It was 41 years ago that Newburyport pushed its first plan to build a parking garage downtown.
Since then, at least 10 plans have been proposed by six different mayors. None has been built.
The city is now poised to build a garage at the corner of Titcomb and Merrimac streets; however, criticism of the plan has sparked a backlash, with some in the city calling for a re-examination of a discarded plan to build the garage on the city-owned Green Street municipal parking lot. Others argue there is no need for a garage at all.
In the coming weeks, the City Council will take crucial votes on the parking lot plan. It’s the closest the city has come to building a garage since 2003, when a plan to build a garage died on the council floor, one vote shy of passage.
The back-and-forth over locating a parking garage — or even having one at all — is not a new phenomenon. In order to give our readers some historical perspective, The Daily News presents the following timeline on Newburyport’s efforts to build a garage. The information is garnered from news clippings and city reports:
1972-4: Following a series of land takings and demolitions, the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority creates the Green Street municipal parking lot. With its 200 parking spots, it is intended to handle a significant portion of the downtown’s off-street parking. At this period of time, this is the only city-owned lot in the downtown.
1975: The Green Street lot is seen as inadequate for the city’s long-term needs. A citizens advisory board and the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce suggest building a 232-space garage on the Kemtron Factory site. Today, in 2016, it’s the site of the city’s Prince Place parking lot, off Pleasant Street.
1977: A committee appointed by Mayor Byron Matthews formally recommends the garage for the Kemtron site. In a well-attended public hearing, the idea was roundly criticized, and quickly dropped.
1980: Mayor Richard Sullivan proposes a new and enlarged garage plan for the Kemtron site. Sullivan proposes taking and demolishing the adjacent brick block at 31 Pleasant St., which is currently occupied by Szechuan Taste restaurant, as well as the Kemtron factory. The three-story Kemtron factory was bought by the city and demolished, but plans for a garage are put on hold. The site turned out to be smaller than originally thought, and the city does not buy the 31 Pleasant St. site. Instead, a 50-space parking lot is built on the Kemtron site.
1983: Inadequate parking continues to be a major topic in City Hall. A new round of parking garage proposals begins. Mayor Sullivan recommends excavating the Green Street lot, building a deck and adding 160 parking spaces. Other sites were also considered: The Daily News site on Liberty Street, the corner of Titcomb and Merrimac, and the Prince Place lot. The Green Street lot was viewed as most plausible. Although the plan was backed by the Chamber of Commerce, it was strongly opposed by individual downtown merchants.
1983: Opposition to the Green Street plan convinces Mayor Sullivan to switch direction — he proposes a 145-space garage at the corner of Titcomb and Merrimac streets. However, the increasing wealth of Newburyport residents disqualifies the city from garage-related federal grants intended for low-income cities. The plan is dropped.
1984: A lack of parking was seen as a major problem for the downtown. The city persuades the NRA to allow for “temporary parking” on some of its waterfront property, giving birth to the city’s so-called “dirt lots” on the waterfront. At first, 125 spaces are opened up. Eventually, that number grows to 450, encompassing nearly all of the NRA’s developable land. The NRA at the time was actively seeking a developer to create a hotel and condominiums on its waterfront land, but none of its plans pan out.
1998: An extensive study of the downtown’s parking situation finds that the city faces an enormous deficit of parking if a current plan to develop the NRA’s property becomes a reality. The study — and an additional one in 1999 — recommend building a parking garage.
2001: Mayor Lisa Mead’s administration releases a master plan for the city that states building “one or more parking facilities” is the city’s “highest priority.” The city is looking ahead to a time when removal of parking spaces on the NRA’s land occurs due to development.
2003: Mayor Al Lavender proposes a two-story, $6.6 million, 160-car garage at the corner of Titcomb and Merrimac streets. The state allocates $5 million for the project. It falls one vote short in the City Council, and the plan falls apart. The state rescinds its financing.
2004-5: Mayor Mary Anne Clancy seeks state support for a $13.4 million Titcomb Street garage that would hold 320 cars. She later proposes spending $14.7 million for a four-story, 600-car garage on the Green Street lot. Both ideas are met with criticism and dropped. Several downtown merchants say the loss of the Green Street lot during the garage’s construction would be devastating.
2008: Mayor John Moak floats the idea of building a $12 million, 400-car parking garage on the Prince Place lot. It requires additional land takings, and the idea is eventually abandoned as unfeasible.
2009: Moak, in cooperation with the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority, begins working on a conceptual plan to build a bus terminal/parking garage at the corner of Titcomb and Merrimac. The city anticipates the garage must hold 350 cars in order to satisfy an expected loss of parking on the NRA’s land. It’s assumed that the NRA land will be developed.
May 2010: Shortly after taking office, Mayor Donna Holaday lays out a plan to create paid parking for offstreet lots in the downtown (since the 1960s, parking in municipal lots had been free). She also gives support to the MVRTA’s conceptual plan to build a parking garage at the corner of Titcomb and Merrimac. The City Council also gives its support for the plan.
June 2010: An extensive study of potential parking garage locations is commissioned by the city and MVRTA. It narrows the top two locations to the Titcomb/Merrimac street site and the Green Street site. It gives a slight edge to the Titcomb/Merrimac site as the preferred choice, due to the support given by the mayor and City Council. Public hearings are held. Efforts to secure land and financing coalesce on the Titcomb/Merrimac site.
2012-13: The NRA proposes constructing some buildings on its waterfront land, turning some of its land into a public park, and eliminating about half of its parking spaces. Over the course of several months, the plan is debated and rejected. As of 2016 there are no major plans for the NRA’s property — it is still used as a “temporary” lot, providing parking for about 400 cars.
July 2015: $5 million in state money is awarded for the MVRTA garage at Titcomb/Merrimac, a 300-space structure that includes a bus terminal. The owner of the site, New England Development, wants the rights to 90 spaces. Details of the plans are scant. Estimated cost is $12 million.
September 2015: An initial design for the garage is released at a well-attended public hearing. It calls for 315 parking spots in a five-story building. Part of the plan is to remove about 120 parking spaces from the NRA land, and eventually expand the waterfront park.
October 2015: The orientation of the garage is changed due to concerns from abutters. Instead of facing Merrimac Street, it will face Titcomb. This allows for the parking spaces to increase to 345, and somewhat answers neighbors’ concerns. Within a couple months, the city reverses this decision due to design issues.
November 2015: A new cost estimate is issued for the garage — $16 million, a 33 percent increase from the prior estimate. Another $2 million in state and federal grant money is awarded. This leaves a $9 million funding gap that the city needs to pay for. It’s expected that construction could begin in the fall of 2016.
December 2015: City Council President Tom O’Brien criticizes the cost of the garage, saying the city should look at other, less costly sites. A garage on the Green Street lot is suggested by some residents.
January 2016: Neighbors of the Titcomb/Merrimac site criticize the city’s plans for the garage, citing a lack of traffic and environmental studies. A particular concern is the city’s plan to take portions of backyards, which neighbors say will ruin their property values. Some of the abutters say they would prefer to have their homes bought by the city. Later in the month, Mayor Holaday says the cost of the garage is too high, and she wants the project downscaled to $10 million. The parking spaces would be reduced to about 200 to 225.
February 2016: The city revises its plan for the garage, bringing the cost to $12.2 million with 244 parking spaces. However, opposition among neighbors remains strong. Some call for the city to build the garage at the Green Street lot. Mayor Holaday discusses the possibility of buying some of the abutters’ homes. The NRA states in writing that its intent is to eventually have no more than 150 parking spots on its waterfront land.
This week: Tomorrow, the City Council will discuss Mayor Holaday’s request for $630,000 to pay for a design for the Titcomb/Merrimac garage. It’s also expected to field inquiries about the Green Street site.