After nearly 50 years, NRA hoping to close its books
(Editor's Note: The Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, established by Mayor Albert Zabriskie, has been responsible for the taking of properties in the designated zone of downtown Newburyport for more than four decades. Its mission was to acquire properties and to see to their future use in a manner that would stimulate the economic benefit of the community at large. Following is an account of where the NRA finds itself today, including an interview with Mary Lou Supple, chairperson of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority.)
by Bill Plante
A half century ago, Newburyport's downtown was the most visible sign that the city was in major economic distress.
Many of the buildings were deteriorating, there being insufficient revenues from the shops and offices that occupied their ground floors to maintain them. In most instances, the second and third floors of the larger buildings were unoccupied because residential housing was not allowed.
With the closing of the CBS-Hytron, only Chase-Shawmut and Towle Silversmiths provided major payrolls, and those of the few shoe shops still in operation were only reminiscent of what they had once been. The bottom had fallen out of the housing market, while many privately owned properties were in dire need of repair, and housing costs were at rock bottom. Two events coincided in the early 1960s that would bring to reality today's revitalized condition.
Then Mayor Albert H. Zabriskie, Jr., a native son of a working class family, came to office as the first of his generation to replace that of Andrew J. (Bossy) Gillis' time. He created the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, an extended branch of federal authority empowered to created a redevelopment zone, take property from its owners and see to the development of a new central business district by those willing to invest in it.
Redevelopment authorities were to be independent adjuncts of local authority, an enabling condition that permitted them political independence that would not have been possible were they to be just another division of local government. It was a power that put federal concerns for results at odds with those accustomed to local control by insulating board action from complexities of local politics. It was a theory that could not survive political realities.
The NRA mission, in brief, was to acquire properties by eminent domain procedures and to find developers to make them productive for the economic benefit of the entire community.
The redevelopment zone was divisible by three. The first was the buildings around Market Square, the westerly side of State Street to the rear of the buildings to the north of Pleasant Street, and the internal core between State and Green streets. The second was the waterfront where only a few businesses survived, and the entire docking area, which was in shambles. The third consisted of the Central Fire Station and the Custom House, neither of which were business properties. It was theorized that the areas peripheral to the designated area would be improved by their owners over time, as has happened.
The Newburyport Redevelopment Authority is in its fourth decade, and its mission remains unfinished. The reason: endless delays and frustrations resulting from two general conditions, according to NRA Chairman Mary Lou Supple, in her ninth year in that positions, and because of her years on the committee for design and review, in her 18th year in service to the city.
The problems and experiences of her involvement, she said during a review of the problems that have frustrated the authority, is "a little like Groundhog Day."
"You wake up and say, 'OK. Here's a new plan. We can make this happen.' And you get to the end of the day and there's a new mayor or new City Council and ..."
Having been involved for half the life of the authority, she has seen most of the mayors and City Council members since Zabriskie. Involved in urban renewal have been Zabriskie, George H. Lawler, Jr., Bryon J. Matthews, Richard E. Sullivan, Peter Matthews, Edward Molin, Lisa Mead, Mary Carrier, acting mayor Chris Sullivan, Al Lavender and Mary Anne Clancy, all of whom have had to share challenges, legal and economic, with the NRA to a continuing and frustrating effort to bring the project to its closing.
It was not supposed to be like that, given the legal power of the NRA, but what Mayor Byron Matthews and the authority discovered was that the service infrastructure upon which redevelopment depended --- sewage, power lines, streets, sidewalks --- were a direct responsibility of city government, and success depended on productive interaction.
The price to pay was opening the door to political intervention over time and endless litigation that would erode the NRA's capacity to bring its responsibilities to a close.
Little of that would impact the restoration of existing structures, although they presented different, major economic problems to be resolved. All of it would paralyze any and all plans for commercial construction along the waterfront from the Custom House to the westernmost end.
There were plans aplenty, all of which provided for maintaining access to ways to the waterfront resulting from legal settlement under Mayor Sullivan with the Friends of the Newburyport Waterfront, as well as a park behind the firehouse, an embayment and a boardwalk. Every plan called for construction that would provide for revenues embellishing the tax base, and ensuring the upkeep of the Firehouse and Custom House. None was able to survive, either by way of rejection or delays brought on by political action or litigation.
"What we came to agreement on," Mary Lou Supple said, "was that unless we had the city behind a plan that we would be in court for eternity because there are enough people with enough reasons to litigate."
The plan she believed to have been close to what the NRA would like to have completed was one known as the Sasaki Plan, one in the context of the settlement with Roger Foster who planned a hotel-conference center as its major facility. The Sasaski Plan remains as what Supple considers to have been the best of the plans proposed, and it remains high in her estimate of what would have served the city best at a time filled with political turbulence.
The city having turned down the Sasaki Plan, Roger Foster advanced the plan with his conference center-hotel, but the city had spoken, and the suit brought by Foster ensued, placing a major drain on the authority's resources before he withdrew his appeal, following two decisions favoring the NRA.
The attending consequence was an attempt by the NRA to determine what the city would support.
"At the time, 1999-2000, we had to have the backing of the city, in all its ways," Supple said. "Any project that anyone sought to go forth would have been challenged. I don't know whether the challenges were just obstructionism, but we would end up spending time and money that we used to have. So, to move forward on anything, you have to build in the litigation factor. What the NRA said is that we can't litigate for eternity. We've got to find out what the people of this city want to do with the property, and how we can do it.
"So we took a survey in 2000, and said do you want a park with a mixed-use, or do you want just commercial and park, or just park, and it was overwhelming. Over half said commercial and park or just a park.
There were 8,000 mailings, of which about half responded. Of the respondents, more than half opted for a park with limited parking.
"We got 1,500 comments, and I read them all. Everybody who made a comment said, let's do just this."
The result is an extended parking lot, the center of which is the park behind the Firehouse, and a boardwalk that is heavily visited about five months of the year and stagnant for the balance. The NRA has about five (four?) and a half acres still available for development, but Supple sees only a limited opportunity for any new construction, save for a combination visitors center and office space.
She makes the point that such a center would be a major improvement over the limited facilities offered visitors only a few months a year in a trailer.
Considering the square foot value of waterfront space, most observers consider that because the present parking area rests on waterfront land, it is among the most cost in the region.
To continue even that, however, is, according to Supple, dependent on the city coming up with a parking program, once again undergoing political duress.
With an outstanding loan of $138,000 and only $78,000 in savings, the NRA is financially strapped, dependent upon seasonal parking fees for survival, with its once-substantial financial base having been eroded by extended litigation.
If the city can find a solution to providing a parking facility, preferably one with mixed use for income purposes, and if a suitable tenant could see fit to rent and man office space in it, then a visitors center in the area east (?) of the Firehouse might be possible.
Given the continuing dispute over parking and the long history of obfuscation, a lack of political will to overcome barriers and general disengagement of much of the community, there appears small hope for resolution, but she does take heart to the recent completion of the West End and the Custom House way at the East End of the designated waterfront area, and continues to hold hope for resolution of the rest of the East End that will finally permit the NRA to close its books on what has been nearly a half century of effort.
Bill Plante is former executive editor of Essex County Newspapers. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)