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Collsision in Haverhill
Former haverhill Mayor, Jim Rurak

In late January, two powerful crosscurrents collided beneath Haverhill’s political surface.

They reflect two very different ideas as to how to, and, who should lead the remaking of our downtown. Both sides are well meaning, but they are pulling in opposite directions when they should be working together. The collision: In the same time frame, the mayor introduced plans to promote residential development downtown and Team Haverhill unveiled its futuristic renderings of Haverhill’s downtown in 2020.

The mayor’s plan calls for reducing government interference and unleashing market forces; Team Haverhill’s renderings suggest strong government oversight and involvement. The strategy is to build popular support for the renderings so that the appropriate government support will follow.

The problem is that the city government and Team Haverhill are moving in opposite directions and, worse, there seems to be little appetite on either side for conversation. At the very same time when the downtown is bursting with hot business and government proposals, it is also the focus of the positive energy for long-term planning unleashed by Team Haverhill and its financial backer, The Haverhill Foundation. Unless conversation picks up, opportunities will be lost.

A case in point: The mayor proposes to reduce the parking requirement for downtown residences from 1.5 to one per unit. This allows
current proposals to fly without having to provide for spaces they cannot now secure downtown. But everybody knows that downtown needs more parking spaces.

The city was very happy to get a federal grant for a parking garage, but it also acknowledges that the grant is insufficient to build a garage large enough to meet our needs. The extra money has to come from somewhere. If you relax zoning, then you take away the incentive from the private sector to make a contribution. Is there more to be had from the public side?

Team Haverhill’s renderings depict a large parking garage, just beyond the RR tracks on the left as you’re heading toward Lafayette Square. It’s a multi-modal design that features a bus depot. But, in fact, the MVRTA is poised to break ground on a four million dollar upgrade of its bus depot and the surrounding park in Washington Square. What if Team Haverhill, the mayor and MVRTA officials had been talking from day one?

Could that four million have been applied to an integrated parking garage and bus station adjacent to the RR station? This would have put the busses right next to the trains and it would have eased some of the congestion in Washington Square. Now we’ll never know. By the way, congratulations to the MVRTA for persisting in its efforts to secure the money for its project.

Lessons from history. People cite both Newburyport and Lowell as examples of successful downtown revitalization. In fact, Congressman Paul Tsongas pulled together political, business and community leaders in Lowell.

The result was the Lowell Plan and federal designation of an urban national park. In Newburyport, Mayors Zabriskie and Matthews not only worked with their communities, but regularly called upon my father who was then the state senator. For example, the key to expanding Newburport’s downtown was enlarging its harbor.

The old, low drawbridge needed to be replaced by one that allowed almost all boat traffic to pass underneath without snarling traffic. The result was public funding for the new Gillis Bridge. And by means of such collaboration, both Newburyport and Lowell found central and organizing themes by which they could market their downtowns.

Haverhill needs that too, but that comes from conversations, not collisions. I’m very excited about serving currently on Team Haverhill. There I see new and also well-established people enthused and committed to Haverhill’s future. I also know what resources, both public and private, that the mayor’s support can bring to such efforts. In fact, such support is crucial. Apart from the police chief’s survey of public sentiment, there is no visible participation by this administration.

And within Team Haverhill, most people don’t seem upset about that. If we don’t want to miss opportunities for innovative and integrated action, if we do want to succeed like Newburyport and Lowell, we need to pull together now.  

Jim Rurak is a professor at Boston College and is the former mayor of Haverhill. Email your comments or questions to Jim Rurak at JARandKAS@comcast.net



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The February, 2006 Edition of the Valley Patriot
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Prior Columns by Jim Rurak