NEWBURYPORT — As city officials await the release of updated plans for the Waterfront West project, the City Council’s attorney is putting the finishing touches on a development agreement with New England Development.
City Council President Barry Connell said Rebecca Lee, who represents the council, has been working with New England Development on the agreement, which will detail rules for the project and define a set of community benefits the developer would have to provide if the project wins approval.
Connell said the agreement will require the developer to make improvements on Merrimac Street, particularly at its intersections with Route 1, where heavy traffic often builds during the busy summer months.
“Traffic is often bad there, and it can be tough for people to get into the downtown,” Connell said. “We want to make sure we don’t have those traffic snarls.”
Connell said the agreement would likely include requirements that New England Development make contributions to charitable entities in the city and also that the developer contribute to the construction of a new waterfront park.
“There are also some zoning changes we are proposing that we think are advantageous to the city,” Connell added.
He said the proposed zoning changes would likely be submitted to the full council in July. A supermajority – eight out of 11 councilors – must vote on the project for it to be approved.
Waterfront West is a large multiuse project planned by New England Development on five acres it owns between Michael’s Harborside and the former Black Cow restaurant, which also includes Brown’s Wharf, 58 McKay’s Wharf, 72 Merrimac St., 86-90 Merrimac St. and 92 Merrimac St.
The plans have been downsized since the project was initially proposed in 2017 due to criticism from city officials and residents who claimed it was too large and too dense.
Last year, New England Development said the project would include several buildings, including a hotel, retail space and 130 to 170 condominiums, though new plans have not been released.
Councilor at-large Afroz Khan was one of several city councilors to meet with New England Development officials to discuss the project in recent weeks.
Khan said that during a site walk along the city’s waterfront, the developer raised several different scenarios for the project design, and showed off conceptual ideas with digital three-dimensional models.
“There was nothing concrete. It was very dynamic in that they said things could be one way or another,” Khan said. “I saw it as an opportunity for me to give feedback. I’m hoping they took what I said seriously.”
Khan said she hopes New England Development will heed concerns about the project’s size and density, and that it will ultimately opt for a smaller layout.
“I’m leaning toward the idea that having less is the best option,” Khan said. “I’m of the mindset that a little development is preferred, but it’s hard. We’ll see what can be done with controlling the density.”
Connell, who also met with New England Development earlier this month, said he believes the plans have greatly improved since the project was first proposed, though up-to-date concrete details still have yet to be revealed.
“I’m not a design specialist, but from a layman’s perspective, I think they’ve come a long way since their initial presentation,” Connell said. “There’s a lot we don’t know yet — the general massing of the buildings, the height of the buildings and their locations.”
Still, Connell said he anticipates that the plans will include a hotel on the water’s edge and that right now New England Development seems to plan on operating the hotel itself.
Connell said the council is also discussing potential requirements for the affordability of some Waterfront West apartments and that it is “pretty close” to nailing down a percentage of affordable housing units.
Connell said the developer’s electronic presentation of its updated plans will be available on the city website “as soon as we have it.” He encourages residents to continue to give the council feedback.
For a timeline of Waterfront West updates, visit https://www.cityofnewburyport.com/planning-board/pages/waterfront-west.
Staff writer Jack Shea covers Newburyport City Hall. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 978-961-3154. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.