, Newburyport, MA

June 15, 2007

30 years later, city's front porch is showing its age

Mike Stucka

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Like many Newburyport natives, Barbara Dresser can track the big changes in her life by the health of Newburyport's central waterfront.

She first brought her children to look at the water from the ragged banks, then came back as they grew older and the boardwalk was built. She regularly joined her husband for lunch on the boardwalk. Now, nearly every night, she visits with friends she met on the boardwalk, sits on a bench dedicated to her late husband, and looks out from the city's front porch.

The waterfront was always there | and always changing.

"I used to come down here with my kids, before there was anything, and now they're 42 and 45," she said.

Thirty years after it was built, the boardwalk is at once newly renovated and struggling for survival. With some components at the end of their expected life, Newburyport's promenade is threatened by unexpectedly rapid decay in its seawall.

"Can you play pro football 35 years?" asks Jack Bradshaw, who led the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority when the boardwalk and waterfront were established. "I don't think so, even with all the padding and the helmets. It's worn. It's expected to be worn."

Geordie Vining, senior project manager for the city's planning department, said 2002 renovations put long-lasting decking on the top and repaired everything on the land side of the boardwalk, which had endured aging as well as anyone expected when it was built in 1977.

"I think we've basically gotten our money's worth out of the initial boardwalk," he said. "It's just a terrific, an amazing piece of infrastructure, and we're well set for the next generation with the boardwalk itself. Now we have to fix the waterside portion of it so we don't have to worry about it for another generation."

Thick metal sheeting, called the bulkhead, has been protecting the land along the Merrimack River for 30 years. That sheeting has been getting thinner since it was installed. Outside the bulkhead, metal also protected the concrete pilings that give boats places to tie on to.

Some of the pilings have already broken.

Officials last month discovered the steel is corroding rapidly, perhaps from an electrical current. The city is hiring a corrosion specialist to study the problem even as it tries to repair some of the pilings. Repairs to the seawall could cost $1.5 million, officials have estimated.

A new riverbank

The boardwalk, pilings and bulkhead, introduced in the mid-1970s, were vast improvements on the area. By that time the once-thriving waterfront docks had fallen apart, and the shoreline was ragged and crumbling. The rubble and the waste of demolished waterfront buildings created a health hazard.

Rocks were regularly blasted at lunchtime to clear the way for the new bulkhead while the waterfront itself was straightened.

Before the metal bulkheads went in, rotted remnants of wooden pilings had to be pulled out. To strengthen and straighten the riverbank, a chain of enormous barrel-shaped metal structures was pounded down deep, then filled. The bulkhead was pounded down on the river side of the metal structures, and the entire area was filled and leveled. The boardwalk was built on top. The cost was $1.5 million.

The boardwalk itself was initially proposed as a gravel-lined promenade to save money. Public opinion forced the change toward a true boardwalk. Public opinion also forced scrapping the idea of chains to serve as fencing along the waterfront.

In late 1975, architect Stu Dawson said the waterfront area should "become the new heart of Newburyport, as it was in the 19th century, but with a more modern expression of the 20th century." Six months later, Sunday Herald real estate editor Robert T. Killam predicted the promenade "will be a place of trees and benches where the elderly or the tired can sit and watch boat traffic along the Merrimack River." Dawson's vision of vitality became more true than Killam's place of rest.

The boardwalk also improved an area that mixed industry with junk.

"It was awful," Bradshaw recalled. "It was debris and more debris. Whatever pilings were there were bare. It was no place to be. Unfortunately, a lot of unfortunate people made it their home in the high grass and weeds. Certainly there was no boating going on."

Today, the boardwalk is a family-friendly place, a great improvement over what it was. Bradshaw said plans for further improvements, such as a hotel and a line of shops near the Firehouse Center, never happened. The city's plan for a two-mile-long unobstructed walk along the river hasn't happened, either.

Bradshaw says he regrets discussions about creating a maintenance fund for downtown and the boardwalk didn't bear fruit.

"I call it the plaque disease. Once the plaque goes up, there's no more money for maintenance," he said. "... If you got a dime for every person and you got a nickel from every dog that's been on that boardwalk since 1974 or 1975, you wouldn't have any problems rebuilding it."

Once the problems on the boardwalk's water side are fixed, Vining sees a bright future for the boardwalk that brings tourism and quality of life.

"I think it's irreplaceable, and it's part of what makes Newburyport Newburyport," he said.

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