January 21, 2004



Waterfront plan to be unveiled

By Kate Spinner

Staff Writer

NEWBURYPORT -- The city's hopes and dreams for managing growth along the waterfront from the Towle Building to Joppa Park have been outlined in a new strategic plan.

City planning director Nicholas Cracknell and senior project manager Geordie Vining will present the new Waterfront Strategic Plan to the Planning Board tonight at 7 in City Hall.

Because the Planning Board is where all city zoning laws begin to take shape, the plan can be used by the board to set the city's policies toward development along the Merrimack River.

Policies regulating some of the areas where development appears imminent, such as the Waterside West area between the Route 1 bridge and the central waterfront, may be created within the next three to six months, Cracknell said Friday.

Last year, the city hired Goody, Clancy & Associates with grant money from the Seaport Advisory Council to create the strategic plan with input from landowners, residents and people who rely on access to the Merrimack River for employment and recreation. While developing the plan, which was published in December 2003, the city held a number of public hearings.

In addition to influencing zoning amendments, the plan can also be used to guide landowners in their approach to new development and to help the city obtain a contiguous stretch of public access to the waterfront.

State laws require landowners who perform major improvements to their waterfront property to provide public access to the water, whether it be a boat ramp or a path. The state views rivers as public and much of the development along the Merrimack riverfront has occurred in the past on filled tidelands.

The strategic plan will help the city, state and waterfront landowners understand what residents are looking for in public access to the river.

The plan outlines the city's hope that a continuous Harbor Walk will lead along the waterfront from Joppa Park to Cashman Park, crossing public and private properties, and passing beneath the Route 1 bridge.

Connections between the Harbor Walk, sidewalks and the future rail-trail are other goals stated in the plan.

The plan calls for improvements to public piers, improvements in infrastructure for mariners, retention of marinas, expansion and enhancement of Cashman Park, expansion of the central waterfront and aesthetic enhancements to Merrimac Street.

One challenging goal, outlined in the plan, is to retain water-dependent uses like marinas, while encouraging residential and commercial development in the Waterside West area, where the Hilton and Strout fishing dock and the Windward Yacht Yard are located.

The plan states that out of eight marinas in the city, only one offers full marina services. The plan recognizes Hilton and Strout for its 75-ton lift that services commercial fishing and passenger vessels.

Providing an example of how commercial and residential developments may arise around existing marinas, the plan states, "George Hilton intends to continue providing this lift service for large vessels in the future even as he develops the inland portion of his yard for mixed uses."

Focusing on the area surrounding Hilton's, the plan calls for extending the "scale and character of the downtown" west to the waterfront, encouraging a mixture of commercial and residential developments that would provide a network of public ways and spaces to enhance waterfront access for residents and visitors.

The plan suggests zoning changes to allow building structures, streets and alleys that mimic those in the downtown.

Current zoning in the area allows mixed-use, but encourages suburban-style development.

Development of the Waterside West area is challenging for prospective builders, said Cracknell and Vining, because there is little infrastructure in terms of roads, and other business or residences.

The area could grow slowly on a small scale from the edge of the downtown westward, or rapidly eastward if an "anchor" development -- a hotel for example -- were to establish itself closer to Route 1, Cracknell said Friday.

Within the context of the city's master plan, Cracknell said, beginning the redevelopment of Waterside West as far west as possible "does seem advantageous."

He said an anchor would reduce the risk of developing businesses or residences between the anchor and the existing downtown, and the anchor's developer might be more financially capable of building the walkways and roads that the city wants.

"Unless you nibble away at the edges, you have to go in full-bore," Cracknell said.

He and Vining said the city was fortunate to have created the strategic plan before any particular developers came forth with proposals or attempted to insert their proposals into the plan.

According to the plan itself, development of the Waterside West area is not far off, but the plan gives no indications of what will be proposed there.

"Development of some key privately held waterfront properties abutting the central waterfront appears imminent and represents a significant opportunity to extend the streets and character of historic Newburyport to the waterfront," the introduction of the strategic plan states.

Vining and Cracknell mentioned Friday that development of the Waterside West area may be easier now than in the past, because ownership seems more consolidated, with more agreement among landowners.

"Fractured ownership," said Cracknell, "has been an impediment in the past" to the area's development.

Now, city planners hope, developers who want to build anywhere along the city's waterfront will bring forth proposals that reflect the strategic plan's goals.

As a guide for city policy, the plan is meant to remain effective for the next 10 years, according to the plan's introduction. The plan is supposed to complement the city's master plan and add to the city's 1989 Harbor Management Plan that is still in need of updating by the Harbor Commission.


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

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