, Newburyport, MA

March 19, 2007

An unwelcome glimpse of the future

Victor Tine

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It was a wake-up call.

In the summer of 1964, Newburyport's urban renewal program began to change when local people got a good look at the changes that were planned for their hometown.

The city had signed on to the federal urban renewal program in 1961. Urban renewal at the time emphasized "slum clearance" and Newburyport's central business district certainly fit the definition of slum, with its many vacant, boarded up buildings.

There were still some stores downtown, and one of them -- Kray's Store for Men -- played a pivotal role in altering the direction of the city's redevelopment.

The Newburyport Redevelopment Authority had approved what was for the time a typical urban rewal plan: Most of the downtown -- from Pleasant Street to the Merrimack River -- would be torn down and replaced with new stores and plenty of parking. The city's center would be essentially turned into a mall.

The downtown that was to be wiped out by urban renewal dates from the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1811, which destroyed the city's Colonial-era business district. A new building code drafted after the fire mandated brick construction with firewalls.

But after Kray's owner Stanley "Ty" Tucker agreed to display an architectural model of the new Newburyport in the window of his store, people weren't sure they liked what they saw.

"It seemed to me that one of the problems was that people couldn't visualize the changes," said retired Daily News editor and general manager Bill Plante, who persuaded Tucker to set up the model in his window.

Kray's was on State Street at the time, where Chase and Lunt Insurance is now. (The store later moved around the corner to Pleasant Street, into the space currently occupied by Greta's Great Grains. It went out of business when Tucker and his wife, Elaine Kray Tucker, retired.)

Until it went on display, the model had been kept in the redevelopment authority offices, which were on the second floor of the building that today houses the Szechuan Taste restaurant -- although the mayor at the time, George H. Lawler Jr., recalls that the model was also displayed in the lobby at City Hall.

The display in Kray's window lasted only three or four weeks, but it sparked a debate over how Newburyport's renewal should proceed. People began to think about rehabilitating the old buildings instead of tearing them down.

"I think it helped," Plante said of the display. "I don't think it caused (a change in plans), but it helped for people to be able to see where the buildings would be torn down to nothing. ... It got more people involved in the dialogue."

Byron Matthews, who became mayor in 1968 and who oversaw the bulk of the downtown rehabilitation over the following decade, agrees that the display was a key element in changing the thinking about urban renewal.

"I think that's where the real argument for saving the buildings began," Matthews said.

Lawler, as mayor, persuaded the redevelopment authority in 1965 to adopt a resolution that it would at least give consideration to any developer whose plan included restoring the old buildings.

It would still be several years before preservation emerged as the dominant principle of Newburyport's redevelopment, and several buildings were lost in the interim, notably on the waterfront and the current location of the municipal parking lot.

But before the city changed its collective mind about urban renewal, Lawler said, Newburyport came perilously close to becoming a shopping mall. The City Council approved the original plan.

"It was on my desk," Lawler said. "All I had to do was sign it and it was done."

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