Our present four-year mayor has done a lot of good things for the city and has been frankly fearless in efforts to better it. Donna “Bulldozer” Holaday has truly outdone old Byron in relentless improvements (Whether we wanted them or not) The infrastructure of the city has been steadily upgraded – but it takes money to keep this going – we’ve got bonds, we’ve got grants and we’ve got elaborate schemes such as the Green Community Act‡, and now the Smart Growth District with rather creative means to gain some ‘cash’. In the near future, we’ve got large developments all over the city from the Towle Building to the National Grid property; from the Business & Industry Park to the Waterfront with New England Development readying itself to make a move.
BUT WE HAVE A PROBLEM.
You see- our money, our affluence and our enviable position in the region are all based on the enhanced property values of the Newburyport Historic District – not our boardwalk, not our schools, not our marinas and not our industrial park. Nor our ‘trinket shops’ nor our restaurants. Our commodity which all started since 1974 (When the downtown was completed) has been the restoration of our once, bealeagured historic neighborhoods. They were taken by visionary owners, renovated, improved and in some cases restored to their former glory and the resulting high desirability of our city is all about becoming part of this high quality of life, to live in a place so that no matter where you turn, you see beautiful architecture, not singly but by entire streets. But all of this desirability is based on our historicity, the authentic feel that causes people from the West and Middle America to gape in wonder.
It is now incrementally and methodically being trashed in Newburyport.
It is being done by Mayor “Bulldozer” Holaday. Not by developers who are often receive the brunt of anger from abbuters, not the local craftsmen, nor is the blame to lay at the ZBA who so often receive the full fury from the citizens.
When the Green Community Act was passed in her first term; most people naturally thought it would be all about electric cars and solar panels. But a major requirement of “The Act” is the commitment by the community to adopt the Stretch Codes. The Massachusetts Building Code is strict enough but the Stretch Codes are the Building Code on steroids. No historic* building can survive having it applied to any renovation. The only solution if done so is total gutting or demolishing of the building.
But Wait! Historic* buildings especially those within a National Register district such as the Newburyport Historic District are exempt from the Stretch Codes. Note also, that historic buildings are also exempt from the current Massachusetts building codes – the Commonwealth with its wealth of historic buildings is well-aware of the disastrous effect on our precious historic inventory if the codes are applied universally.
But all the accumulative fees from new developments to renovations to something as straightforward as putting in a new roof – all end up being in “free cash” It is this pool of “outside the budget” money that drives the Mayor to push for constant requests for free cash transfers for the entire year.
But the Mayor needs more money.
We presently have a building inspector and his soon replacement that are busy driving the free cash generations. They won’t inform the property owners of over 2,750 historic properties that they are exempt. They won’t inform craftsmen or developers. They are pushing for maximizing the fees so the free cash will be pumped up even further. I like the Newburyport Current because when they list the building permits for a month, they show the separate fees that go to the city. It’s quite simple, more work done, more money for the city.
I’ve heard from craftsmen and developers across the city indicate how they were pressured to rip out historic windows, historic floors, to destroy interior details when minimal repairs could have been sufficient.
The damage is being done by the craftsmen, the contractors, the developers or even the homeowners for one reason alone- it’s the driving fear that if they don’t rip out everything they won’t receive an occupancy permit.
As you can see it across the city – new building sheeting in green insulation panels are going up on new buildings – but Lo! The same building sheeting is going up on historic buildings (what’s left of them) as every ancient building element is ripped out.
I don’t want to trash our Mayor – she has done a lot of good for the city and getting people angry enough to call for a recall would only plunge our city into chaos. (Though our charter certainly allows for it.)
She is eventually through the building department going to cause our city to lose the very thing that gives us such an enviable position. (There is nothing sadder than a community that is post-boom)
Are you worried about infill? Not to worry – it is nothing like the Disney-ish replacement buildings being put up around the city which, because they must fulfill the present building code look never quite right. Historic building if you wanted to build one today would never be allowed to be constructed!
The Mayor, who seems to be a powerhouse needs to stop pretending she is powerless to stop the destruction of our historic houses, and begin to seriously reform the Building Department so it can protect and preserve our city instead of being an instrument to trash our city.
Courses and instruction should be generated by our building department to inform craftsmen, developers and homeowners of the monetary benefits of owning an historic house.
Signs should be clearly posted and put on the website concerning the value of our historic neighborhoods and what minimal requirements for health and safety are still mandated.
A new attitude should be installed in City Hall to focus on preserving the real source of our wealth.
It may take the next two years with community, legal and legislative efforts but the raping of the Newburyport Historic District needs to stop! Let’s all help to get her sticky hands out of the cookie jar!
* In the world of the Building Department, there is no distinction of historic and historical as historic preservationists understand it; all such structures are considered ‘historic’.
‡ For those not used to navigating in the ‘cloud’; just do a search on the Green Community Act document and type in ‘stretch code’; just like a pdf doc, all the interesting statements by the City of Newburyport are then highlighted for your inspection. Do the same for the section on historic building exemptions. (ignore the section on house museums, which would apply to the Cushing House solely)