Downtown redevelopment was a partnership of success
(Editors Note: Bill Plante's series of background articles dealing with the renewal of downtown Newburyport continues with some of the activities of Jack Bradshaw, who had become newly elected mayor Byron J. Matthews' chief assistant. He would, shortly thereafter, be named to the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority by Matthews, and would become its director, whose chief function was to find redevelopers for the properties taken.)
by Bill Plante
If there was any single individual besides the mayors (beginning with Albert H. Zabriskie) who played a mayor role in the restoration of downtown Newburyport, it would be Jack Bradshaw, whose family arrived in Newburyport in 1955, when he was 12. He attended Newburyport schools, and grew up among those who would play important roles in the renewal of the downtown.
Mayor Byron Matthews brought him into City Hall as his assistant. When it became obvious that there could be no substantive progress without linking the governance of the city with that of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, Matthews appointed Bradshaw to the committee then the opportunity availed itself. Bradshaw subsequently became the NRA director.
What was not broadly appreciated then, and what is less so today, is that the laws establishing redevelopment authorities provided them with both exceptional power and independence from local governance. There is, however, the appointive power of the mayor, which most have the opportunity to utilize.
Authorities were empowered to take properties within the designated area from the owners and convey them, at assessed values plus 25 percent, to those developers whose intent and abilities met the criteria of the board. Owners of such properties could, however, bring a friendly suit in redress of the taking price. Several did, leaving it for the courts to make the adjustment between assessed values and what the properties might otherwise bring on the open market.
The city government was not without its won role because of the services it provided to the area, as well as its concerns relating to the infrastructure. Furthermore, the city would have to live with all the upheaval, not the least concern being that of the Fire Department, because the station house was in he center of the turmoil.
That made cooperation between the NRA and the city government essential. What was equally essential was a working knowledge of the apparatus of city government, as well as compatibility born of trust. The mutual respect and awareness between Matthews on the city government side and Bradshaw at the NRA made that possible. Added to that was the not inconsequential role of the City Council. While councilors were generally helpful during that period, chief among its leaders was Stanley "Ty" Tucker, co-owner with his wife, Elaine, of Kray's Stores for Men and Women on Pleasant Street. A lead bombardier in World War II in Europe, he brought steadiness, tact, intelligence, energy and broad awareness of the city's commercial interests to the dialogue.
Matthews and Bradshaw shared parallel qualities. To say they foresaw all outcomes would be exaggeration, there being no training ground for any of what faced them, with cause for frustration at every hand. Moreover, they had little by way of connections with power structures at state and national levels. The would learn as they went, much by way of trial and error, and a great deal more by way of zeal and persistence.
Major changes can rarely take place without opposition, and it was not long after Matthews took office that it raised its collective head. There had always been some who wanted to retain just about everything but the waterfront debris, arguing not only that the waterfront itself should be preserved, but so, too, should those structures slated for removal.
The ensuing debate gave rise to an organization that became the Friends of the Newburyport Waterfront that, through prolonged legal strategies, succeeded in the designation and preservation, in perpetuity, of legally defined "Wayes" (clear paths) leading from the central business district to the Merrimack River.
That participation will be the subject of separate review at another time. Suffice it to say for the moment, however, that it was a worthy effort, however politically complicated by way of secondary agendas. It not only achieved its primary goal, but set the stage for actions, legal and political, that have prevented the development of waterfront property that had been a focal part of the original intent of the urban renewal.
The central district waterfront we enjoy bears no resemblance to the waterfront of any of the earlier centuries, or even that of most of the 20th. Earlier the slips used by ships and other waterfront to load and unload reached southerly, up from the river toward the downtown center. These became the sites of the "wayes."
The building occupied by the Newburyport Art Association had been, as were some adjacent to the west, "counting houses," and the Custom House is where it is because it provided ready access to shipping.
At one point in the projected delays, architectural digs were energized with hardly startling results.
The broad expanse of land adjacent to the boardwalk had been filled over the decades of the late 19th and 20th centuries, as were thousands of acres of the land in and around Boston and other coastal communities.
There were other priorities facing City Hall and the NRA, chief among them being money the city needed to deal with the infrastructure so that Bradshaw and the NRA would have something to market. And so off they went to pound government doors, going in cold turkey to make their cases, taking rebuffs as temporary setbacks and finding other doors to pound. That they succeeded was testimony as to both their persistence and commitment.
"Byron was exceptional," Bradshaw said in a recent interview. "A problem would arise, and we would be off to Washington to contact anyone we thought could help, and he kept at it until he succeeded."
But Bradshaw would be the one on the pin for encouraging prospects to invest in reconstruction, and while it was the one challenge to find them southwest of Market Square, it was something quite different to find them for the river side.
That break came when he took his case to John H. "Hack" Pramberg, Jr., then president of the Institution for Savings.
"Jack came to see me, saying that the banks really should get involved," Pramberg said, "and we did, by buying the old Knight Grain building on Ferry Wharf. It was in terrible condition, one more winter, and it would have collapsed.
The bank funding was made possible because the state permitted mutual savings banks to invest in real estate projects that would provide for housing under what was called the "Leeway Bill." Such banks could set aside a certain percentage of their earnings for such projects as would benefit the community, and the Institution for Savings had done so earlier by buying the parcel that later became part of The Grog restaurant of Middle Street. Prior to the bank's purchase, it had been occupied by the Salvation Army, before it build its present quarters.
"That made it possible for the bank to offer the building for use by Turning Point in the fight against drug addiction," Pramberg said.
Later, the bank brought a house on Washington Street for use as a halfway house for recovering alcoholics, and subsequently, acquired tow additional houses used as forerunning to what has become Opportunity Works, now resident in the Industrial Park.
Bradshaw's request and Pramberg's response would broaden the scope of the original intent of the Leeway Bill, because it would permit the use of the bank funding for redevelopment of commercial purposes. Because all involved approved the project, its impact on that side of Water Street is to be seen today from the Firehouse easterly to the Custom House.
Only those with the clearest memories will be able to reconstruct the vision of the past, but standing on the bullnose and looking toward the river, Bossy Gillis' gas station would be on the corner, across the alley "Waye" from the fire station. Adjacent would be the Martin Dugan Supply that sold plumbing supplies, hardware and related household items. Next door would be the bowling alleys owned by Dominic Caramagno, and then there would be the alley entrance to Ferry Wharf. Knight Grain would be the building on the eastern corner of that alley.
The buildings behind Gillis' gas station would come down. The first, originally a blacksmith shop where my maternal grandfather, Bill Cyr, once shoed Mike Cashman's (grandfather to George) horses, was that of McGlew Welding that removed to Salisbury. Behind that was Newburyport Press, now on Hanover Street, Newbury. To their rear was a crumbling ruin that served some warehousing purpose. Farther town the river was Graf Bros. Express, in a concrete block building that had been built by the telephone company as a warehouse. The company removed to Salisbury.
The Knight Brain building was restored and reconfigured to provide for three apartments and a first-floor business, The Dancing Witch.
The bank paid $7,500 for the property, invest substantially in its restoration and development, and used the revenues to continues the upkeep until its sale, the proceeds of which were transferred to the Institution's charitable fund foundation, successor to the Leeway Bill as a community service function of the bank.
At the time of the singing for the purchase of Parcel 6C, the Knight Grain properties, Bradshaw was 32 years of age, and Pramberg, 46. Bradshaw, now 61, is currently employed as vice president for client relations with national responsibilities for Suffolk Construction. Pramberg, 74, retired in 1995, following an extensive banking career with national outreaches during which he became a major ambassador for the successes in Newburyport in both its restoration and its industrial development. He remains active as a trustee for several of Newburyport's charitable funds.
Bill Plante is former executive editor of Essex County Newspapers. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)