In 1635, only 15 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, a farming community calling itself Newbury was founded on the Parker River. Over time, a portion of the Newbury population created a waterside settlement on the Merrimack River where better waterfront access was available to the sea. Throughout the 17th century, this settlement on the Merrimack River grew and eventually dominated as a center for fishing, trading and maritime industry. More and more waterfront wharves were built throughout the mid-1600’s and a thriving ship-building industry was soon established.
In 1764, Newbury Port separated from the Town of Newbury as its economy flourished as a trade center for the West Indies and Europe. By the late 18th century, a walk along the waterfront could require one to pass under the overhanging bowsprits of docked ships. To ensure continued public access to the waterfront during this growth period, the public “wayes to the water” were established allowing passage from Water and Merrimac Streets to the Merrimack River. In 1811, a historic fire swept through sections of the downtown and waterfront leveling most of the wooden structures. But the city rebounded stronger than ever with a massive rebuilding effort that created the distinctive brick buildings that currently characterize Newburyport architecture today. Then in 1851, the City of Newburyport incorporated, adding many of the civic buildings, monuments, and parks that complete the integrated landscape that we all enjoy so much today.
Economic Tide Turns
For nearly 300 years, life in the community along the Merrimack River had reflected the fluctuating economic conditions of the times, but the 20th century raised the stakes for Newburyport. The city’s economy stagnated from the 1930s - 1960s, perhaps as an unforeseen consequence of Route 1 and Interstate 95 bypassing the downtown. Buildings soon fell into disrepair and were ready to be boarded up. Three decades of languishing business called for an entirely new strategy.
The Newburyport Redevelopment Authority
In 1960, when newly-elected Mayor Albert Zabriskie launched the Central Business District Urban Renewal Project, he couldn’t have envisioned the groundbreaking partnership that would eventually ensue between the City and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Nor could he have imagined the future level of controversy that would develop due to disagreements within that partnership as the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority (NRA) was born. Following the HUD agreement, a 5-member Board of Directors was appointed to oversee the work that would bring back to life the 22 acres of condemned downtown property. As today, four members of this board were chosen by the mayor, the fifth by the state governor. The NRA’s original mission, to remove urban blight, was re-stated by the NRA in 2010 as follows, “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.” That all sounded good until it began to be implemented.
In 1962, the initial NRA strategy was clear: to remove as "urban blight" the central waterfront and downtown to make room for new buildings – a Sears or Zayre store.
Land was acquired by eminent domain and buildings began to come down. The public saw their distinctive brick buildings being decimated and had pause for thought. Following a wave of public protest, the Mayor, the City Council and the NRA got together and the NRA Urban Renewal Plan was revised to encourage building preservation – the Market Square Historic District was created. Under that partnership, Newburyport became the first urban renewal project in the country to receive HUD matching funds to restore historic buildings rather than destroy them as “urban blight.” This was a big moment for Newburyport and eventually this partnership led to Market Square and our beautiful central downtown area. But what about the central waterfront?
Contest of Wills
In the same year that they announced the plan to save Market Square and the buildings on Pleasant Street (1971), the NRA Board said they would offer for development the 8.4-acre Central Waterfront across Merrimac and Water Streets. Public opposition quickly lined up to challenge that NRA proposal and multiple other NRA attempts to develop the waterfront with commercial and/or private buildings. This opposition first took the form of The Friends of the Newburyport Waterfront followed by The Committee for an Open Waterfront (see below). As a result, no commercial or private development projects have ever come to fruition on the waterfront property.
Eventually, The Friends of the Newburyport Waterfront defeated the first NRA waterfront development plan in federal court. The determined citizens group scored a legal coup with a 1980 court ruling recognizing six of the original 11 public "wayes to the water" and two waterfront parks. Following that ruling, the 5-member Newburyport Waterfront Trust was created in 1991 to manage and protect the public waterfront parks, the boardwalk and the “wayes to the water.” The central waterfront was saved …. or was it??