’t need that activity; however, many others like myself disagree. It is a shame to have to leave the waterfront and its views for the amenities that the downtown offers. Why can’t we have commerce at the water? Isn’t this combination what put our city on the map?
I know there are folks who decry the loss of any square foot of open space. But adding maximum square footage of unbounded plantings and parking is not the way to create to good space in the heart of a downtown. Sometimes structures are the best tools in creating space: to contain it, to define proper edges, frame views, add activity, life and vibrancy to a place. To fill holes in the urban fabric, to complete streetscapes and encourage pedestrian flow.
Our central waterfront is not the place for large, open spaces full of recreational activities. For that we have Cashman Park, The Mall or the expanding bike path. The central waterfront should not try to be the pastoral setting along the water that Maudslay/Mosley Pines already is. It should be where commerce and activity meet the water’s edge. Plain and simple. Just as it had been for centuries of Newburyport’s history.
Let’s not continue to hold the waterfront hostage so that it might be something we already have and something that it historically never was.
Alex Dardinski lives in Newburyport.