For many years, Newburyport was considered the “perfect” community by other towns and cities in Essex County and along the Merrimack River Valley. Talking to so many in the region, you could pick up the tone of envy. But sadly, you don’t hear that anymore. In fact, we are rapidly being looked-down upon as an “exclusive”, elite place, highly unaffordable and increasingly getting worse. And yet, if you look about Newburyport; infrastructure is getting better and becoming more refined.
This un-named discomfort is felt at every level – no one can actually put their finger on it; but they know there’s a problem.
Yes, previously we were a shabby-chic, often run down, failing infrastucture – and yet a perfect community?
It was because we have been and are an historic seaport with old houses.
This was beyond business and personal economics; it was all about our history. If you look at the Newburyport Historic District, we have massive Georgian and Federal mansions peppered all over the city – but it was what lay in between these large box structures that made us a perfect community. Tiny houses, and occasionally worn-down First-period Houses with ceilings inches above the average person’s height. Little rooms and tight narrow lots, and poor parking options in the South End. The many boxy structures largely did not house the wealthy but had been sectioned off into apartments. Even houses were cut right down the middle into separately-deeded half houses with tiny yards.
We had our wealthy, and we had the upper-middle class but their poorer neighbor was right next door in a tiny structure. First-time homebuyers had lots of options in town and regardless of their “class” everyone came together as a community, joined together in festivals, met together in civic concerns. The “diversity” and “balanced” community that Progressives have searched for, and those seeking “Nirvana” on earth; it was here and it was special. Definitely not perfect as heaven but about as close to a healthy earth-bound place that you could find.
And then word began to spread, “Newburyport? Everybody loves Newburyport!” And in that tone of voice contained the unspoken thought, “Boy, I’d love to live in that well-balanced healthy community”.
Just as people fleeing the high-taxes of Massachusetts moving into New Hampshire; the first instinct is to convert the Live-Free-or-Die state into the place they just fled from; so goes Newburyport.
Real estate began to go up as more and more people sought to flood into the city. But what do you do with all those “old” houses? Why we live in the 21st century, we’ve got to upgrade those tiny spaces! At first, warning signs began to appear as developers tried to renovate structures and property assessments began to inch upward.
It was starting to get worse, and worse; and citizens began to speak with more and more concern; and then a new administration came along. “This” new administration had a plan to fund the revitalization of Newburyport. The first step by Mayor Donna Holaday was to pass “The Green Community Act” which imposed extremely strict building codes upon the houses in historic Newburyport. Now, according to the Act, historical homes were exempt; but this was where Gary Calderwood, the Building Inspector came into the act. He informed the Planning Office, and the Historical Commission; that he was not going to inform contractors, developers and homeowners that their historical house was in fact exempt. He also made it clear to the building craftsmen and the home improvement industry that they could not expect a occupancy permit unless the house fulfilled the now very strict building codes. As a whole, most did not know they could be exempted, nor would they get any such guidance from the Building Department.
Since over 70% of the homes in the major parts of the city were in fact exempt, you can see the dynamic duo were well-underway to redoing the city. Instead of small renovations, entire guttings were encouraged; and brand new expensive materials were hauled in; often doubling the re-sell price of an historic home. Structures that would have brought in $550,000 were now approaching a million dollars or more. This in turn brought in more tax revenue, plus the added value of off-budget fees that enriched the city’s bond rating.
Tiny homes were no long rented out to first-time homebuyers on middle-class incomes. They were refitted into palaces fit for the 21st century and fit for a more affluent demographic. Many half-houses are now being converted into full homes with all the latest conveniences. If anyone objects, the real estate agents scream that is what buyers are expecting. No mention of historical homes, no mention of affordability.
The Mayor has used this situation to redo the infrastructure of the city. And the Building Department has proudly continued Calderwood’s practices.
That is the problem politically with Progressives. They create the mess, and then to fix the mess, they create a bigger mess.
Now the Mayor and her allies want to fix the affordable housing situation by “creating” affordable housing units either loosely owned by the city; or by exascerbating it with a monster skyscraper chocked full of Affordables* around the train station. Families and individuals with no connection to the community and isolated from what constitutes a Newburyporter.
Unless things change; and the Mayor’s re-election shows this being very unlikely; we will soon be a very pricy, exclusive city; with some miserable “high crime areas” on its perimeter.
This is reality, and we are going to see that reality increasingly going forward. The only sad thing about it is the loss of the interiors of so many historic homes unless the Building Department/Mayor can be stopped. And I don’t see that happening. We are also beginning to see the exteriors destroyed also as anyone has noticed lately in the ZBA notices in the paper.
We have a majority of newcomers voting to continue this path.
For the minority I have a question. So when are YOU packing your bags?
* According to the rules of 40R, affordable units created within a District meeting the standards set out in 760 CMR 45.03 shall count as low- or moderate income units on the Subsidized Housing Inventory in accordance with the Department’s rules for the Inventory.” Expect many of the rental units by the train station to be this status.