, Newburyport, MA

May 4, 2007

Inn St. was first renewal experiment

Stephen Tait

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NEWBURYPORT | Where neatly aligned bricks now line the ground, dirt and mud used to welcome shoppers. Where stores now display their unique wares, windows and doors were boarded up to keep out homeless alcoholics.

And where vacant buildings once stood unwanted and unclaimed, Inn Street now bustles as a major downtown retail center.

It's only a small section of downtown Newburyport that's tucked behind the main thoroughfares of State and Pleasant streets, but more than 30 years ago Inn Street served as a catalyst to the city's urban renewal project.

Before five Newburyport men took the gamble to develop the dilapidated block, most developers didn't want to take a chance on the city's downtown district.

"I think it started urban renewal," said Chris Snow, who owned an Inn Street building for 33 years and is one of the five men who bought the buildings there for development. "People saw what could happen and it attracted other developers."

"We're pretty damn proud of what we did," said Dick Sullivan, who three decades later still owns his parcel on Inn Street. "We're the ones who stuck our necks out. We were the pioneers of the Newburyport renaissance."

Before Sullivan, Snow and the other men | Swift Barnes, Jonathan Woodman and Michael Rowan | Inn Street was little more than another piece of rundown downtown Newburyport.

"Downtown was dead," Sullivan, a former mayor and real estate broker, said.

"No one wanted these buildings," Woodman, an architect, said. "They said knock them down."

In the late 1960s, the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority took control of the buildings on lower Inn Street | known as Parcel 9 | through eminent domain, and started to look for proper suitors to develop the land. But unlike today, where the spaces are highly valued and in high demand, in the early 1970s they were seen as decrepit and developers were hesitant to bite on a price tag of $8,000 or less for one of the buildings.

The rest of downtown was still in shambles and the risk was just too high.

So the NRA looked locally.

And as a result it found the five Newburyporters, who together formed a vision for Parcel 9 and helped to propel the city into renewal by proving to others that rejuvenation was possible.

Today, four of the five men still own the buildings and one still works from his Inn Street office.

Sweat equity

"Everyone thought we were nuts," Sullivan said. "And maybe they had good reason."

When the men first decided to go forward with the development, the work needed to make the buildings leasable was tremendous. In one building, the roof was missing. The brick on many of the storefronts was crumbling. In other places, vines grew inside the structures.

The restoration costs were high. Snow, for example, paid $8,000 for his building, but spent $124,000 to fix it up, not including sweat equity, he said.

Inside Barnes' space, equipment from the grocery store that once inhabited the building sat strewn about and unused. After a building inspection, Snow had to shore up his foundation with steel I-beams, a costly and massive project. Rowan had to rebuild his entire back wall.

"We had to gut the building, take out all the plaster board, repaint and in some cases rebuild the exterior brick. All the windows were replaced, the interior was rebuilt," Rowan, a retired orthodontist, said. "It was easy to see why in the early stages the idea was to bring a bull dozer in."

"We basically had to tear it apart," Woodman said. "We just had to take everything bad out."

There were contractors involved, of course. But much of the work was done by the men and their families. Sullivan, for example, said he remembers each Saturday going to the site with his wife and children to remove all the debris gutted from the buildings the week before.

"It was a lot of aching muscles, pulled backs," he said. "But it was worth it."

They call it sweat equity, and it seemed to work. Less than a year after they buildings were purchased, the first store opened. Woodman, for instance, served as architect, contractor, rental agent and everything else for his newly acquired building.

"We were all starting out and we all had to be careful of what we did with our money," he said.

Each of the men said they were also blessed with loyal tenants, some who rented third-floor apartments for 20 years. Or, in the case of Claudia Harris, renting as long as the men owned the buildings. Harris, the owner of the Elephant's Trunk, is entering her 35th year in the building.

A transformation

What the five men each saw as an opportunity in purchasing downtown buildings, turned out to be the key to transforming the Newburyport's downtown district.

"None of us conceived it would transform the town the way it did," Barnes, a retired silver and jewelry maker, said.

Of course, as Snow, an antique dealer and auctioneer, puts it, "There were ups and downs." For a while, before a municipal parking lot was built, before Inn Street was bricked over, and before others started to develop, there were questions whether the men would survive in the building.

"Not too many people went down there," Snow said of pedestrian traffic. "I almost went down the tubes a couple of times."

Or, as Woodman said, without the other construction | of the parking lot and brick-covered pedestrian lane | the five men who owned the buildings there "would have been an island." But he said, things just sort of "fell together."

After they finished and opened for business, Sullivan said, there was a lull for three or four months before developers started work in other places. "It was kind of a show me and I'll believe it thing," he said.

In the end, though, "I think it all came out well," Rowan said.

"In terms of when we started this nobody knew if it would come to fruition," he said. "A lot of big projects like this don't get carried out, but this one did."

Each of the men have pictures of the development, before and after. Each say Inn Street holds a special place in their hearts.

Woodman still runs his architecture business from the second and third floors. On a large table in a conference room there, the 65-year-old had a collection of pictures, put together in brochure-like fashion, to document the poor shape the buildings were once in.

"It all started here on Inn Street," he said. "We were the first ones here and the first ones finished."

And then he continued: "Newburyport showed that downtown could be an urban park, not just an urban parking lot. And Inn Street is the center of that park."

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