As a man approached the stairs to City Hall for a meeting of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, David Strand reached out with a pin bearing the logo “Newburyport Forward.”
“Are you a forward thinker?” Strand said. “Would you like to show your colors?”
Strand and other members of the group he organized to support the authority’s plan for developing the waterfront were gathered informally before the board meeting’s last week.
The group was not on the agenda to speak, but a few members planned to offer their views during the public comments. While some members had attended meetings before, Strand said this was the first as “a united front.”
Debate about the waterfront has been ongoing since the redevelopment authority – which took over property by the river by eminent domain in 1968 – accepted proposals in 1971 for development of a marina, inn, restaurants, shops, and housing.
In 1972, a group opposed to such development, Friends of the Newburyport Waterfront, was formed. Years of legal wrangling followed. By the late 1980s, the group was renamed Committee for an Open Waterfront. Still active today, members are referred to as COWs.
In May, the open waterfront group presented the redevelopment authority with a plan to expand the park with outdoor venues to include shade pavilions, a volleyball court, and a wading pool.
The authority’s plan is to increase the size of the park area and construct two three-story, mixed-use buildings in the parking lot space.
“The COWs have done a good job of being vocal,” said Meghan Kinsey, a member of Newburyport Forward and a candidate for an at-large seat on the City Council. “If you are speaking, some people will be listening. And no one else has really spoken up.”
Alex Dardinski, a Newburyport native, said the open waterfront organization is “basically a protest group.”
“It was not until David [Strand] got Newburyport Forward started that there has been something to counter that protest,” he said. “It’s been more than 40 years of opposition to any and all things on the waterfront, and it’s time to get a grip and do something.”
The Committee for an Open Waterfront is against any building on the 4.2 acres in question, which are two primarily dirt lots used for parking on either side of a waterfront park.
“We are rich in open space, rich in economic vitality, and rich in waterfront access,” Dardinski said. “And we still have a dirt parking lot. I think people who come here because it is a great historic seaport are surprised to see how big a scar is on the waterfront.
“In more than 40 years, the NRA has presented many designs, from full development to a full park,” he said. “This is the best compromise that has ever been presented. We’ve waited long enough. Now is the time to act.”
Several members of Newburyport Forward are no strangers to taking action.
As part of a group called Port Pride, they successfully fought for a referendum last year that supported three school projects: construction of a new elementary school, renovation of the middle school, and building a community senior center on the site of the old elementary school.
Now, said Allison Heartquist, a city councilor from Ward 1, “we are all well rested and ready to rock again.
“It’s time to get something done,” she said. “I am all for progress and I think the symbol of Newburyport Forward sums it up. It’s overdue and I think there are a lot of people who agree. It’s the quiet majority.”
In just a few weeks, the Newburyport Forward page on Facebook has garnered more than 800 “likes.”
“I’m very grateful to have them step forward,” said Tom Salemi, chairman of the redevelopment authority. “We have always felt there is a demographic that supports our concept and what we are trying to do. It’s a challenge to get folks in favor of something to come forward. It’s always easier to get those opposed.”
Lon Hachmeister, vice president of the Committee for an Open Waterfront, who was at last week’s meeting, said of Newburyport Forward: “I don’t have any problem with them coming out. We expect a lot of people aren’t going to agree.
“I was going to congratulate them for having an open meeting for a change, for calling on people,” Hachmeister said of the redevelopment authority. “We couldn’t get called on for the first year and a half and couldn’t get recognized in meetings. And they couldn’t figure out why we went public and started going a little crazy?
“What was missing was an open process,” Hachmeister said. “This is great.”
Correction: Because of an editing error, the site of proposed development on the Newburyport waterfront was mischaracterized in an earlier version of this story. The 4.2 acres is two primarily dirt lots used for parking on either side of a waterfront park.