Holaday: Plum Island erosion, affordable housing are top concerns

Staff file photoNewburyport Mayor Donna Holaday

NEWBURYPORT — For Mayor Donna Holaday, 2020 will be a year focused on housing, capital improvement projects, and ensuring the sanctity of Plum Island’s coastal homes.

In an interview with The Daily News on Wednesday, Holaday discussed her priorities for the year and the city’s need to balance a multitude of projects while staying within its budget.

“It’s going to be a tight year,” she said. “We don’t have the free cash that we had, and our bonding capacity is now being reduced because we’re adhering to best principles regarding bonding and fiscal practice. We have several big-ticket projects but we have to make some priorities here.”

Perhaps the most urgent item on Holaday’s list of concerns for this year is Plum Island — specifically the Reservation Terrace neighborhood — where progressive coastal erosion is becoming more of a mounting threat to homes.

“We’re in real trouble,” Holaday said. “We are going to lose many homes out there if we can’t come up with a plan.”

Holaday noted that the extended berm created last year to protect Reservation Terrace’s homes was mostly swept away soon after it was built. She emphasized the need to advocate for more frequent dredging.

Still, Holaday said that with limited options available, officials and residents should realize that the days are numbered for many of the island’s homes.

“I’m not sure what the fix is for Reservation Terrace at this point, but we need to bide time,” Holaday said. “You can’t stop Mother Nature. We’re trying to do what we can, but we have got to stop building out on Plum Island, and we have to figure out ways to retreat if they choose to.” 

Holaday said another top concern is creating more affordable housing units at the site of the former Brown School, which closed in 2014 and now has Newburyport Youth Services as its sole occupant on the first floor.

City officials have eyed the site as a potential place to put more housing, and in 2019, the City Council created the Brown School Overlay District, which requires future developments to have at least some affordable units for seniors. The overlay district also includes options for Youth Services to either remain at the site or move to another location.

Holaday stressed concern about the city’s rising housing costs and said she would like to make sure “most, if not all” units at any Brown School development are affordable. 

“Housing is a big issue in the city. There are continually wars over single-family homes and I get speechless when I look at what some of the homes in the city are going for,” Holaday said. “It’s not sustainable, and it makes it difficult for there to be a fully integrated community.”

Holaday also discussed her hope to make progress on New England Development’s Waterfront West, a large, multiuse project planned for the city’s waterfront. She noted that while residents and city officials have disapproved of the developer’s plans, she hopes they will come to an agreement this year on a project that suits the city’s needs.

“It’s got to be something that is supported by the community because it’s clear that nobody likes what they proposed,” Holaday said, stressing her hope that New England Development will create a waterfront hotel in the vein of Gloucester’s Beauport Hotel.

“Think about what it could do for our recreational boaters if we had a hotel on the waterfront,” the mayor said. “We desperately need conference space in the city. We have to go to Blue Ocean (Music Hall in Salisbury) or Black Swan in Georgetown for every major event, and I think things should happen in our city.”

Regarding the city’s schools, Holaday said she is optimistic about the coming year and praised the work of Superintendent Sean Gallagher.

“I think our schools are doing great,” Holaday said. “I’m really pleased with the work and leadership of Sean Gallagher and the direction that he’s taking our schools.”

In terms of capital improvement projects, Holaday said a big focus this year will be on the replacement of the West End fire station, which has fallen into disrepair over the years and is due an upgrade. 

She said that because of constraints with the current site, the city is considering other locations for the station’s replacement. Holaday said she hopes a proposal for the project will be written up by midsummer.

Staff writer Jack Shea covers Newbury­port City Hall. He can be reached via email at jshea@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3154. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.

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