January 16, 2004



The hunt for funds for Port's restoration

By Bill Plante

(Editor's note: We resume the "sometimes series" relating to the late 20th century of Newburyport's renaissance as an outline of issues that continue as a consequence of what was done and what remains. Rehabilitation and restoration of Newburyport's downtown faced Mayor Byron Matthews upon taking office in 1968 with a unique complexity of issues. The city's economy was in total shambles with widespread unemployment and with a rebuilding of its industrial base, through NAID, only just gaining a foothold in the Common Pasture area. The designated central business district faced not only the displacement of existing businesses, but the replacement of its entire servicing infrastructure. Central to all were three major, interrelated issues. One involved the "takings" of properties by the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, and the legal responses to challenges as to value. One was the displacement of existing businesses. The third was funding and completion of the servicing infrastructure of water mains, gas and electric services, a massive undertaking because of the structural and economic impact. Those businesses that were displaced had to find new locations. Those that were not to leave, including those on the easterly side of State Street, had to remain open despite the upheaval.)


By Bill Plante

All mayors face hurdles on assuming office, and no administration is a walk in the park. New mayors pick up where their predecessors leave off. But no mayors have had to do more heavy lifting than did those who served during the major problems of the redevelopment of Newburyport's central business district. Among these, the greatest time of angst and infrastructure turmoil occurred during the 10 years of Byron Matthews' terms of office.

His predecessor, George Lawler, had set the stage during his four years with thoughtful and persistent engagement of the community at large, and the emerging factions to gain support for restoration, having built upon the political structuring by his predecessor, Albert H. Zabriskie Jr., who appointed the first redevelopment authority.

Mayor Richard E. Sullivan, who would succeed Matthews, would inherit the challenges remaining, especially as they related to the development of the waterfront, and could successfully argue that these were impressively demanding.

But it fell to Matthews to provide the means that would encourage investors.

"That couldn't have happened without replacing the existing infrastructure." Matthews, who continues to serve the city as a member of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, said in a recent interview. "There was no way investors would be attracted without major replacement of the services to the downtown area. We had to keep our focus on the purpose of what we were about, and that was to take property that was not productive to the local economy from those owners who were unable, or unwilling, to invest in the changes, and sell them to those who would.

"We forget that this is the very purpose of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority. It was not created as a protection agency. It was created as an economic development agency with the purpose being to regenerate the economy of a community so that the entire community will benefit.

"That meant finding investors, and it meant taking properties from some and transferring ownership to others. A modern, servicing infrastructure was central to attracting investment. The whole purpose was to enhance the commercial viability of the business district."

That required funding, and it demanded extensive negotiations with power and telephone company executives; the first because of the expense of replacing above-ground service with below-ground service, the latter because of the difficulties in getting the telephone company to move from its waterfront building to new quarters on Graf Road.

Matthews had to talk Massachusetts Electric into making a major investment. The utility agreed to foot half the cost when he succeeded in getting HUD to agree to funding the other half of the cost. Other visits on behalf of the Custom House brought a million dollars from HUD.

"That meant frequent trips to Washington," Matthews said. "Jack Bradshaw (Matthews' able assistant) and I knocked on every door we could find to ask for help and we got it. Congressmen Bill Bates and Mike Harrington were especially helpful. Harrington, in particular, after Bates died, was terrific.

"But we just didn't go hat in hand. We had a demonstration program developed by Crescent Co. out of Portsmouth to show what could be done on State Street. And there was the great work done by the five local developers on Inn Street, especially by Jonathan Woodman, who had to replace everything in his building except the facade because of a fire that left only that standing.

"Fear of fire during the demolition and rebuilding was our major nightmare," Matthews said, "and we were very fortunate that the fire at the Woodman property didn't spread."

Considering the wrecking-ball debris of buildings to be removed at every hand, and the displacement of electrical services, it was no small concern. An uncontrollable fire would have replicated the downtown disaster of the early 19th century that destroyed Newburyport's earliest central business district.

The Inn Street properties on the westerly side were sold to the five local people on the basis of the land value, within the range of four to six thousand dollars, and they restored their structures in such a way that won national recognition. The first among the renewed structures, they stand today as they were on the day they were completed, as historically important commercial buildings, still in use as intended by their owners.

The waterfront presented an entirely different set of problems. The telephone service building and Graf Bros. Express were relatively new. But the waterfront proper was a shambles, its wharves a rotting mess, the property a wasteland bearing no resemblance to its former, vibrant self of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It appeared that this property would be a major contributor to economic recovery of the downtown because so much of it was in disuse. That didn't happen.

"Neither Bill nor Henry Graf was happy about having to move from their building to Salisbury," Matthews said. "They had built it when they were forced to move from their Harris Street location. But they did."

The central waterfront, now largely a park and open space used for parking, had been seen from the beginning as the prime area for development, although there were contesting views as to its configuration. A park had always been part of that consideration, but it was to consist of only the boardwalk, and the bordering plantings behind it, with an extension from the embayment to the rear of the Central Fire Station. Access to the waterfront was guaranteed in perpetuity as were the "wayes" to it, a series of accesses that once served as dockage for trading vessels.

The reason was self-evident in both the purpose and commitment of the NRA -- to take economically unproductive land and provide for those changes that would make it productive. That was certainly the history of the waterfront from the very beginning of the port of Newbury. The waterfront itself was the rooting place of commerce of the kind celebrated in the city's history, and most of the plans submitted, and rejected, called for extensive development while retaining the boardwalk and plantings area, with a park extending between the firehouse and the embayment area..

Matthews is among those who believe that failure to provide for commercial investment in at least the eastern end of the waterfront acreage is contrary to the purposes of its taking, and limiting to the economic vitality of the downtown.

Visitors have no concept of the foundation of the boardwalk; huge, steel cylinders bear the main carrying timbers to which the decking is fastened. The cylinders are secured to the waterfront by large cables reaching back to embedded anchors near the Firehouse. The marine steel of the encasements, with an expected life of 50 years, was checked with the recent re-decking and found to be in good repair, but replacement (an engineering task of considerable disruption and expense ) will probably be a major consideration by 2024.

Continuing articles will treat with some of waterfront development proposals that were considered and rejected during the Matthews and Sullivan administrations.


Bill Plante is former executive editor of Essex County Newspapers. His e-mail address is plantejr@highstream.net.


(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)

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