NEWBURYPORT — The City Council received a draft ordinance last week that would set limits and requirements for the biggest project looming in the city's future – New England Development's planned Waterfront West.
Waterfront West is a large multiuse project planned on five acres the company 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 proposed in 2017 following criticism from city officials and residents who said it was too large and dense for the site.
Last year, New England Development said the project would feature several buildings, including a hotel, retail space and 130 to 170 condominiums, although the new plans have not been released.
The 20-page ordinance, sponsored by council President Barry Connell, would adjust Newburyport's Waterfront West Overlay District, which was established several years ago to encourage implementation of the recommendations of the city's 2003 Waterfront Strategic Plan.
Connell said the ordinance would update the overlay district to follow the city's 2017 master plan and the report submitted Jan. 28 by the council's Ad Hoc Committee on Waterfront West.
Connell noted that the ordinance should ensure the project's tallest buildings are along Merrimac Street and that the building heights closer to the waterfront are scaled back. It also would set maximum heights at 35 feet for buildings set back more than 400 feet from Merrimac Street, 55 feet for buildings along Merrimac Street, and 45 feet for all other buildings.
"We don't want a wall there on the water's edge, we want something that looks like it grew there organically ... so it looks like Newburyport," Connell said.
The proposed ordinance sets a requirement for a hotel or inn with a minimum of 50 guest rooms; retail, restaurant and service uses with a cumulative amount of between 5,000 and 10,000 square feet of gross floor area; and a public pedestrian route along the waterfront that is wheelchair accessible and has an average width of between 10 and 12 feet. Twenty-five percent of the property would be required to remain as publicly accessible open space.
The ordinance does not set a minimum or maximum number of housing units, but does require at least 12 percent of housing units be affordable under state income guidelines.
Connell noted that his proposal does not address the number of condominiums or apartments because New England Development's plans are still unclear. But he said the proposal aims to create a development that fits with the rest of the city's downtown in terms of size and aesthetics.
"That's kind of tricky. The developer hasn't told us exactly how many units they plan on putting there," Connell said. "We want it to be no more dense than the rest of the downtown area so that the building density and building space is going to be the same. We also need to make sure the traffic circulation fits with the rest of downtown."
The proposed draft ordinance was introduced to the council at its meeting July 15 and sent to the Committee on Planning and Development and Committee of the Whole for discussion.
Ward 2 City Councilor Jared Eigerman, who chairs the Committee on Planning and Development, said the proposed ordinance would be discussed Sept. 19 at a joint meeting of the committee and the Planning Board. He said the Planning and Development Committee would likely meet next month for preliminary discussion of the the ordinance.
Eigerman said he expects the final version of Connell's ordinance to follow the recommendations in the council's Ad Hoc Committee on Waterfront West's report fairly closely, which he said the current draft already "does pretty well."
But Eigerman also emphasized the importance of New England Development's next round of plans in determining the ordinance's terms.
"The key thing is that we're all waiting for the 3-D model from New England Development," Eigerman said. "No one on the council is ready to take a position on the ordinance until we get context on what the buildings are going to look like."
Connell said the city and New England Development are still working on a development agreement that would detail rules for the project and define a list of community benefits the developer would have to provide if the project wins approval.
The agreement would require the developer to make improvements on Merrimac Street, particularly at the base of the Gillis Bridge on Route 1, where heavy traffic often backs up during the summer.
On Tuesday, Connell said he had nothing more on the agreement other than that he is expecting a report on it from the council's attorney later this week.
"We're doing our best to make sure the city is well-represented in this," Connell said. "We need Waterfront West to be a good place for people to live, shop and play."
To see all of the previous updates to Waterfront West documents, 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.
REFER - ONLINE EXTRA: To see the plans, go to www.newburyportnews.com.