EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 3, 2013

City puts focus on development along river

Aims to lure homes, businesses to old sites

By Shawn Regan
sregan@eagletribune.com

---- — HAVERHILL — The city is launching a new effort to sell the Ornstein Heel property on the banks of Merrimack River in Bradford — part of an plan by Mayor James Fiorentini to redevelop several former industrial sites along the waterway.

The mayor’s plan is to alter zoning for property along the river by creating seven separate zones, each with different rules aimed at encouraging specific uses.

“The zones are different, but there is one constant,” Fiorentini said. “If you invest along the river and allow for pubic access, we will eliminate red tape and regulatory barriers.”

The types of public access can differ, the mayor said. “But the point of view is constant,’’ he said. “The river belongs to all of us, not just those fortunate to live next it.’’

Major areas of interest include the Bradford side of the river opposite downtown, the Merrimack Street stretch of downtown, Water Street to the east of downtown and the Little River corridor, much of which flows through a pipe under downtown before it empties into the Merrimack.

The city seized the sprawling, wooded Ornstein property for nonpayment of taxes after several industrial buildings on the site were demolished in 1994. A proposal by a company called Merrimack Towers to buy the property for $3.4 million and build 136 garden-style condominiums in three buildings overlooking the river collapsed with the local real estate market several years ago.

Fiorentini said he is preparing a new campaign to market and sell the property, under new rules that encourage market-rate housing and require the developer to allow public access to the waterway.

There are several other key old-factory sites near the Ornstein property in Bradford, the mayor said, that the city is also hoping to spur interest in. They include a site once known as Hoyt and Worthen Tanning and the 23-acre Haverhill Paperboard parcel that has been the subject of recent discussions by its private owner about a major development there.

“Those areas are still zoned for industrial use, but industry moved out a long time ago to the industrial parks,” the mayor said. “It’s time for them to catch up with the times.”

Fiorentini said rezoning is responsible for downtown’s recent building boom, which he said led to $150 million in public and private investment in the area, 850 new residents and many new restaurants. He said he is hoping to achieve similar success in other parts of the city.

“By rezoning the city, we have made life better for our residents, kept taxes low and improved services,” he said. “More rezoning will add to the quality of life for our residents.”

The mayor said Haverhill was the first city in Massachusetts to take advantage of a state program that provided money for transit-oriented projects — housing developments near train and bus stations in urban centers.

“Then we rezoned the outskirts of the city in the Route 495 corridor to allow big-box retail stores,” the mayor said. Those large stores included BJ’s, Lowe’s and Target, although Lowe’s has since closed.

The zoning-spurred developments resulted in higher property values and therefore more tax revenue — about $12 million in roughly the last decade, the mayor said.

The mayor said that during the next few weeks, he will ask City Council to rezone portions of Merrimack Street to allow artist lofts housing and office space on upper floors of under-used buildings and retail businesses on first floors. On Water Street, the plan is to encourage residential and retail development.

Important parcels on Water Street include the 1.1-acre property commonly known as the old Cleary’s Cleaners site that has been actively marketed in recent years by its private owners. A proposal a few years ago to build a seafood restaurant and retail complex there fell apart.

Just a bit farther down river is the old Skelley’s gas station property, another vacant and overgrown parcel that has been dormant for years. Closer to downtown is the property that formerly held the Friend’s Landing night club — another large, vacant, unkempt, but potentially attractive parcel on the banks of the river.

Then there’s the large property known as the old Taylor-Goodwin lumberyard site on the Bradford side of the river near the Basiliere Bridge. City officials have said it may have the most potential of the all the waterfront properties because of its several-acre size and location.

Fiorentini’s plan isn’t limited to the Merrimack River. Zoning changes are also planned for land along Little River. New zoning on Stevens Street, for instance, is designed to pave the way for a proposed, multi-million-dollar housing project in the Stevens Street Mill building by Boston-based Arch Street Development.

“If it occurs, it will develop this district just as the old factory buildings were developed downtown,” the mayor said, referring to large-scale housing projects such as the Hayes building, Hamel Mill Lofts and the Cordovan complex.

Fiorentini said he plans to appoint a new zoning advisory committee to develop a so-called “innovation district” modeled after the one in Boston. The committee will also be tasked with developing new zoning rules for property along the city’s highways, he said.

“I will ask this new panel to look at our laws on cluster zoning and examine new tools to protect our environment, like low-impact development, to help us encourage investment while still preserving our natural resources,” Fiorentini said.