Newburyport took hundreds of prime waterfront parking spots to expand a park, prompting a major controversy

The Boston Globe

The city recently took hundreds of prime waterfront parking spots to expand a park. The dust is still settling.

People waited for a section of boardwalk to reopen as construction continued on an expansion of Market Landing Park, in the heart of downtown Newburyport. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

NEWBURYPORT — Andy Port was walking along the waterfront on a recent afternoon, just next to the construction site in Market Landing Park that is the center of a major controversy brewing in this city, when he found himself cornered by four exasperated residents.

“You’re taking too much!” a man complained to Port, the city’s director of planning and development.

“Nobody uses the green space we already have,” a woman lamented.

Port did his best to be diplomatic, acknowledging their concerns and pointing out there were years of public hearings on the expansion of the city’s riverfront park. But he was not going to win over this crowd, for that expansion had come at the expense of hundreds of coveted downtown parking spots.

“Are we sure we’re doing the right thing?” one of the men asked, echoing a question asked by many since the construction fencing went up in August.

Here’s what’s going on: Newburyport has begun remodeling the 4.6-acre Market Landing Park along the Merrimack River in its touristy downtown. The initial changes will connect a bike path, create berms for better water viewing, and expand the overall green space. But to do that, it will take out a large chunk of two parking lots, one on the east side of the site, and one on the west.

The dispute echoes others flaring in cites and towns around the state, where communities are becoming more friendly to pedestrians, cyclists, and public transportation, but often at the expense of drivers.

Adam Re, of Hampton, held his 3-month-old daughter, Lily, as they spent time in Market Landing Park, in the heart of downtown Newburyport. JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF

Some of the recently removed parking spots in Newburyport will return after the $6 million phase-one construction is finished in the spring. The east lot, which had 176 spots, will have 109; the west lot, which had 80 spots, will drop to 49. Future phases of the park project, which are unfunded at the moment and would face steep headwinds based on the current controversy, call for the elimination of even more spots.

But as city leaders have pointed out repeatedly, there won’t be — in theory at least — a net loss of parking spaces in downtown, if you factor in the 200-car garage a couple of blocks away that the city built a few years ago.

Yet many merchants say the construction and loss of parking have created a chaotic scene downtown, one that has driven away customers and become a nightmare for their employees. The city charges an hourly fee for all the public spaces downtown, including the waterfront lots and the new garage, but many workers pay $240 per year for an employee parking pass that is now difficult to use. The city recently announced that those employees will be able to park in a portion of a nearby municipal lot, but not until Nov. 1, when the fall tourist season is over.

“It’s crushed our business. We’re highly dependent on foot traffic, and it’s gone from robust to bust,” said Walter Beede, who co-owns Finders Keepers, a consignment boutique across the street from the park. “The whole allure of Newburyport is the waterfront and the boats and all the restaurants downtown, and now they want you to park a mile away on a side street and hope you don’t get a ticket. They’ve taken what made this city come alive in the last 15 years and they’ve stepped on it.”

Proponents acknowledge there will be some temporary pain. But they argue that the long-term gains from the reconfigured park and new garage will make the city even more pedestrian-friendly, getting people parked and out of their cars before they get into the small downtown. It is an approach, Port said, successfully utilized by Portsmouth, N.H., 20 miles to the north.

The new Newburyport garage, which is on Titcomb Street, is between Route 1 — the main access point for the city – and the downtown, just two blocks before the west lot on the waterfront.

“The garage was built to get parking off the waterfront, and the reality is that change is hard,” said Heather Shand, president of the City Council and chairperson of the committee that oversaw the park expansion. “Once we get through this first phase of construction, people are going to appreciate the lovely, well-thought-out park that we’ll have.”

A newly built garage at 2 Titcomb St. in Newburyport. City officials are hoping people will park here after the city expands the green space in Market Landing Park. JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF

Much of the parking pressure has subsided now that Labor Day is in the rear view, but many business owners still aren’t buying the long-term vision.

“We need those waterfront lots and the garage,” said Wendy Smith, owner of Simply Sweet, a candy and ice cream shop on Inn Street. “They’re full of it, saying that taking all those spaces won’t affect us, because it does and it will. How is turning it into green space going to be a big boon? How? I’m not understanding that.”

She echoed a complaint of others that the park only sees heavy use during two big festivals: Yankee Homecoming, and RiverFest (which moved across the river to Salisbury this year because of the construction). The rest of the time, they said, it is a smattering of joggers and dog walkers, or pedestrians on the wooden boardwalk along the water, which will be unchanged in the remodeling.

“I’m all for green space,” said Stacy Vater, the office manager for Stone Ridge Properties, across from the east parking lot. “But I’m just unsure how this green space will help the city when we also need parking for businesses to stay open and thrive.”

On a recent day, as construction crews rumbled nearby, Port finished his impromptu grilling by the concerned citizens and led a reporter on a walk through the park, trying to paint a bigger picture.

“The City Council and the mayor were balancing a million different parameters with this plan, and they can’t satisfy everyone, but it’s a mischaracterization to say this is a loss of parking,” he said. “The downtown got dependent on surface parking, but in excess, and we were creating other problems by dedicating this prime downtown space to the car.”

It’s not a parking issue; it’s a philosophical issue, he said. And everyone has their own philosophies for the future of Newburyport.