NEWBURYPORT — The City Council Committee on Planning and Development effectively put to rest a zoning amendment for the future Waterfront West site on Thursday, and discussed plans to start fresh with a new amendment early next year.
The joint hearing between the Planning Board and City Council Committee of the Whole was held to continue discussion of a zoning amendment, proposed by Council President Barry Connell, that would update the Waterfront West Overlay District, which was established in 2005 to encourage a redevelopment consistent with the downtown’s character. About 20 people gathered in City Hall Auditorium for the meeting, a stark contrast to other recent Waterfront West hearings that saw crowds many times larger.
Waterfront West is a large multiuse project proposed by New England Development and planned on five acres the company owns between Michael’s Harborside and the former Black Cow restaurant. The site also includes Brown’s Wharf, 58 McKay’s Wharf, 72 Merrimac St., 86-90 Merrimac St. and 92 Merrimac St.
The most recent proposal includes seven buildings with up to 215 residential units, 10,000 square feet of retail space, and 85 to 100 hotel rooms. The earlier plans included as many as eight buildings and up to 230 residential units.
Connell’s amendment was intended to tighten up zoning on the proposed development’s site, dozens of residents and multiple city councilors recently expressed disapproval of it, and Ward 2 Councilor Jared Eigerman acknowledged last week that it would likely not be approved.
On Thursday, Eigerman said that while Connell did the council “a service” by putting the amendment forth, he believes “it’s not the right vehicle.”
“It seems unlikely that we’re going to be doing any more work on this before the end of the year,” said Eigerman
He said he sees three options for the future of Waterfront West zoning, the first of which would be for a city councilor to simply introduce another ordinance sometime next year. He said that introducing a new amendment before then would not make sense because there will be a new City Council in January, after November’s municipal election.
The second option, Eigerman said, would be for the City Council to assemble another ad hoc committee on Waterfront West and draft another set of zoning recommendations for the site. Eigerman’s third option would be to “go way back” and re-do the 2003 Waterfront Strategic Plan, which laid out a vision for the city’s entire waterfront.
Ward 3 Councilor Heather Shand expressed interest in working on a new ordinance that would prioritize city residents’ needs over those of New England Development.
“I would like to see us bring this back in and make amendments based off of what Newburyporters are saying. This should not be based off of what NED is looking for. I think we’ve heard that loud and clear,” said Shand.
Planning Board member Rick Taintor said he feels the city needs to “go back and start the zoning process over again” with a new ordinance. Fellow Planning Board member Anne Gardner said she believes the Waterfront Strategic Plan is fine as is, and encouraged the City Council to draft another amendment to the existing Waterfront West Overlay District, paying special attention to climate change-related measures as well as the height and density of the project.
Several Planning Board members also expressed the need for the city to start fresh with a new Waterfront West zoning amendment, and the board ultimately voted unanimously to recommend that the City Council not adopt the current ordinance.
Planning Board chair Bonnie Sontag voiced support of having a “true working session” between Planning Board members and City Councilors that would be open to the public “to come up with the vision and the details for what Newburyport wants to see in this space, and to drive the project from our side.”
Sontag then said that the Planning Board would create a subcommittee that will draft a report full of recommendations to the City Council on zoning for the Waterfront West site.
Eigerman said the council will await the report from the Planning Board’s subcommittee, and would then begin discussion of a new Waterfront West zoning amendment.
The Committee on Planning and Development then voted unanimously to let the currently-proposed zoning amendment stay in committee, and not to bring it before the full council.
Staff writer Jack Shea covers Newburyport City Hall. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 978-961-3154. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.