EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 27, 2012

City wants properties to cash in on river connection

By Shawn Regan
sregan@eagletribune.com

---- — By Shawn Regan

sregan@eagletribune.com

HAVERHILL — Residents and city councilors alike will get their chance Dec. 11 to debate Mayor James Fiorentini’s plan to revitalize the Merrimack Street end of downtown.

The mayor’s “overlay zoning district” proposal is designed to encourage residential and commercial developments on Merrimack Street properties along the river. Fiorentini said he is looking for input and open to

making changes to the plan based on feedback at the public hearing at 7 p.m. in City Hall.

The mayor said the goal of the plan is to spread the revival that began almost a decade ago on and around the Washington Street end of downtown, where hundreds of upscale apartments and condos have settled, as well as new restaurants.

Under the proposal, the existing commercial zoning for Merrimack Street would remain the same, but investors who wish to build mixed-use projects could do so under new rules. Those rules include a faster permitting process, reduced residential parking requirements and the ability to build more housing on less land than is normally required.

The plan identifies several “priority development projects” in which the city would consider giving tax breaks to developers in exchange for desirable projects that also provide public access to the river.

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 construct along the full run of the downtown stretch of the river, behind existing but under-used buildings.

“Our goal is to offer whatever incentives we can to encourage development of Merrimack Street if that development allows public access to the water,” Fiorentini said.

City Councilor Colin LePage said he and Councilor William Macek attended a Planning Board meeting on the proposal earlier this month and are optimistic about what they heard. LePage said he is pleased the mayor’s plan provides incentives for high-end developments and market-rate housing.

“This will give big developers an expedited process and the ability to feel confident they aren’t going to spend a lot of up-front money only to fall short at the finish line,” Macek said. “I might have a few small changes to recommend (at the hearing), but nothing material.”

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 at its annual “Possible Dreams” visioning event at Northern Essex Community College back in January.

Haverhill has also received state money to repair the Merrimack Street parking garage and make improvements to streets and sidewalks in the area.