Another Day in Paradise July 4, 2012 posted by nbpttoday

What Rhymes with Something?

By, Tom Salemi

“There’s something happening here  … what it is ain’t exactly clear.”

Don’t you just hate it when people start off columns with song lyrics? I mean, this is among the weakest writing devices in the armamentarium of writers. It’s pretentious. It screams, “Look at me! I’m hip. I know the words to a song that you also know. We’re connecting!” (I don’t hate this as much as people who cite obscure song lyrics in their Facebook status updates, but I digress from my digression….)

All that unnecessarily being said, there is something happening in this grand old city of ours.

I’ll steer clear of hyberboles. There are no new days dawning. No tectonic shifts of the political landscape. No pages being turned….

But a new feeling in town emerged on June 5, the day city voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of borrowing the money to build a new Bresnahan School, a Senior Center and to renovate the Nock/Molin School. I wrote about the rising new political Port Pride group in my blog here (and yes, the title of the blog post is “A New Day Dawning”…guess I was less restrained), and the Boston Globe parachuted in to provide its perspective on the new political dynamo here.

In short, the Port Pride group sat a new player at the city’s table – parents of young kids. The potential for new schools incented this crowd like crazy, and they delivered one of the best organized political campaigns ever seen in these parts.

But the support for the debt exclusion questions stretched beyond that demographic. As was intended by the pairing of the schools and senior center on the ballot, older voters – including some who have waited years for a center to be built – were drawn to the polls by the prospect of finally having a place to call their own. But other child-free folks also voted, not because they necessarily had skin in the game but because they recognized the “doing the right thing” demanded that we educate our kids in decent buildings, not worn and tired trailers, and give senior citizens a place to go.

The June 5 election brought out unseen enthusiasm from the new younger demographic and presented some undetected political compassion from others. To be sure, Newburyport residents regularly demonstrate how much they care through non-political, non-taxation methods such as our various local charities but when it comes to allowing the city to take more of their money they’ve  rightfully set a high bar. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

We’ll see what Port Pride can accomplish going forward but the notion of an energized political parental force excited me.

Things got even more interesting at last Saturday’s hearing by the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority. (Full disclosure, I’m a sitting member of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority so consider that perspective.)

For the uninitiated, the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority (or NRA, not the rifle kind) oversaw the renewal of Newburyport’s downtown in the 1960s and 1970s. Overall, it did an outstanding job overall though not without missteps.

The reason the NRA still exists is the task isn’t done. The two dirt parking lots on either side of Market Landing Park belong to the NRA. They are literally the final two pieces to the urban renewal puzzle, and the NRA is trying to fit these final two pieces into the downtown’s mosaic.

The NRA has been trying to finish those two pieces for four decades now. Past projects included plans for condos and hotels that likely would have done more harm than good to the Central Waterfront. They were opposed by activists and rightly rejected through a variety of means.

The demise of those projects led some to believe that nothing ever would be built there. More important, they led many to think the public didn’t want anything built there, citing outdated results from a 1987 ballot question and ambiguous tallies from two subsequent surveys. I wrote about both misconceptions here and here on my blog.

But things became clearer  on Saturday when Don Powers, an urban planner hired by the NRA and city, came to town to demonstrate how city residents might look at the waterfront differently, including the prospect of having limited development on the two lots to help complete – both financially and aesthetically – an expanded waterfront park. The proceeds of the former would be used to pay for the latter.

This NRA had crafted this formula over the past few years but  has heard very little support. Instead, long-time opponents to any waterfront building attended meetings and insisted the public wanted no building on the waterfront.

I’m not going to lie. As a member of the board, I didn’t know what to expect on Saturday.

But the city residents filling the Firehouse on Saturday morning were amazing. Upon hearing Powers’ presentation – which we’ll try to get up online soon – many people in attendance publicly supported the NRA’s exploratory efforts for the first time.  No plans were presented. We’re not at that stage yet.

So over the span of a month – less really – the people in this great place have shown some stripes that we hadn’t previously seen. Things that only recently seemed impossible – building new schools, constructing a senior center, finishing the downtown once and for all – seem like items on a To Do list rather than a  bucket list.

Indeed, something is happening here.

Hmmmm, that’s kind of catchy.


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