Monday, November 4, 2013

Ed Cameron: Asking for Your Vote

Dear Newburyporters,

I ask for your vote for City Council At-Large. 

This weekend I walked over 21 miles on my own two feet on our streets getting my message out and talking to voters.  I learn a lot by keeping my mouth shut and listening, and keeping my eyes open and observing.

What I heard were words from people mostly happy about the path our city is on.  When pressed, people talked about the future, improving the schools, fixing sidewalks, and greening the waterfront.

What I saw were beautiful historic homes in the older sections of the city, big yards for kids to play in Wards 5 and 6.  I saw people clearing out old gardens, raking leaves, heading to recycling, painting their houses trying to finish in time for the Patriots game.

I also saw more than a few rundown, shuttered, unpainted houses in all corners of our city whose occupants have clearly fallen on hard times; I saw on my two leaf runs a Crow Lane landfill whose owner continues to thumb his nose at the State, the City, and the residents who’ve had to endure; I saw, actually smelled, a sewer plant that many of you live with on a day to day basis, a plant in its final stages of completion that will hopefully mean better breathing in the South End.

So we have a lot of things to be thankful for.  And a lot to work on.

I would like to continue to serve as a Councillor At-Large as we address sidewalks, languages in the schools, affordable housing, sea rise, historic preservation, the waterfront and other important issues in the future.

In my three terms on the City Council, I’ve been a part of strengthening support for basic city services like education, public safety and infrastructure.

I sponsored the order that provided a revenue stream through the local meals tax which has helped improve our sidewalks. With many others, I was a voice to create a Senior Community Center that will be important to our aging baby boomers.  I sponsored the order to exempt the positions of police marshal and fire chief from provisions of civil service law, so that the city can select from a much broader and diverse group of candidates for those very important positions. I want to do what I can to provide the best services to citizens at the lowest cost to taxpayers.

The city should be more supportive of walkability and bikeability — in the neighborhoods, between downtown and the neighborhoods, and connecting the neighborhoods and downtown to the Park and Ride near Interstate 95, a future downtown parking garage and the commuter rail station. An actionable Sidewalk Management Plan that includes biking will be a great start to get this moving.

The big issue has been and will be for a long time the Waterfront.

Three municipal campaign cycles ago, the talk was about more open space and less parking on the waterfront.  I was and still am a big advocate for more green park space on the Waterfront lots.
But in 2007, the economic, commercial, and fiscal realities were different---the economy was relatively strong, commercial development surrounding the publicly held lands seemed imminent, and financial support from State and Federal sources seemed probable.

More than five years later, the economy is rebounding after years of recession, the Karp juggernaut still hasn't materialized, and Federal sequestration and reduced State Local Aid are the realities.

I still feel those goals of more open space and less parking on the waterfront are valid.

Over the last six years, I've added a third principle to the waterfront: no more additional debt (or as little additional debt as possible) for Newburyport taxpayers.  I'm not as worried about those Newburyporters doing well in this economy.  I am worried about seniors living on a fixed income and middle class families only two paychecks away from financial crisis.  We all took a hit with the debt for the schools and senior community center; we all took a hit with debt to fix aging water and sewer infrastructure.

So where do we go from here?

I’ve heard a few candidates this year start their waterfront speech with, “My vision is…”

Honestly, I don’t have a vision except to make your vision a reality.  The problem is a large segment wants Vision A, a large segment wants Vision B, many are comfortable with a mix of A and B, some just want Vision C.  

In the span of 10 minutes this Saturday, I spoke to three households on Prospect Street.  Voter #1 is a retired educator who was working on her garden and wants open open, meaning no building except for visitor amenities and understands that a park isn’t free.  Voter #2 is a retiree who was raking leaves who is “betwixed and between” on what to do with the waterfront and used unprompted the word “limited” commercial development as something that would help pay for the park.  Voter #3 is an environmentalist by trade, loves Newburyport but wouldn’t mind living in the forest as well, and thinks the NRA concept is great because after all this is an “urban park.”  These are really nice people, they’d be great neighbors.  And later I run into voters who make a pretty reasonable pitch for keeping the parking and just landscaping it. 

So where do we go from here?

The revised NRA plan is here:

And the COW plan is on their website at:

Call me a waffler, call me a flip flopper, call me whatever but I feel that both the NRA and COW concepts are steps forward.  Neither concept is perfect --how could it be when there is not and never will be complete agreement on what we want there-- and likely neither may even be possible given environmental, political, and financial obstacles that need to be overcome.

To look forward, I think the stated goals that the NRA put forward in 2012 are a reasonable framework to use.  My own comments in RED:

a. Enlarge park / civic space while preserving an appropriate amount of improved parking (Both NRA and COW Plans do this)
b. Improve and enrich the experience of the park without “commercializing the waterfront”. (The NRA condos are too big and intense a use and would lessen the overall park experience.  The COW concept would leave a dead zone in colder months.)
c. Maintain access and views to the waterfront park for all – But make more inviting all year round. (NRA and COW Plans both maintain access.  The COW plan does not address year round uses but leaves it as a possibility.)
d. Find a way forward which is self funding and sustainable. (Self-funding by the NRA would be great but relying on selling/leasing for large scale residential is something that lessens the park experience.  The COW reliance on mostly grant money is just not realistic.)

This choice is all about tradeoffs, making the best decisions with the information we have now, with our eyes on the short and long term.   

Personally, I am okay with LIMITED commercial development because it would 1) provide a funding stream for ongoing maintenance and 2) create more activity in this public space.  A limited amount of retail or café/tavern/restaurant brings action, activity, and people to a park, especially in colder months.  I realize the thought of any building down there gets some people really upset; some of those same people are fine with the building if it’s visitor amenities or for boaters; I really don’t see why a building or two that is scaled and has the right look with a café/restaurant/retail is such a crime against humanity.  I t hink it's a creative way to get more park.

But again this is about you not me.

So what can we do?
1)     Back up.  The Process has been fragmented.  Several candidates have talked about dialogue not debate and mediation.  I completely agree. The City Council has never had more than a 10 minute discussion about the NRA plan and COW plan.  If we need to get our voice and the people’s voice at the table, then the Council needs to create the table.  If I’m still on the Council, I’ll be proposing a mechanism to bring the parties and citizens together in a moderated public forum or serious of forums to learn what people want in the end, what we can agree on, where to start.  I would also be open to placing a ballot question on during the 2014 election season that is well crafted and can give a clearer direction.  The Waterfront isn’t a yes/no question, it’s not binary, it’s complex, so a survey would be tricky.  (Yes, I know there have been surveys in the past—they don’t provide much guidance for today’s realities.)  Find something that 70% of the people can agree on and move forward.
2)     Minimize uncertainty.  What does New England Development plan to do in the next five years, in the next 10 years?  If they can’t say for certain, what is their range of possibilities?  The Council should invite Steven Karp to the table.    Right now they are clearly earning a healthy profit on the status quo.  If the City creates more parkland and additional parking through a municipal garage, the #1 beneficiary in my mind is New England Development.  What can they do to help us improve the overall area?  Without completely selling out to New England Development, I’m sure there is some mutual benefit to be had.
3)     Determine the players.  The NRA needs to be at that table.  If the NRA cannot raise the funds because condos and residential development, which produce the most revenue, are off the table, does the NRA have the tools to complete this project?  If the NRA has the responsibility to complete the project, but not the authority to get it done, should it be disbanded and let the City complete the project?  Could the City provide funds, through City revenue, meals/hotel tax, parking revenue, to the NRA to complete the project? 
4)     Deal with parking.  It seems to me that there is a consensus, in both plans and from most people I talk to, to build a garage to increase capacity overall so that we can reduce parking capacity on the Waterfront.  There is a possibility of Federal and State funds for a multi-modal garage; if these funds can cover a lot of the initial capital costs and debt is kept low, I would like us to set parking fees in a garage as low as possible to really encourage people to park there.

That’s enough from me.  I was going to go on about historic preservation but I think you know I'll fight for that too.

I ask for your vote on Election Day and thank you for reading.

Ed Cameron

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