, Newburyport, MA

June 22, 2007

The hardest place to restore: East Row showed Urban Renewal's growing pains

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NEWBURYPORT -- The buildings were falling apart. Jack Bradshaw makes that perfectly clear.

"Oh God," Bradshaw said recently when asked about the condition of the block of buildings that became a major source of difficulty for members of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority during the mid-1970s in the second stage of the NRA's urban renewal period.

"Parcel 11" -- the block that stretches from what's now Abraham's Bagel Shop on Liberty Street and circles around Market Square to Souffles -- was the hardest place to develop, and one of the NRAs largest undertakings.

Known as the "Wein & Check block" after its owners, the appearance of the impressive brick Federal-period block would hardly be recognizable to Newburyporters of today.

"It was totally falling down," former NRA director Bradshaw recalled. "It was a fire trap."

The block that now houses a jeweler, bakery and florist among other specialty stores had gas pumps and an automobile repair shop with a second-floor parking garage.

"The pumps were right on the street," Bradshaw said. "You drove up to it on the sidewalk." The gas pumps were less than 50 yards from Bossy Gillis' gas station in Market Square.

By the time the NRA purchased the Wein & Check block, formally known as "East Row," in the early 1970s, the buildings were empty. The last tenant, Richdale's, had already relocated to its current spot on the corner of Pleasant and State streets.

During those years, Bradshaw got phone calls from police on an almost nightly basis, telling him that people had broken into the boarded-up block by removing the plywood and had started fires to keep warm, Bradshaw said. "It was easy to get into."

"Junk" filled the back area of the block-- including barrels of kerosene used for heating oil -- and rats had taken up residency.

"Hit a snag"

Developing the area was a priority for the NRA -- as well as a constant headache.

In the early 1970s, the city's urban renewal was moving along -- the development of Inn Street had been a success, and the NRA was hoping to continue along that path.

"Then we hit a snag," Bradshaw said.

Things didn't go easy for the NRA after it took control of the buildings.

In October 1971, Parcel 11 was given to two Acton developers. In the summer of 1973, it was taken back by the NRA, or "de-designated," when they couldn't move ahead due to funding difficulties. The developers filed a lawsuit seeking damages and asking to be re-instated, but the case was dropped in 1975.

Finding a new developer to take over was tough.

"It was all because of economy at that time," Bradshaw said. "We were getting no takers."

The country faced a recession, was recovering from the oil crisis of 1973, and grappled with the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

In 1974, the project was awarded to Crescent Associates of Salem, which couldn't get funding through traditional lending institutions. The NRA was also mandated by the city's Board of Appeals to provide 35 parking spaces within 300 feet of the Wein & Check block before construction could start. Then-Mayor Bryon Matthews allocated federal money for 60 parking spaces in the waterfront lot off Water Street.

In 1975, the NRA sought to expedite the project and won a $650,000 federal loan. But more delays came in 1976 when Crescent Associates ran into trouble getting insurance due to soaring rates.

Costs of developing both parcels were estimated at about $1.5 million.

Bradshaw, who left as the NRA director in 1978, said overseeing the development of Parcel 11 taught him some important lessons.

"It helped me tremendously learn the market; it helped me tremendously learn the various funding sources," he said. "It helped me learn where to go."

"That was the toughest nut to crack," Bradshaw said. "It was very, very difficult to get people interested in purchasing the properties -- both 11 and the State Street block, Parcel 9. It was tough."

Finding tenants

It was also tough to get tenants to agree to move into the block. The city had to sell its vision for the square and the waterfront, Bradshaw said. The new tenants on just-renovated Inn Street assisted in enlisting other businesses to move into Newburyport.

"That was a big help," Bradshaw said.

When the rehabbed building on the corner of Liberty and State streets opened for business in the fall of 1978, eight of 12 retail spaces had been leased. Luxury apartments filled the upper floors of the old Wein & Check block.

Among the first to move in were Market Square Optical Shoppe, which is still there, a fine jewelry store and a shop called "Belated Butterfly." One year later, a new area of the block opened -- indoor stalls similar to Boston's Quincy Market that offered five kiosks, but that idea was short-lived due to lack of interest.

Shirley Magnanti was one of the first tenants to move in, moving her frame shop/gallery, Another Atmosphere, from its location on Threadneedle Alley.

"I looked at the spot and fell in love with it; it was a beautiful building," Magnanti said. "It had some wonderful tenants."

At the time -- much like today -- the shops were locally owned with a focus on Newburyport residents, she said. Another Atmosphere stood where Saracy's florist is now located.

Watching the restoration move through Newburyport's downtown from her storefront, Magnanti said, was amazing.

"It was a wonderful experience," she said.

Businesses were growing and expanding, along with the revitalized downtown. Magnanti helped spearhead a promotional campaign to bring pride to the newly rehabbed city and draw attention to its businesses -- "Newburyport: Love at First Sight."

In a way, Magnanti says, she is sorry for the newcomers to the city that they never got to experience the rebirth.

"To see it come alive again, that was an exciting time for the city."

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