By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — The city has long had a vision of a bustling downtown where the commercial district is connected to its greatest natural asset — the Merrimack River.
Now there’s a plan to make it happen.
Mayor James Fiorentini said his administration, working with private consultants and committees of residents, has completed a special zoning district for the side of Merrimack Street that is along the Merrimack River.
Fiorentini said the goal of the plan is to spread the revival that began almost a decade ago on and around Washington Street with hundreds of upscale apartments and condos and new restaurants. The city wants to bring the same kind of development to the Merrimack Street end of downtown.
The “overlay zoning district,” which must be approved by City Council before it can take effect, is designed to encourage residential and mixed-use developments in Merrimack Street properties along the river.
The mayor said he has invited councilors to suggest ideas or changes to the plan, and that will make a formal presentation at the council’s Dec. 11 meeting. The public is also invited to comment on the plan at that meeting, he said.
The underlying commercial zoning for Merrimack Street will remain the same, the mayor said, but investors who wish to build residential or mix-use projects can do so under the provisions of the new rules. Those rules include a faster permitting process, reduced parking requirements and the ability to build more housing on less land than is normally required, according to the proposal.
The plan identifies several “priority development projects” in which the city will consider giving tax breaks to developers in exchange for desirable projects, the mayor said.
Fiorentini said priority projects are developments that include both commercial and residential components — such as retail stores, offices or restaurants at ground level and housing on upper floors. Those would be built to connect to a boardwalk the city eventually hopes to build along the full run of the downtown stretch of the river, behind existing but underused buildings.
“Projects that are largely market rate, connect to the boardwalk and that allow public access to the river are priority projects,” the mayor said. “Our goal is to offer whatever incentives we can to encourage development of Merrimack Street if that development allows public access to the water.”
Economic Development Director William Pillsbury helped develop the proposal and said he will be at the Dec. 11 meeting to answer questions.
“We strongly believe this zoning will serve as a catalyst for significant new private investment in this area of downtown Haverhill,” Pillsbury said.
Improving Merrimack Street has been the focus of several recent studies, including a visit to the city several months ago by a team from the Urban Land Institute. Following the visit, the nonprofit education and research group presented the city with a formal report, including design sketches, plans and ideas.
The Team Haverhill volunteer civic group focused on the same area of the city this year at its annual “Possible Dreams” visioning event at Northern Essex Community College.
Haverhill has also received state money to repair the Merrimack Street parking garage and make improvements to streets and sidewalks in the area.