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Planning Haverhill’s Future

Experts tour city, look for ways to boost western end of downtown

December 1, 2011 : Eagle Tribune, by Mike LaBella

HAVERHILL – A group of architects, engineers and other experts in urban planning walked along Merrimack Street, went down alleyways and walked along the flood wall with an eye towards coming up with ideas for revitalizing this western end of downtown.

Barry Abramson, an expert in urban redevelopment and a member of the group, paused at one point along the tour to look at the Masonic building at the corner of How and Merrimack Streets.

“It’s a beautiful old building with great character,” said Abramson. “But it does have a blank wall so if you tried to develop it you’d need windows.”

He was referring to the western side of the historic brick building, where William H. Moody had a law office before going on to an illustrious career that included serving on the Supreme Court.

Abramson was part of a team of about 20 planning professionals working under the auspices of the Urban Land Institute – a nonprofit research and education organization – that gathered Tuesday at the Roma Restaurant for an all-day seminar.

The group presented its initial findings at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, and plans to present the city with a 25- to 30-page report in about six weeks that will include design sketches and plans along with a list of alternative ideas.

“Haverhill has a downtown with a lot of potential,” Abramson said. “In a lot of downtowns in New England, you have to build from scratch. Here, you already have so much vitality on the Washington Street side, there’s real potential to extend that. And if you could access this river to a more meaningful way, you’d really have something here.”

Mayor James Fiorentini kicked-off the seminar saying he wants Merrimack Street to be part of the renaissance taking place at the other end of downtown.

“Urban renewal accelerated the destruction of downtown,” Fiorentini said. He called the Merrimack Street end a “dying retail district” and asked the panel to come up with answers to various questions, such as whether to plant more trees downtown or remove trees and how to revitalize key properties such as the Ocasio Building on Merrimack Street. The mayor also said the plan should incorporate the Bradford rail trail, as well as several key riverfront properties, including the vacant Ornsteen Heel property near Skateland, and the former Haverhill Paperboard site on South Kimball Street.

“We don’t own that but developers are interested and we’d like to integrate that into our plan,” Fiorentini said.

After a brief public presentation the group took a walking tour with stops on the Basiliere Bridge, where city planning director William Pillsbury talked about the importance of the riverfront and how to better capitalize on this resource.

The group gathered in front of the Goeke parking garage on Merrimack Street. Fiorentini said the city received a $1.2 million state grant to pay for improvements along this corridor and the city will use half the money to repair the garage.

Fiorentini said the parking area in front of the garage could be developed into something such as retail space.

“The whole front lot is developable,” the mayor said. “But is it worth the trade off?”

The group walked down alleyways to get a close look at the flood wall, where the discussion turned to ways of extending the boardwalk and connecting it to downtown with some sort of walkway system that would not prevent access for emergency vehicles such as fire trucks.

Pillsbury said the Army Corps of Engineers wants to city to increase the height of the flood wall by three feet, and that a boardwalk could be considered as part of that height extension.

Jim Lydon, senior vice president of MassDevelopment, a quasi-government planning group that sponsored yesterday’s seminar, snapped photos and immediately posted them to his organization’s Twitter feed.

Lydon said Haverhill is one of only four communities in Massachusetts this year to be chosen to receive this free help from such a large group of experts. Fiorentini had said it would have cost about $40,000 if the city had to pay for the study on its own.

“Part of our mission is to help cities and towns with their planning,” Lydon said. “This will result in about a 30-page report the city will have as a planning tool.”

© Copyright 2011 Eagle Tribune.