By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — Mayor James Fiorentini announced a major economic development project and the opening of a new restaurant and lounge in a downtown landmark at the annual State of the City speech last night.
The mayor, half-way through a record fifth term as Haverhill’s chief executive, focused his address on past and future efforts to revitalize downtown and other parts of the city by easing building regulation and changing zoning rules to encourage large residential and commercial development.
Overall, he painted a rosy picture of Haverhill’s present and future. Crime, he said, is down; the city’s school system, on the upswing.
Fiorentini gave the speech to an overflow audience packed into the City Council meeting room in City Hall. Haverhill’s full legislative delegation sat in the front row.
The mayor introduced Charles Defelice and Joan and Jodi Kaskiewics, who plan to open a restaurant and sports pub called Coaches in the old Hotel Whittier on Washington Street. The building, which operated as a hotel until the 1980s, has been home to small eateries, condominiums and retail stores in recent years. The century-old building, with its fancy ironwork and Gothic-style arches on top, is considered one of downtown’s finest examples of Queen Anne architecture.
The mayor said zoning initiatives have been the key to keeping real estate taxes low and improving services to residents. He outlined several new zoning proposals he said he plans to ask City Council to pass in coming months.
Rezoning downtown, which began when Fiorentini first took office nine years ago, has brought $150 million in private and public investment, 850 new residents and many new restaurants to the area, the mayor said, highlighting Butch’s Uptown and The Barking Dog Ale House as two of the latest.
Those projects and new meals tax revenue from downtown restaurants have pumped about $12 million into city coffers in recent years, he said.
“Tonight, I announce a series of new zoning initiatives that will given us the tools to expand our success into other areas, along the waterfront, out to out industrial parks and to a second, almost forgotten treasure in our city, the Little River,” Fiorentini said.
Next month, the mayor said he intends to ask City Council to approve new zoning on Stevens Street along the Little River. The changes, he said, are designed to pave the way for a proposed, multi-million 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 at Railroad Square, Hamel Mill Lofts and the Cordovan complex.
Other zoning proposals are aimed at the downtown stretch of Merrimack Street along the river and old factory buildings and other properties on the Bradford side of the river opposite downtown. They include properties once known as Hoyt and Worthen Tanning, Ornsteen Heel and the Haverhill Paperboard site, he said. In all, the mayor’s plan divides the riverfront into seven zones, each with different building rules.
Fiorentini said the city survived many years of perilous finances by limiting spending, receiving $9 million in state aide to help pay the infamous annual Hale debt, and growing the tax base with new, large housing projects.
The mayor introduced three recently hired police officers during his speech, and he said he intends to ask the council for approval to hire two more officers next month.
He said crime is down in Haverhill for the second year in a row — that despite complaints from the police union that crime is actually going up due to low staffing and that statistics used to track criminal activity are unreliable.
Fiorentini said crime is down 13 percent in the last two years, including a 52 percent drop in burglaries.
“It happened because the police department was proactive,” he said. “They increased patrols in inner city areas and worked with kids in our gang resistance program.”
The mayor said the city has spent $43 million to repair and renovate schools in the last decade, and it is spending $6 million more this year for new roofs, boilers and windows at five schools, he said. Fiorentini said he will lead the campaign for a new Hunking Middle School next year, if that is the recommendation of a study reviewing the city’s options for replacing the troubled building in Haverhill’s Bradford section.
“This is not just an education issue,” Fiorentini said of Hunking. “It is an issue that affects all of our property values and one that we all need to support.”
The mayor said plans are in the works to fix problems at the Citizen’s Center that provides services and programs for Haverhill’s elderly residents. Improvements are also coming to the city’s parks this summer, he said.
A spray and splash park, new ball fields and walking trails will be installed at Swassey Field, for instance, he said.
Haverhill burgeoning rail trail on the Bradford side of the Merrimack River is also set to receive some attention later this year, the mayor said, including landscaping, benches and playground equipment.
“Someday our children and grandchildren will enjoy a series of parks, trails, walkways and bike paths that extend all along the river, from the old Ornsteen property in Bradford all the way to Groveland,” he said.
“Tonight, I see a very different city than I saw just a few years ago,” the mayor said. “In a city where I once saw young people leaving in droves, I see young people returning in droves to live in our downtown. Where I once saw a city where business was leaving, tonight I see investors coming back to our city to bring new hotels, redevelop old mill buildings and build new restaurants.”