Take a walk on the Waterside: Newburyport's renovated boardwalk marks a new chapter in the city's waterfront history - and its future

By Rob Marino
Thursday, May 22, 2003

Last Sunday afternoon couldn't have been a more perfect day to celebrate a Newburyport milestone. With warm temperatures and blue sky, downtown was bustling with people enjoying the welcome weather. As young couples and families lazed on blankets under the shade of Market Landing Park, folks young and old alike enjoyed the view of the Merrimack River while strolling along the newly renovated and expanded Peter J. Matthews Boardwalk.

Like the Kevin Costner movie, "Field of Dreams," in which a farmer is inspired to build a baseball diamond after hearing a mysterious voice from beyond the cornfield echoing, "If you build it, they will come," Newburyport's boardwalk has been attracting crowds of tourists, day-trippers and local residents since it was originally built over 25 years ago.

"The Peter J. Matthews Boardwalk has become one of the community's principal and most beloved civic spaces since it was originally constructed in the late 1970s," notes the Newburyport Office of Planning and Development on the city's Web site. "In addition, the facility plays an integral role in the downtown's economic prosperity, due to its function as a prime, heavily used destination for residents and visitors alike during all times of the year."

However, a quarter century of New England weather took its toll on the original boardwalk, in which its surface of pressure-treated pine was splintering, cracking and sagging in places. In addition, the "original design did not extend the facility to logical ending points on the east and west," notes the city's Web site. The old timber bulkhead directly to the west of the boardwalk was also significantly deteriorated and the boardwalk's lighting and other systems were in need of upgrading.

Now, more than $2 million and years of hard work later, the city's renovated and expanded boardwalk is providing greater public access than ever before.

During Sunday's rededication, Geordie Vining, the city's senior project manager, likened the new boardwalk in a tongue-and-cheek fashion to that of the pop culture icon, the $6 Million Man, in which the catch phrase "we can rebuild him," is easily associated with the bionic android. "But this is the $2 million boardwalk. We can rebuild it. We're going to make it faster, stronger and better than before," he said Sunday. "And that's what I really think we've done."

As the rededication prepared to get under way, spectators viewed old photographs on display showing what the waterfront looked like some 100 years ago. The photographs also depicted a waterfront past not too long ago at the onset of the urban renewal of the city's downtown during the late 1960s and early 1970s. One picture of heaps of junk behind the Custom House on Water Street shows the dramatic contrast in the waterfront's transformation over the course of three decades.

"Isn't that disgusting?" one woman remarked about the photograph before the rededication.

"You can see by the pictures behind me what it was like when the boardwalk was being constructed," Mayor Alan Lavender said at the start of the rededication. "It's hard to believe what we have here today."

"It's been my honor for the past two and a half years to work on this great project," Vining said. "I love this project and I love Newburyport. Today is obviously an opportunity to celebrate all that we've accomplished here over the past couple of years and to publicly acknowledge and extend our appreciation to all the folks who made this project possible.

"As the mayor said, look at the context of what we used to have," Vining said, referring to the old photographs. "Newburyport's history, past, present and future have always been completely entwined with its waterfront. It's had many different uses obviously and there's been a great transformation. But it's always been central and today it's recognized as one of the finest waterfronts around and we're still busy expanding it and rebuilding it."

The project began in the late 1990s before Vining came aboard as the original boardwalk started reaching the end of its useful life. Construction started in January of 2002 and now 16 months later, the boardwalk rehabilitation is substantially complete.

"We're not quite done. We have a few more things to do and many people have been reminding me of that lately," Vining said, generating some chuckles. "But you know we're going to get it done in the next couple of weeks."

'Hobo jungle'

Local resident Carl Panall remembers what the waterfront was like when he first came to Newburyport in 1973 when the city's urban renewal project had already taken flight. A former harbor commissioner and member of the original Newburyport Waterfront Trust established by former Mayor Peter J. Matthews in January of 1991, Panall was also a swordfisherman. Panall recalls the view of the waterfront from his swordfish boat, which was tied up to a ramshackle dock behind the old fire station, which today is the Firehouse Center for the Arts.

Large chunks of granite blocks littered the waterfront and were piled on top of each other, Panall recalls, creating a "mini-Stonehenge" with cubby holes where many of the city's vagabond slept.

"It was almost like a hobo jungle," Panall recalls. "Fifteen to 20 winos used to sleep there. The ragweed was 6 or 7 feet tall. It used to be a ragweed forest."

"By the 1960s, the once-thriving Market Square had become a depressing, forlorn jumble of unused and unappreciated structures," wrote author John Hardy Wright, in his book "Images of America: Newburyport," adding, "It was not until 1968 that a thoughtful plan of restoration, not demolition, was approved by the City Council. Now a well-recognized model for sympathetic urban renewal, Newburyport is a shining example of wise architectural restoration."

Before restoration efforts began in Newburyport, demolition was the approach used on many of the city's downtown structures. But just as the city's waterfront has had its share of problems along the way, the boardwalk rehabilitation project wasn't exactly a picnic in the park either.

"There's been a few bumps in the road," Vining said Sunday, citing a litany of difficulties along the way. The main problem was the weather.

"I don't know if anyone remembers the winter we just had," Vining said, prompting laughs from the crowd, "and the tent city we had set up around here as the crew worked throughout the worst of the winter to try to bring this project to fruition."

Vining recalled one particular day when, J.R. Freitas, the superintendent for the project, wasn't in the best of moods. "Back in the winter time, there was one of those days where J.R. was in a trench with freezing rain falling on his head," Vining said. "He's usually a pretty good-humored guy, but that I day I kept my distance in my spacious, ornate office up there in City Hall and said, 'This is why I have a desk job.'"

Also attending the event were state Rep. Mike Costello, Newburyport resident and Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins, Jr., and former mayors George Lawlor, Byron Matthews, Mary Carrier, Dick Sullivan and Lisa Mead. Members of the Newburyport Waterfront Trust and the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority (NRA), which jointly own the land spanning the boardwalk area, were also on hand.

Peter J. Matthews' family and the members from the Peter J. Matthews Memorial Committee also attended the event as did a few city councilors, including Karen Kelley and Thomas O'Brien.

"It's a wonderful day for the Matthews family," said son Peter J. Matthews Jr. "I would have to tell you that my father would be truly thrilled with the everlasting recognition. Upon leaving the mayor's office back in 1993, having served four year's on the Personnel Board, 14 years as City Councilor and six years as mayor, my father was asked, 'How do you want to be remembered?' He said he wanted to be remembered as someone who did the best that he could, that he helped many people. He also wanted to be remembered for his contributions to the waterfront."

A new granite seating area in the central portion of the renovated boardwalk memorializes Matthews, who was a city councilor from 1972-79 and from 1984-85. He was also the mayor from 1986-87 and then again from 1990-93.

A quote from Matthews inscribed on the memorial reads, "I think being mayor of a small city is one of the hardest and best jobs of a lifetime. That's all I wanted."

In addition to establishing the Newburyport Waterfront Trust in 1991 in hopes of providing more public access to the waterfront, Matthews is recognized for an array of other accomplishments under his administration, including the completion of waterfront's fish pier through a Coastal Facilities Improvement grant in the late 1980s and having the first community harbor plan in the state.

"Those are nice accomplishments," Matthews' son said, mentioning many other achievements. "But the real reasons that we are ultimately here today to acknowledge him boil down to two. First, he made a difference in many people's lives, and secondly, Newburyport is a better place for his having been here. Over 50 years ago, the great baseball manager Leo Durocher said that nice guys finish last. Today, a nice guy finished first."

Leading the Wayes

Other community leaders and residents were credited for leading the way to providing greater public access to the city's waterfront.

Stephanie Hufnagel, former chairwoman of the Newburyport Waterfront Trust, spoke on behalf of the trust to recognize a couple of local residents who took their own initiative to improve the waterfront and make it more accessible to the public. The trust is a five-member group appointed by the mayor that manages the original boardwalk, the five "wayes" to the water and Market Landing Park.

Recognized by the trust were Jane Nelson and Susan Sexton. "Jane Nelson worked very closely with Peter Matthews in order to create this boardwalk, and when she died, her friends and family created the Jane Nelson Fund for youth-at-risk," Hufnagel explained. "So we're creating programs on the waterfront in her honor.

"Susan Sexton was a woman in town who saw a need for maintenance on the boardwalk, especially for the plantings, long before their even was a trust," Hufnagel continued. "And she put something together called the Waterfront Weeders. The Waterfront Weeders became the Planting Committee for the waterfront trust and there is now a Susan Sexton Planting Fund.

"These are just two examples of the way that the community, the trust and the city, in the form of the planning office and every single mayor, have come together with individuals and organizations and especially businesses who have contributed so generously financially, to make it possible for this area to be as beautiful and as well loved as it is."

Local resident Don Pollard says Nelson worked with the Friends of the Newburyport Waterfront in pushing for the establishment of a trust to maintain the historic "wayes," or paths leading from the waterfront to Market Square. The "wayes" include Railroad Avenue Way, Custom House Way, Ferry Wharf Way, Central Wharf Way and Somersby's Landing. Pollard says the Friends group deserves much credit in working toward gaining access to the waterfront.

Although the trust was established in 1991 by former Mayor Peter J. Matthews, Panall and Pollard say the trust came out of a lawsuit that the Friends group had with the NRA over public access and who was going to have authority of the "wayes" to the water. The Friends group disbanded in the early 1980s.

The big financial contributors to the project include Newburyport Area Industrial Development, which donated $100,000, the Institute for Savings, which contributed $50,000 and Newburyport Five Cent Savings Bank, which donated $50,000. First and Ocean Bank contributed $15,000 with a promise of $10,000 more. Chuck and Ann Lagasse from Piper Properties, donated $10,000. First National Bank of Ipswich contributed $6,000, Hall & Moskow contributed $3,000, Newburyport Maritime Society donated $2,800 and Danvers Savings Bank donated $2,000. In addition, the Mary Alice Arakelian Foundation was recognized for its contribution toward landscaping improvements around the boardwalk and in Market Landing Park. The city also received $800,000 from the state for the project.

"This is an extraordinary project that will improve the access to the waterfront, not just for the citizens of Newburyport, but for all citizens in Massachusetts," said Peter Webber, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Management Sunday.

"It was imperative that this be a state, city and private venture in order for the state to approve it," Mead said. "We're lucky in Newburyport, because we have a private community that's willing to donate money and make sure that we have amenities like this for the entire community to enjoy and without their support, we wouldn't be here. And without all of your support for enjoying this and making sure that it's a focal point in our community, we wouldn't be here either."

"This partnership spans many years and many decades," said Costello. "Often times, the hard work of folks is overlooked because so many people put so much time into this project, but as you know, we've had many issues on this waterfront and sometimes we didn't always agree on the issues. But this is an issue that we love and I'm so proud for the Matthews family.

"If there's one thing I think that Peter would have loved to be remembered for was that we a people's mayor. He was a mayor that walked the streets and you'd often see him in the afternoon talking with people and walking on the boardwalk, so it's a fitting tribute."

Back to the future

Standing in front of the Black Cow Restaurant on the western end of the boardwalk, Vining said Sunday, "What we're standing on today here is completely new. It used to be just parking lot as is the continuation of the walkway up to downtown, now known as Somersby's Landing," which runs from the waterfront up to Merrimac Street near the corner of Green Street.

The old timber bulkhead has been replaced with the a new one made of steel and the fender system in the embayment has also been repaired and beefed up. In addition to the new memorial seating area in honor of former Mayor Peter J. Matthews, the boardwalk has also been extended to the east to the Custom House Museum.

A new Custom House "waye" connects pedestrians from the waterfront to Water Street right in front of the Custom House.

A new brick plaza around the harbormaster's building and fisherman's memorial has been added and new water and electrical services at the floats for boaters have also been installed. The boardwalk's lighting system has also been replaced.

The unfinished work includes "small detail stuff," Vining said, including finishing some paving, asphalt and cobble work. The bulkhead's steel sheets also need to be replaced.

"They were installed 25 years ago and they're beginning to corrode and thin out at the top," he said. "We need to have some kind of repair work done. We've come up with a design to weld new sheets along the top 4 or 5 feet of the existing bulkhead as opposed to having to drive new steel sheets in the front of the existing bulkhead."

Vining said that asphalt behind the Custom House Maritimes Museum will be torn up, transforming a former parking area into green space for the museum to use for exhibits and programs. According to a 1969, booklet from the Newburyport Maritime Society, titled "A View From the Old Custom House," the green space is a long time coming.

"When renewal of the waterfront became a possibility during the 1960s, attention was focused on the future of the Custom House," the booklet notes. "Citizens recognized that the building was superbly suited to become Newburyport's first Maritimes Museum; they also saw it as the dignified entrance to a Marine Park, extending 300 feet to the water's edge. Here, visitors could board a replica of the 50-foot cutter 'Massachusetts.' Here, they might wander at ease among a complex of reconstructed workshops and observe live demonstrations of such marine arts as sail making, figurehead carving and painting, model building and the forging of brass."

William Partridge, owner of Piel Craftsmen on Center Street, helps with the restoration of many of the artifacts on display at the museum. A Newburyport native, Partridge is pleased about how the boardwalk now ties into the museum and hopes that more use toward the back of the historical landmark takes place.

"I think everything evolves and I think as things develop, it creates incentive for other things to happen," Partridge says. "I think people will see a different opportunity that they wouldn't have seen if this hadn't been done. The boardwalk may hit a point where that's the end, but I don't think that's going to be the end of the growth in the downtown development at all."

The city's waterfront will continue to change shape.

"We're continuing to look ahead to the planning and financing of other critical waterfront projects for the city which will further enhance this waterfront and capitalize on existing investments we've made as a community over the years," Vining says. "We should look toward the renovation of the commercial fishing pier over on the eastern side. We have to work very hard together as a community to expand and improve the waterfront park when can finally find the appropriate balance between parking and park, and we have to look to extend public access to the east and west of the boardwalk in the larger vision of linking Joppa Park through the central waterfront all the way over to Cashman Park. I've got my life's work ahead of me, I think."

Crediting the hard work of Ron Headrick from Vollmer Associates, who designed the project, and Jeff Lake from Boston Towing and Transportation's Marine Construction Division, the company that constructed the new boardwalk, Vining also talked about the importance of the wood used for the renovated boardwalk. Small pieces of the tropical hardwood, called ipe, were given as souvenirs to waterfront trust and NRA members and others associated with the project. One piece of 33-foot-long ipe wood used on the boardwalk project weights 746 pounds.

"This ipe wood is obviously central to the reconstruction project," Vining says. "It's a tropical hardwood from Guinea. It's been independently certified in terms of how it was harvested in an environmentally sound way. We've actually planted replacement trees down in various plantations and community-owned forests. Many benches are made out of it and people are starting to become aware of this wood. It has a tremendous natural resistance to decay, unlike North American wood. It's so dense that it actually sinks in the water. It has the same fire rating as concrete or steel and it's more cost efficient also in terms of the life cycle analysis."

Placing importance on the wood's everlasting ability for generations to come, Vining called his 5-and-a-half year-old son Jesse to the podium, handing him one of the souvenir pieces of wood.

"I just want you to take a look at this fine young man and get a sense of this wood," Vining said. "This wood is supposed to last on this boardwalk until Jesse is grown up here in Newburyport, and he'll grow up and then he'll have children and he'll watch his children grow up. Then he'll have grandchildren and we'll all still be walking on the same boardwalk here, so this is a graphic ability of how long this should last us. By then, I'll have a long white beard down to my knees."

Wendy and John Jacob Kostandin direct and photograph this gaggle of giggling kids on the newly renovated and expanded waterfront boardwalk Sunday. From left, Edmundo Villa, 5, Rebecca Kostandin, Adrianna Villa, 2, Breanna Kostandin, 13, and Ryan Kostandin, 8. (Staff photos by Rob Branch)

Four-year-old Sam Merritt takes a stroll along the new granite memorial seating area in honor of former Mayor Peter J. Matthews, for whom Newburyport's waterfront boardwalk is named.

Newburyport Mayor Alan Lavender speaks during the rededication of the city's waterfront boardwalk renovation and expansion Sunday afternoon.

Senior Project Manager Geordie Vining addresses those assembled for the formal rededication ceremony Sunday.
(This article replicated online with permission of the Merrimack River Current.)
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