In Newburyport, a light at the end of the tracks
NEWBURYPORT — Something is finally going right, here on the wrong side of the tracks. Almost since the moment it was built in 1998, when the MBTA restored commuter rail service to the city, the train depot here has sat dormant.
Brief stints in its initial role as a train station and then as a coffee shop have bogged down in red tape and frustration for local residents and officials alike, who have longed for a more inviting gateway to their tourist-oriented city.
Their wait may be just about over. The owner of Metzy’s, a popular Mexican-style food truck that calls Newburyport home, is in the final stages of renovating the big brick, high-ceilinged building into a cantina. In mild weather, patrons will be able to sit on the patio and watch the trains come and go through an impressive archway that was salvaged from the old Newburyport YMCA building.
“Something about this place has always drawn me,” says Erik Metzdorf, the food truck owner, who lives on Plum Island with his family. “I saw a diamond in the rough. This will be a welcoming entry point for the city, a place to be proud of.”
Having earned the enthusiastic support of Mayor Donna Holaday, state Representative Jim Kelcourse, and a long list of contractors and backers, Metzdorf realizes the undertaking is more than just another restaurant opening.
“I’m all in,” he says. “This has to work. The cool part is, I already know it will work.”
Despite the best efforts of many — including a former mayor, Lisa Mead, who arranged to incorporate the arches from the YMCA, which burned in 1987 — the station building was ill-fated from the beginning. Most commuter rail travelers tend to use the parking lot on the opposite side of the tracks, where the main ramp to the platform sits hundreds of feet from the depot. The auxiliary parking lot on the depot side is located at a dead end, and electrical issues have plagued the building over the years.
“There were lots of skeletons in the closets,” Metzdorf said recently as he surveyed the work site. The place was still scattered with tools and sawdust, but it was easy to envision a bustling atmosphere.
For years, Metzdorf said, the city could have leased the site for a dollar, but there were no takers. And the city wasn’t eager to manage the building: “They were on record saying they didn’t want to be a landlord.”
Now, though, Mayor Holaday looks forward to Metzy’s grand opening. (True to form, a few snags have held up the opening, which had been set for early July.) The mayor has been a proponent of a proposed mixed-use development on nearby MBTA land, part of larger plans for the so-called smart growth district in an industrial area that has sat all but barren for years.
Holaday said one of her priorities has been “addressing and improving the gateway to our city.’’ She pointed to phase two of the city’s popular recreational rail trail and proposals that would reimagine the Route 1 rotary, which most commuters use to access the MBTA station, making the busy intersection more pedestrian-friendly.
Walking around the grounds outside the building, Metzdorf noted the wooden ramp that was installed some years ago, making the depot more readily accessible to people on the train platform. The owner hopes his restaurant will drive more traffic to the west-side parking lot, where the building stands. He said Kelcourse, the state representative, has appropriated money to fix the crumbling sidewalk between the building and the train tracks.
As Metzdorf talked, a woman pushing a child in a stroller stopped to ask directions to downtown Newburyport. He pointed her toward the rail trail, then took pains to explain that she might need to ask for more directions as she got closer to town.
Holaday wants her city to be more navigable, and development around the MBTA stop will be a key anchor, she said. She noted the success of Newburyport Brewing, a startup business that has thrived since moving into a nearby industrial park.
“I’m really pleased the train station is finally going to get put to good use,” she said.
The renovation has been overseen by John Sava, a local architect who has designed makeovers for Newburyport landmarks such as the former Towle Silver Factory, as well as Boston Harbor Distillery, Belmont’s Damnation Alley, and others.
“Erik has such an energy,” Sava said, stopping by the job. “No one else could have done this. He did everything the right way, and then some.”
Metzdorf has signed a 10-year lease, which will increase in its fourth year from the nominal $1 to a likely cap of $35,000 annually. He has invested $375,000 in the renovations, he said, adding a kitchen, bar, and walk-in cooler.
He’d been looking for a home base for his food truck business for some time. By law, food trucks in Massachusetts must have access to a commissary for food storage and preparation. When the restaurant opens, he’ll be able to give up the space he’s been renting in the kitchen at the Plum Island Beachcoma.
Part of his initial investment in the train station came from a successful Kickstarter campaign, which raised $30,000 in pledges. Metzdorf had a plaque made with the names of all 406 donors. It will hang just inside the cantina’s front door under a single word : “Gracias.”