Let’s look back to 1984, to a regrettable decision that has plagued Newburyport ever since.
The downtown lacked adequate parking. A number of plans to build a parking garage had been proposed over the course of the previous decade. They all failed. The criticisms usually boiled down to this: Too big. Too much money. Too much impact on the neighborhood. Not really needed.
But the parking problem was real, and didn’t go away. It got worse as more shops and restaurants moved in, and Newburyport’s appeal as a tourist destination increased.
In 1984, an ugly Band-Aid was applied. The city convinced the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority to allow some of its vacant waterfront land to be used for parking, “temporarily.” Some 125 spots were opened up, then the number grew and grew. Now its north of 400 parking spots, most of them on dirt lots that send up “dust devil” swirls when the wind kicks up.
“Temporary” parking on one of the most valuable pieces of public land in the region has dragged on into its 32nd year. Most regulars to the downtown have become used to how bad it looks, and more or less immune to how it reflects on the city. But people who come here and visit this otherwise beautiful city with fresh eyes see it for what it is. This unique piece of waterfront land was never intended to be used for such a low and ugly purpose.
The Band-Aid has got to be ripped off, and the current plan to build a parking garage at the corner of Titcomb and Merrimac streets is the way to do it.
Over five years ago the decision was made by the mayor and City Council to pursue the Titcomb and Merrimac location. Now, some in Newburyport want that decision delayed or rescinded. It’s too late — Newburyport risks losing the $7 million in state and federal funds it fought for years to acquire. If the parking garage plan is kicked aside again, this long-held goal of getting parking off the waterfront will once again be kicked aside, and the “temporary” dirt lots will likely have another long period of life.
Time and again, in survey after survey, meeting after meeting, Newburyporters have said they want an “open waterfront.” They don’t want buildings on the NRA lot or a huge dirt parking lot. They want a park that showcases this expansive stretch of waterfront land. But they’re not going to get that until there is a new garage built to replace the dirt parking spots.
Earlier this month the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, which owns the dirt lots, made clear its long-term goal — it wants to reduce its waterfront parking to no more than 150 spots, in keeping with what the majority of the public wants. That’s a loss of about 250 parking spots. That’s like shutting down the entire Green Street lot. It will have a huge impact.
Times are changing in Newburyport. The downtown is a major regional destination. A restaurant and tourism boom is luring a growing number of people to the downtown. You can see it just about every weekend from April through October, when the lines of cars trying to get into the downtown back up for a half mile or more, clogged up by people hunting for parking spots. It will get even more clogged when new restaurants open, such as the 400-seat Ale House on Merrimac Street that is currently under construction.
There is no ideal place for a parking garage — history has proven that. For 41 years Newburyporters have debated the issue, proposed locations and then criticized them into the grave. Yet the need for a garage remains. The choices are limited. Of the 10 locations that have been considered, the Titcomb and Merrimac site is the strongest option.
The parking garage offers a sensible solution to at least two major problems that Newburyport faces — it allows the city to reduce the ugly dirt lots on the waterfront, and creates a convenient and space-efficient place for people to park.
After 41 years, it’s time to stop circling the block. It’s time to park the garage.