By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — The new City Council’s first decision could be it’s most important of the coming year.
Mayor James Fiorentini said he will urge the council at its Jan. 7 meeting to approve new rules for developing property along the Merrimack River, including some of the most notable, vacant parcels in the city. The new council, which includes eight incumbents and one new-comer, is scheduled to be sworn in Jan. 6.
The mayor’s proposal creates eight separate zones for developing property along the river, each with different rules aimed at encouraging specific uses and providing public access to the waterfront.
City planning officials and a committee formed by the mayor have been working on the zoning measure for several years. Fiorentini submitted the plan to the council in November.
The new waterfront zoning would control development on various properties, including the site of the former Friend’s Landing nightclub at 85 Water St.; the city-owned Ornstein Heel property and the privately owned Haverhill Paperboard site, both in Bradford; as well as another large parcel once known as Hoyt and Worthen Tanning.
The mayor said the plan for the Bradford side of the river is to rezone those key properties for residential use.
“After a lot of thought and talking with neighbors, we decided the old industrial areas on the Bradford side of the river, such as the Haverhill Paperboard site and the old lumberyard, should be residential not industrial,” Fiorentini said. “The majority of residents over there want it to be residential, and industry doesn’t want to be there anymore anyway. Today industry wants to be near highways, not rail and waterways.”
The new rules would 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.
The owner of the 85 Water St. parcel recently filed a proposal to build 59 luxury condominiums at the site of the former Friend’s Landing nightclub, which was demolished in 2007.
“If the city could afford it, I’d buy many of these waterfront properties,” the mayor said. “But since we don’t have the money, this is the next best thing. These rules will put some restrictions on developments, but that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”
A key component of the new rules is that developers would be required to provide public access to the river on all new projects.
“Wherever it is feasible to do so, the ordinance requires that any large-scale new development provide an easement or strip reserved for public use along the waterfront,” reads a letter from Fiorentini to the council on the proposal.
Developers willing to provide additional public benefits, such as building a park, playground or finished walkway, or connecting their property to the city’s downtown boardwalk, would be given additional perks. Those considerations include faster local approvals and, in some cases, the right to build more housing units than would be allowed under regular zoning rules, the mayor said.
“In Bradford, this could mean that someday we will be able to extend our rail trail along the waterfront,” Fiorentini said. “Along the northern (downtown) side of the river, public access could mean that there is always a walkway or boardwalk along the river.”
The mayor said the goal of the plan is to make certain that every developer provides public access in some manner.
“We have turned our backs on the river for over a century,” he said. “This ordinance turns us forward so that the river is our focus.”
Existing businesses in the new zones would not be affected.
“If someone is currently operating a business in a zone that is going to be rezoned residential, they are allowed to continue that business,” the mayor’s letter to the council said.
In developing the proposal, Fiorentini said his zoning committee reviewed successful waterfront rules adopted by other cities and towns across the country. The city also hired an outside expert, Denise McClure, to help guide the review, the mayor said.
“I will start the very first day after the inauguration by asking the City Council to approve as proposed my new waterfront zoning ordinance,” Fiorentini said. “We can make our city more desirable and our future brighter by assuring that the public always has access to our most precious asset, the Merrimack River.”
The council, by majority vote, can amend the zoning proposal prior to voting. The mayor said he will urge the council to approve the plan without changing it, however.