More than 100 people packed into a small library function room last week to hear a group of local activists present their vision for the city’s downtown waterfront.
Citizens for an Open Waterfront unveiled a concept that includes open views of the Merrimack River, recreational facilities, and improved parking, and soundly rejects the two large new buildings that are the centerpiece of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority’s proposal for the land.
“They have a great potential to claim their waterfront as a park, and buildings would prevent that,” said landscape architect Jamie Purinton, who grew up in the area and helped develop the citizens group’s plan.
At stake is the future of a 4.2-acre parcel of riverfront land and, say those on both sides, the character of the city. The property is owned by the redevelopment authority and the Newburyport Waterfront Trust, a nonprofit formed in 1991 to manage public land along the waterfront.
The parcel off Merrimac Street consists of a small park flanked by two potholed parking lots and a boardwalk running along the water.
Citizens for an Open Waterfront presented a plan to improve the property while keeping it undeveloped.
“Our vision is to emphasize and restore and celebrate our maritime heritage,” said Lon Hachmeister, vice president of the citizens group and the main presenter at last week’s meeting.
The group’s concept calls for an expansion of the park and the possible addition of tables, shade pavilions, a volleyball court, and a wading pool. The parking lots would be resurfaced and divided into sections that could be blocked off to serve as “outdoor rooms” for public and private events.
The plan would cost an estimated $1.9 million, much of which could be funded by government and private grants, according to the group’s presentation.
The concept was created in response to plans released last year by the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, which opponents of waterfront development felt had not fully taken their concerns into account.
“We had trouble getting our viewpoint across in meetings,” Hachmeister said.
The redevelopment authority plan would increase the size of the park by about 40 percent, largely along the waterfront, and construct two three-story mixed-used buildings in some of the parking lot space. Such a project would cost a developer $25 million to $30 million, according to authority estimates, though the final amount would depend on the details of the final plan, said Thomas Salemi, chairman of the authority. There would be no cost to taxpayers, he said.
The plan would create a more vital waterfront, Salemi said. Restaurants, shops, and condos would draw people in all year, while a park is only used seasonally, he noted.
“It seems to be a waste of a great venue,” he said. “Our hope is that by bringing some restaurants and some retail down by the water we’ll give people more chances to enjoy it.”
Hachmeister and other opponents of the plan, however, worry the buildings would be overwhelmingly large. Last week’s presentation included an animation demonstrating the scale of the proposed buildings; the images sparked murmurs of dismay from the audience.
“Newburyport is land-poor, and now they just want to develop everything,” said resident Don Pollard, a longtime advocate for keeping an open waterfront.
Salemi said the citizens group’s vision of open space could be unwise financially. A park on that scale would cost the city money without bringing in the additional revenue that new buildings would create, he said.
“I am worried about saddling the community with a park we can’t afford to maintain,” he said. “I want people to have a larger park, but I want to be reasonable about how we do it.”
The redevelopment authority is putting together a request for proposals for the parcel. The land would be sold or leased to the winning bidder.
Meanwhile, Citizens for an Open Waterfront hopes to get its message out to as many people as possible in an attempt to swing public sentiment its way, said president Elizabeth Heath.
Following the unexpectedly large turnout last week, the organization scheduled a second meeting for this past Tuesday. The group also will present its plan around the community during the weeks to come, Heath said.
“We’ll be doing this for as long as it takes, as often as it takes,” Heath said.
The future of the waterfront plot has been under debate for decades. Previous proposals have included hotels, commercial space, and a conference center. All have faced active opposition and occasional legal challenges from Citizens for an Open Waterfront and its predecessor, Friends of the Newburyport Waterfront.
The citizens group plans to continue fighting the latest development proposals in the hope of preserving what it says is most special about Newburyport.
“There are other places you can put condos and shops,” said Purinton. “There’s only one waterfront.”