By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — In what could turn out to be a landmark vote, City Council last night made it faster, easier, and potentially more profitable for developers to build residential and commercial projects along a sprawling swath of the Merrimack River.
City planners, Mayor James Fiorentini and councilors said they expect the new zoning regulations to be the catalyst for a major transformation of the waterfront and the city.
The ordinance creates eight separate zones for developing property along the river, each with different rules aimed at encouraging specific uses and requiring public access to the waterfront.
Under the new rules, City Council will no longer be able to reject proposals that adhere to rules for each zone.
“The idea is that development will now be a planning process and no longer a political process,” Fiorentini said, adding the council will no longer have discretion to block projects for arbitrary reasons.
The new waterfront zone stretches on the downtown side of the river from the railroad bridge at the western end to the Buttonwoods Trail opposite the Buttonwoods Museum on Water Street. On the Bradford side, the zone extends from the city-owned Ornstein Heel property near Skateland to the old Haverhill Paperboard property.
The new zoning will control development on various prominent and vacant properties, including the site of the former Friend’s Landing nightclub and parcels known as the old Cleary’s Cleaners and Skelley’s gas station, all on Water Street, as well as the Ornstein Heel, Haverhill Paperboard and Hoyt and Worthen Tanning sites in Bradford.
The new rules also govern development of some of downtown’s most high-profile buildings, such as the Woolworth, Ocasio and Newman’s Furniture buildings on Merrimack Street. Those buildings are being eyed for development by a group that includes the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and the Greater Haverhill Foundation.
Economic Development Director William Pillsbury said the city is already talking to several developers and property owners interested in moving forward with major projects under the new rules.
“This is going to be the catalyst for change similar to what Newburyport and Lowell did 30 years ago,” Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien said. “Now it’s Haverhill’s time.”
Another key component of the new rules is that developers will be required to, at a minimum, set aside a strip of land along the river for public access on all new developments. Developers who do more, such as create a public park or provide some other public benefit, will be given “density bonuses” to build more housing units than would otherwise be allowed.
Fiorentini said the new rules will help the city build a contiguous recreational pathway that will eventually loop downtown and hopefully someday stretch all the way to Groveland.
Councilors made one major change to the mayor’s original proposal.
They amended rules in the zone to give them limited oversight of proposals through a process called “major site plan review.” Residential projects larger than six units and commercial projects larger than 7,500 square feet will go before the council for its review. Smaller projects will be reviewed by city departments and the Planning Board, according to the ordinance.
“It was a compromise,” the mayor said of the change. “But I understand that councilors want to remain involved.”
The mayor said councilors pushed to remain involved in the process in private meetings with him.
“This plan will place Haverhill at the forefront for development for what developers can do by right and to get density bonuses,” Councilor William Macek said. “But the City Council needs to keep some oversight to satisfy the concerns of people who put us here.”
The new zone changes several old industrial sites on the Bradford side of the river from industrial to residential property. Those properties include the Haverhill Paperboard site and Hoyt and Worthen Tanning sites.
“Those properties won’t ever be used for industry again,” the mayor said.
City planning officials and a committee formed by the mayor have been working on the zoning measure for several years.
Councilors took two votes on the zoning changes last night due to two councilors owning property in the zone. Councilors Michael McGonagle and Melinda Barrett abstained from voting and left the room while their colleagues approved the part of the zone that includes property they own downtown.