NEWBURYPORT — Developer Stephen Karp last night spoke of developing Waterfront West into mixed-used buildings that will include retail, residential and restaurant space integrated with a hotel, all while incorporating the architectural and historical elements of downtown.
At the same time, he said there remain many steps before development can begin, including a parking solution for the entire downtown district that he feels the city should address in a timely manner, the lengthy process of working through state and local permitting, and collaboration with the city's leaders and residents on the final plan.
In his first public appearance since buying much of the city's downtown property more than three years ago, Karp told a standing-room only crowd that there is no secret plan, but one still in need of completion before it can be presented in formal detail to the city.
"We don't have a secret plan because we need to have the dialogue," Karp said. "This is a community effort ... (to make) something special and unique and better than anything that's been done on the North Shore so far.
"We value Newburyport," he said at another point in the night. "We've made a decision to put our effort, our time, our money here because it is a very special place."
In a presentation that was upbeat and short on details, Karp aimed to calm people's fears of change, going beyond the downtown and using the example of Plum Island, saying he would have planned growth there differently while foreshadowing that more change would come to the island.
Karp, the city's largest landowner, attracted a crowd of more than 600 people — filling Nock Middle School's 700-person auditorium nearly to capacity, overflowing the school's parking lot and leaving many standing in the entryway or on the sides.
Many of the city's elected leaders, city officials, business owners, activists, members of special interest groups and concerned residents attended.
Before the presentation from Karp and Nancy Colbert, the city's planning director, Karp stood near the entry to the school as residents filed through the lobby, many stopping to shake hands with the developer and asking questions. The line to meet Karp grew at times to 10 to 12 deep.
Many others grabbed some of the pastries, coffee, cookies and bottled Fiji water on tables outside the auditorium. As Karp entered the hall through the main entrance, he turned to one bystander and said with a smile, "Do you usually get crowds like this?"
During his presentation, which lasted about an hour, Karp discussed the slide show behind him while speaking on five different points: his attraction to Newburyport; impressions of downtown; preliminary plans for Waterfront West; work left before development; and dispelling myths heard on "the street."
Karp said he "kind of fell in love" with Newburyport during trips to the city with his family. He said the city seems to have good "proportions" and the "scale seems to be right." He also praised the city's history and social and economical diversity.
Some of the things that made the city attractive for development included that it is a "walkable" city, which he said "is something that is very unusual." He also said that the city has a "year-round vibrancy" with restaurants and stores filled even on cold winter days.
"I think that says something about the community of Newburyport," he said.
Karp also touted the natural beauty of the city, and the attractions centered around nature, including the nearby Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Another benefit, and one he said he has looked to before in developing, is the presence of a MBTA commuter rail station.
After showing many slides of the downtown streetscape, he moved onto a map of the downtown district with the properties he owns highlighted.
"You can get a flavor of why we are interested in everything going on downtown," he said.
Karp then moved to a map of Waterfront West, the 8-acre property from Michael's Harborside to the Black Cow restaurant along the Merrimack River that New England Development is eying for a mixed-use project.
The map pictured a series of ovals showing where mixed use and parking would be located. Michael's and the Black Cow remained, but the area of Hilton's Marina appeared to be changed into a mixed-use building.
"This is the way we think as developers," he said, using a laser pointer to highlight different areas of the map. "This is the way we start."
Karp said he and his team have developed about 75 different design studies for the area that take into consideration layout, traffic and a host of other different possibilities.
He said the first design they came up with was "too ambitious" and tried to fit too much development area on the site and did not have "enough respect for the waterfront."
"So we went back to the drawing board," he said. "We want to have a sustainable design. We want something that is part of the downtown and not something this is plugged in."
A few of the elements he promised to include in the development were access to the waterfront, an extension of the boardwalk that would connect Market Landing Park to Cashman Park on the other side of Route 1 and maintaining the "view corridors" to the Merrimack River.
"We want to make sure we don't do anything to disrupt the view corridors that do exist," he said.
The buildings themselves would be brick.
In a "concept elevation" of one of the structures, the buildings were connected and looked much like buildings lining State Street in the city's downtown district, with more glass and windows on the lower level. Karp said the buildings would house restaurants and retail on the first floor and housing and hotel space on the second.
Karp described a hotel that would be integrated throughout the site, apparently not a traditional, multistory hotel many are used to.
He also said the hotel and condominiums would be connected in some fashion so that the hotel could service the condos when they were not in use.
"We want to keep a lot of the historic details," he said.
Most critical to the plan — and a point raised continually throughout — is the need for parking, Karp said.
"Where's the parking?" Karp said. "Without parking, it won't work."
The plan for the site included parking, and Karp referred to building a parking garage on the site. But he also said the larger parking issue and traffic flow will have to be worked out through the city's officials.
Karp did say he is open to all possibilities, including a public/private partnership, but he stressed that parking is the city's issue to fix, and said he thinks officials should address it "in a timely manner."
'No Secret Plan'
Karp seemed to put a lot of fears to rest also, when toward the end of his presentation he answered some of the questions and rumors on the streets of Newburyport.
"You're the kings and this is your castle," he said. "We are invaders to your castle" who need to be invited in, he added.
Karp first addressed an oft-discussed topic: What is taking so long? Karp said they are developing plans, and that in his 35 years in development, he learned "you don't present a plan that doesn't work."
"I assure you there is no secret plan," he said.
Karp also addressed the idea that Newburyport could become Nantucket North since he has also invested millions of dollars to develop the resort island. He said that just isn't true.
"This isn't Nantucket," he said. "This is a different place. It is a different market. We're not trying to make another Nantucket."
The developer also said he is not looking to "flood" the city with national chain stores, but rather striving to keep the character of the district as it is now. He did say, though, that there could be chain stores that fit the downtown area, but also keep the district vibrant.
"The character of this downtown is not for national chains," he said. "We're not trying to flood the downtown, nor will we."