By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — Mayor James Fiorentini’s vision of revitalizing the eastern end of downtown has taken a big step forward with zoning that encourages mixed-use residential and commercial development along the river.
The City Council approved the mayor’s proposed “zoning overlay ordinance” for the Merrimack Street end of downtown this week.
The mayor said the ordinance opens the doors to the creation of “market rate” housing that will give the public access to the water.
Fiorentini said the goal is to spread the revival that began almost a decade ago in the Washington Street end of downtown, where hundreds of upscale apartments and condos have settled, as well as new restaurants and other businesses.
“This has been a major initiative of my administration and someday what you’re going to see is a major transformation of Merrimack Street,” Fiorentini said.
The zoning is limited to the Merrimack River side of Merrimack Street, and in an area between the Basiliere Bridge and the Post Office in Washington Square.
“We’ll see a day when we come over from Bradford and see a pleasant, pleasing skyline and not one as it is today and it has been through my lifetime,” City Councilor William Ryan said just moments before the council voted to approve the ordinance 8-0. Councilor Michael McGonagle, who owns a business on Merrimack Street, abstained from voting.
Economic Development Director William Pillsbury said the zoning overlay ordinance for the Merrimack Street waterfront allows mixed-use commercial/residential development projects that will connect to the river. Pillsbury brought the request to the council last week, but it was held over to this week’s meeting to incorporate several “minor” technical changes.
“The idea that perhaps we made a mistake in urban renewal,’’ Pillsbury said of the 1960s federal program that altered the downtown but did not take advantage of the river. “This is the time to change that and to reverse that direction.’’
Pillsbury said the zoning is modeled after a zoning district the City Council previously approved. The new zoning creates a permit process that will take developers through city departments quickly, establishes design standards for mixed-use projects, and will serve as a catalyst for “significant private investment” in the downtown, he said. The city’s Planning Board gave the new zoning its unanimous support, he said.
Pillsbury said zoning approved by the council in the past resulted in the mixed-use redevelopment of the western end of downtown, while this new zoning focuses on the Merrimack Street end and is oriented to the river.
Pillsbury talked about several amendments to the plan. He said one prohibits the outdoor storage of power boats along Merrimack Street, one prohibits a specific type of drive-through restaurant in the Merrimack Street area, and one involves technical language regarding the “phasing” of projects.
“If we don’t lay the groundwork with the zoning, then the private sector individuals who want to step up to the plate and undertake a project won’t know how to do it,” he said. “This zoning gives them the tools and enables them to step forward in a predictable way and undertake projects.”
Under the new rules, the existing commercial zoning for Merrimack Street will remain the same, but investors who wish to build projects that include both residential housing and commercial development could do so. Those rules include a faster permitting process, reduced parking requirements and the ability to build more housing on less land than is normally required. The plan also 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.
Priority projects are developments that include both commercial and residential components — such as retail stores, offices or restaurants at the ground level and housing on upper floors. Those would be built to connect to a boardwalk the mayor said he hopes will someday be built along the full run of the downtown stretch of the river, behind existing but under-used buildings.