It was during Al Lavender’s waning term that the NRA lost the preservation restrictions on the downtown. Mayor Lavender’s term of office was coming to a close and technically the new mayor, Mary Ann Clancy, would be sworn in as the new year started. And at the start of 2006, the downtown protections expired. The mood in City Hall was to walk away from historic preservation – the very thing that took an economically-poor mill town and turned it into a heritage tourism site.
People forget that not just the downtown looked bad before it was restored but the entire town was in a very sorry condition. It was difficult without money to keep up these historic mansions and often, it extended to not even having enough money to put a coat of paint on the outside. And the yards? I’ve been to many ‘hillbilly’ areas in Kentucky and in the Ozarks where broken down cars and half-working items are strewn in the yards. I’ve visited urban centers such as Detroit and Lawrence and seen the condition of properties. That was Newburyport.
Historic Preservation changed all that. And it started when HUD required the NRA to impose preservation protections on the outside of buildings.
As the downtown was restored, thousands came to Newburyport and began to restore the entire Newburyport Historic District. And as this area began to improve, the property values of our twelve other non-historic neighborhoods began to see a rise. This at a time when surrounding communities have seen their values go “underwater” (value of house is far less than the mortgage amount.)
Thanks to Historic Preservation, Newburyport is at the brink of not only approaching the affluence of the Federalist Period but perhaps surpassing it.
In 2005, the NRA had an opportunity to renew those protections but they walked away from them.
And, if it hadn’t been for Mayor Holaday and the city council; we would have lost the sign restrictions as the NRA decided to walk away from that too!
But before you judge too cruelly, it is not Mayor Lavender’s actual fault.
It is the NRA’s fault.
It is because their ‘mission’ is the following:
The mission of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority is to revitalize blighted or deteriorated areas of the city by attracting the private investment needed to achieve a balanced mix of housing, business, and public/open space in a manner that provides social-economic benefits to the city by providing jobs for the unemployed and adding tax revenue to an overburdened community.
They don’t even have the concept of historic preservation written in their mission. Their original purpose was to demolish the buildings and create a whole new ‘downtown’ of shopping centers and strip malls. The idea that business would come in and provide jobs for the great host of unemployed languishing on our streets and that these businesses would also generate tax revenue was very attractive at the time.
This worked when out-of-work mill workers were seeking employment and businesses were struggling.
But our economic structure has gone far beyond such old-fashioned urban planning concepts. Across the country, hundreds of attempts at putting in new downtowns resulted in loss of community and a chasing away of businesses.
In comparison, local historic districts have rejuvenated business districts so that even a city like Haverhill and Lawrence have instituted them when all other urban planning that was attempted failed.
The quality of life factor is very high in Newburyport because of the beautiful architectural “specialness” not present in other communities. Haverhill died until they restored the west end of Washington Street and even Lawrence has seen an uptick in commerce as their main street was preserved.
But Newburyport has surpassed these other communities because It wasn’t from ‘new’ buildings but from historic neighborhoods surrounding a restored downtown that has generated boomtowns of real estate.
People don’t just want to visit an historic lovely town; they want to live here amongst lovely, quiet streets.
Why else is there eight real estate offices* located downtown? IT’S NOT BUSNESSES THEY ARE SELLING!
The fact remains that the fundamental purpose of the NRA is absolutely wrong. And they will continue to get it wrong as long as they exist and follow the same wrong practices.
And the sad fact, unless the city acts soon, even as the NRA (someday) goes away; if the city continues to disregard the real reason of our prosperity and does not move to protect our downtown facades and the streetscapes of our historic neighborhoods;
we will lose our affluence.
The NRA can’t help itself. But we as citizens can!
Simply by recognizing the central importance of our heritage tourism and move to protect it.
-P. Preservationist “
* There might be more that I missed!