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Redevelopment officials, citizens, at odds over waterfront

The debate over whether to develop or conserve land has erupted anew in Newburyport.

As the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority  moves ahead with its proposed plan to incorporate commercial and residential development into two remaining open parcels on the downtown riverfront, a grass-roots group is preparing a flier campaign, gathering signatures for a petition, and exploring potential legal issues related to the properties.

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“So many cities have lost their access to the waterfront, and lost their waterfront,” said Lon Hachmeister, vice chair of Citizens for an Open Waterfront. “At this point, putting in more buildings doesn’t make sense. Building isn’t progress.”

Quite the contrary, according to the redevelopment authority. “There’s still a real need for some level of commercial activity on the waterfront for it to be an active and viable space year-round,” said James Shanley, chairman of the authority.

Clashes over the waterfront have spawned several legal battles in past decades, with residents launching campaigns to preserve a handful of ways to the Merrimack River and to block a proposed hotel.

‘There are so few historic harbors left where you can go down to the sea and experience what’s past.’

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Now, the redevelopment authority, which has partnered with MassDevelopment, is proposing a 69,850-square-foot, mixed-use project on the two downtown waterfront parcels that together make up 4.2 acres. The lots are now used for parking and straddle a small public park.

As envisioned, the site would encompass two three-story buildings on either side of the park, with retail, restaurants, upper-level condominiums, and 66 underground parking spots. The development also would include two landscaped, paved parking lots with 191 spaces, as well as an expansion of the public park and rail trail.

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The estimated cost is $25 million to $30 million, according to Shanley. There would be an option to either sell the two parcels, he said, or to enter into a long-term lease with the developer or property manager.

The authority is putting together a request for proposals for the development, which would include feasibility studies. Shanley said it expects to have the forms available within the next 60 days.

“We would like to keep things moving,” he said. “For the community’s sake, sooner is better than later.”

The citizens group, however, would prefer that the process be slowed down to allow for more analysis and exploration of other options.

Chaired by Newburyport resident Elizabeth Heath, the group has gathered more than 2,000 signatures in support of an open waterfront, and it also plans to distribute 6,000 informational brochures.

Their concerns include: The buildings would be overwhelmingly large; parking would be diminished; river views would be blocked or eliminated; and historic open space — as well as a long-cherished community site for activities, festivals, concerts, or simple walking, lounging, and sunbathing — would be lost forever.

Rather than having a sanctuary away from the city, it would be like “bringing the city into the park,” said Hachmeister, who lives in Newbury but visits the park regularly, and what’s left of the open space would essentially become a front yard for condos.

Joanie Purinton, the group’s community liaison and also a Newbury resident, agreed that the proposal is “overpowering a small park, turning it into a retail mall.”

Countering that, Shanley said there is going to be “a lot of preservation of viewscapes” in the development, as well as a much better and more organized level of public access, and sufficient parking. In fact, he contended — with the exception of a handful of “peak days” — there is an excess capacity of parking in Newburyport.

Meanwhile, the benefits of such a development are numerous, he said. Having residents downtown in a walkable environment is “the most sustainable green thing you can do,” and the development would add to the tax base without encumbering the city with much cost.

He stressed that the plan is just a concept at this point, and that the numbers are not “hard and fast.”

Ultimately, he called the proposal a compromise: “We tried to do our best to listen to everybody.”

“It’s not 100 percent open,” he said. “We don’t believe that’s feasible, or in the best interest of the downtown.”

But members of the citizens group feel quite the opposite. They’d like to see a mixture of a park, landscaped parking (of a permeable surface; not asphalt, to allow for drainage), and space that can be used for a variety of purposes. According to Heath, the group is working on a list of alternative funding sources for park upkeep.

“This is a historic harbor,” said Purinton. “There are so few historic harbors left where you can go down to the sea and experience what’s past.”

But Shanley said the goal is to reconnect Newburyport with that historical past.

“The NRA firmly believes that it’s a good project. We’re moving forward,” he said. “It will help connect the downtown to the waterfront.”

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.

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