For nearly four decades, the future of the city’s central waterfront has been fiercely debated. The latest volley, fired by a lawyer representing the Committee for an Open Waterfront, accuses the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority of holding clandestine conversations concerning its plans to develop its 4.2-acre parcel on the Merrimack River.
Mark Peters, a Boston attorney, is threatening to take the issue to state officials. The authority, he contends, has committed “evident violations of the Open Meeting Law.”
A Jan. 28 letter sent by Peters to the authority on behalf of the residents’ group says that the authority has been “engaged for many months now in the conceptualization of and planning for the ‘development’ of the Newburyport waterfront . . . with almost no public discussion or disclosure of the options, opportunities, possibilities, and criteria that it must have considered.”
Peters closed the three-page missive by stating: “The Committee for an Open Waterfront Inc. makes demand by this letter that the authority desist from its secret deliberations. . . . If the authority declines to do so, the committee will bring the matter to the attention of the attorney general of the Commonwealth and will request her intervention and investigation.”
Under the Open Meeting Law, when a governmental body discusses the public’s business, it must give advanced notice of meetings; hold its meetings in open session; and keep minutes of the meetings and make them public.
Reached at her Rowley home, Carol L. Powers, the attorney who has represented the authority since 1991, said, “There have been no violations of the Open Meeting Law.”
“In the Open Meeting Law, the term deliberations has a very specific meaning,” Powers said. “Deliberations mean decisions being made by the entire board. No deliberations, no decisions, have been made by the board outside of a public meeting at all.”
The authority has been holding open discussions concerning its waterfront property for nearly a year, but members of the Committee for an Open Waterfront say that members of the authority also discuss plans behind closed doors.
The Peters letter cited an incident that he said occurred Jan. 16, when, immediately following the meeting the authority held on that date, “one or another of its members acknowledged that much of the authority’s planning for the waterfront is being conducted ‘behind the scenes.’ ”
Peters said James Shanley, a former city councilor then serving as chairman of the authority, told the small group that lingered at the close of the authority’s meeting that the public was not welcome at the authority’s planning sessions “because members of the authority ‘can talk more freely when the public is not present.’ ”
Shanley, who stepped down as chairman of the authority last week, declined to discuss the issue and referred questions to Powers.
Shanley’s successor, Tom Salemi, who was named to the five-member board last year, said he was “at the [Jan. 16] meeting, but left immediately after it ended.”
Salemi, a professional writer and former community reporter, said he is committed to “keeping people informed” about the authority’s plans “to expand the park and connect the waterfront to the downtown.”
The authority is proposing to incorporate commercial and residential development on the property, now occupied by dirt and gravel parking lots. Under a proposal created by Union Studio, a Providence architectural firm hired by the authority, the land would become home to more green space and two mixed-use buildings, while maintaining up to 70 percent of the existing parking spaces.
Ultimately, the goal is “to draw people to the waterfront, not only in summertime when the weather is lovely, but in winter when people might want to sit in a coffee shop and watch the river,” Salemi said.
The authority’s property straddles Market Landing Park, with about 2.1 acres on each side. Under the Union Studio design, the buildings on the site would be subject to height restrictions of about 35 feet and be placed close to the street to preserve as much open space as possible along the waterfront. The buildings would house coffee shops, restaurants, and retail shops on the ground floors with residential units on the upper floors.
The price tag for the development would be $25 to $30 million, Shanley said. The authority would either sell the two parcels or enter into a long-term lease with the developer, he said, adding that the authority is conducting geotechnical and environmental assessments of the property as it prepares to issue a request for proposals in May.
Meanwhile, the Committee for an Open Waterfront is preparing to unveil an alternate plan that would preserve the central waterfront as an open space, protecting its existing water views, public access, and parking in an environmentally friendly way. There would be no commercial buildings.
The key feature of the group’s plan is to treat parking as part of the landscape, providing a space that can be used for various community activities, from festivals and concerts to farmers markets and maritime education. Rather than bring the city to the water’s edge, the committee’s vision would offer a place of respite.
“The idea is to make parking a quality space, so that when cars aren’t there, it can be used for other things,” said Matthew Potteiger, a professor of landscape architecture at the State University of New York with whom the committee contracted to create its plan. “The spaces would function as a series of outdoor rooms, created with native plantings that incorporate taller vegetation to delineate the rooms.”
Potteiger plans to submit his plans for the site to the committee’s working group on Sunday. Joanie Purinton of Newbury, the group’s community liaison, said the plan will be presented to the public after the working group and the committee’s board reviews it.
“This small space is the heart of Newburyport,” said Purinton. “And it’s one of the country’s few remaining early harbors. People come from all over the world to feel the history of this special place, to sit quietly by the water and be a part of the maritime culture and history. Condominiums and retail shops don’t belong there.”
Over the years, clashes over the waterfront have spawned several legal battles, with residents launching grass-roots campaigns to block a proposed hotel and preserve public access to the Merrimack River. In an effort to quell the current conflict, the authority is vowing to maintain an open dialogue.
“The [authority] is, has been, and will be open to the public process,” said Powers, the lawyer for the volunteer city board. “There is no intent, and certainly nothing has been done, to block access to the process.”
Salemi said: “I know there are people in the community who disagree with our vision, and they’re using various tools to get their message out. I want them to know we are listening and we are eager to hear more people speak.”