NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Port in Progress

September 16, 2007

Parcel 8: Urban renewal’s only new building in downtown Newburyport

Newburyport’s claim to fame is the restoration of its historic downtown buildings, but there is one piece of new construction in the 22-acre urban renewal area.

Merrimack Landing at 1 Merrimac St., opposite the Firehouse Center for the Arts, was completed in 1984, but not before three other development projects were tried and failed on what was known for many years as urban renewal Parcel 8.

Parcel 8 was created in 1968 when the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority demolished six or seven vacant buildings that had formerly housed George Gagalis’ barber shop, Ruthie’s Diner and Al’s 66 Service Center gas station on Merrimac Street, and Burke’s Furniture and the Newburyport Hotel on the corner of what was once Bartlet Street. What was left was a vacant lot, 240 feet long, between Market Square and Unicorn Street, about 17,500 square feet in area.

The first Parcel 8 development proposals were received in September 1971. Eight months later, on April 11, 1972, the NRA selected the Merrimack and Atlantic Co. of Salem to develop the land.

In stark contrast to the historic brick buildings nearby, Merrimac and Atlantic planned to construct a modern concrete and glass structure that occupied all 240 feet of the lot. The ground floor was reserved for retail use — including a bank with a drive-through window — and offices would occupy the third floor, but the developers said they were flexible about the uses on the middle floor.

The planned building cantilevered as it rose to its three-story height: the first floor was 56 feet wide, the second 70 feet and the topmost floor 79 feet — faced with concrete.

Publication of a photograph of a design model set off a wave of protest that reached all the way to Washington, D.C.

While petitions objecting to the structure and counter-petitions supporting development circulated through the city, the NRA asked the urban renewal project’s federal sponsoring agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Renewal, for a ruling on the parcel’s relationship to the adjacent Market Square Historic District.

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