Slouching towards Bethlehem, Newburyport’s Smart Growth, 40R District

Seal of the City of Newburyport

When Newburyport’s 40R Smart Growth District passed on the second reading by the Newburyport City Council on Monday night, I had sort of a sinking feeling, a slight feeling of foreboding.  Not necessarily because I think it might not work, and that really smart people, who care a great deal about our city, did their very best to create it over an 11 year period. My guess is that as a city we will “Slouch towards the 40R Smart Growth District” over the next couple of decades, parts of it working, parts of it sort of working and parts of it, not so much.  10-20 years from now, the city will have some idea if this was the “best of ideas,” or the “worst of ideas,” or something inbetween.

(And for all of you who are up in arms about the 40R District, the next actual concrete thing on the Smart Growth 40R docket, is when the Minco building comes up in front of the Planning Board for review (which is probably pretty soon) — if you cared enough to sign a petition about the 40R, please be there and speak up about it!!)

My foreboding, as I think and mull on it, is the feeling of “backlash” and “hysteria,” about what this project represents to I would say to a good 85% of the people that I talked to.  What I hear over and over and over again, is that there is so much happening in the civics/political world of Newburyport, the Smart Growth 40R District being the most recent, that people feel overwhelmed by it all and feel that things are out of control.  And they feel this very, very strongly.  Notice the use of the verb “feel.”  As a friend of mine says, “Feelings are not facts.” But, when it comes to the world of local politics, especially 4 weeks out from an election for Newburyport City Council (see earlier post for the candidates), the feeling/fact thing is important, and could (we will find out) be a motivating factor in the election.

When I talked to people yesterday and the days before that, yesterday being the primary election for Ward 1, one of the major things on folks’ minds, aside for the smell from the Water and Sewer Plant, you got it, the 40R Smart Growth District. And who did they vote for (I am sure there are many other reasons as well, I’m not saying that this is the only one), they voted for Sharif Zeid , an incredibly bright and engaging young man, who at the Ward 1 Meet and Greet, talked very eloquently about his reservations about the size of the 40R District. I was sitting at the back of the room at the Emma Andrews Library and Community Center, and you could almost see peoples’ heads going up and down in agreement.

(Just as a btw, the fact that a mere 10% of the voting population showed up to vote in the Ward 1 Primary for City Council is a bit discouraging, voting is a privilege, and who you vote for has consequences.)

This upcoming City Council election on Tuesday, November 3, 2015 is important for all sorts of reasons. Be sure to vote.  Make sure to vote with your head and your heart, and not with your panic button.

And as a PS

Ward 1 Primary Election Results

Sharif Zeid 143,  Ted Waldron 98,  Mike Ferrick 33
Mainland:  Sharif Zeid 130, Ted Waldron 65
Plum Island:  Sharif Zeid 13, Ted Waldron 33

Are Historic Homes in Newburyport Obsolete?

Rotary Phone
Rotary Phone

Historic preservationist, you are up against a cultural wall that has not been there before. Somehow you all need to take that into consideration.

For historic preservationists — think on this analogy. Once you’ve had an iphone, would most people ever go back to an old rotary phone.  The answer for 99.9% of people is NO.

And that is part of what you are up against. The old rotary phone probably still works, and it is made really well, but nobody cares, it was archaic decades ago.  Touch tone phones and now smartphones — and once you got a hold of a smartphone, everything else seems obsolete. And that is a little bit of the way historic homes are regarded these days, antiquated and obsolete. Yes, that is the awful and terrible reality.

It was not that way even 10 years ago, but it is that way today.  Ten years ago a historic home was assessed at a much higher rate than a new or “newly restored” home. That has changed. An older home on High Street that needs “remodeling” (which many historic preservationist would think is gorgeous just the way it is),  is probably assessed at 1 million dollars less than a “down to the studs reno” job that has been “updated.”

And when these new homes are staged, a realtor probably would tell you to get rid of that antique furniture and the oriental rug, that is if you want to sell it. They are gone with the wind too.

I do not know what historic preservationists do with this “new reality,” and whether it is a Newburyport thing or a larger nationwide thing. It’s not as simple as “the building inspector” as my buddy over at Brick and Tree hopes. I think it is much, much bigger than that.

Smartphone
Smartphone

Is Newburyport no Longer a Place where the Middle Class are Welcomed?

money

Within the last year I’ve had two experiences that I hope, hope, hope are not indicative of a trend.

I need some things done around my reasonably modest dwelling, and I went looking for quotes.

For the first undertaking, I got one quote from a young man, who was highly recommended, it was 7.5 to 5 times higher than other quotes.  This was a young man in his 30s. Apparently he felt that, if I was willing to pay such an exorbitant price, it was gravy for him, otherwise he wasn’t interested.  I said no, and told everyone about him, and everyone I told was pretty shocked.

It happened again, about 10 months later, a completely different sort of task.  Another young man in his 30s. This time it was only 4 times the going rate. And when I asked if the person would accept a lower price, because it was so outrageous (and I was very, very tactful), the reply I got, “It just doesn’t make sense for me to spend anymore time on this so I’m going to pass on the job.” Believe me, as a consumer, I am allowed to asked questions, get quotes. I’ve never before felt as if I’d been “fired” by someone I asked whether or not they might be able to assist me.

If I lived in Salisbury or Amesbury, would I have gotten this same treatment? I’m guessing, probably not. But then again, if I lived in Salisbury or Amesbury, they might not have even bothered to return my phone call, because apparently so much money can be made off of the people who now live in Newburyport, MA.

I was talking to a friend about the “chutzpa” (shameless audacity, impudence) and dismissiveness, and they said, it’s probably because of the kind of people moving into Newburyport now.  There is now a gorgeous multi-million dollar home within sight of where I live (it was not a multi-million dollar property before, see earlier post), a middle class family is not going to buy that one.

It feels as if Newburyport has gone over a tipping point. It feels as if this is not a place for the middle class, i.e. teachers, nurses, accountants, middle class professionals to find a home anymore. There was once a spot where there was a balance of the “old guard/natives” and the new arrivals. The carpetbaggers had come in, but they were teachers, nurses, accountants, people with small businesses, artists, craftsmen, writers, even some doctors and lawyers. It feels as if Newburyport may soon no longer be hospitable to those folks either.

Are we going from gentrification, which has been described as “the conversion of working class areas into a middle-class area,” to an exclusive, luxury municipal location that only the very wealthy can inhabit–what Nantucket has now become? And Stephen Karp hasn’t even started to build yet.

Newburyport, The Stretch Code and Historic Preservation

Rennovation on Lime Street, September 2015
Rennovation on Lime Street, September 2015

Jerry Mullins over at Brick and Tree is on a tear about the city’s Stretch Code.

Jerry is right, the Stretch Code does not apply to historic buildings in Newburyport. This is from the Q&A from the Green Communities Grant Program (page 4):

12. Does the stretch code apply to historic buildings?
Both the stretch code and the base energy code exempt historic buildings listed in state or national registers, or designated as a historic property under local or state designation law or survey, or with an opinion or certification that the property is eligible to be listed.

According to Jerry this information is not being explained in a comprehensive manner by the folks responsible at City Hall. And unlike Jerry, I am unwilling to throw the mayor and the building inspector under the bus, because I think that it is more complicated.

The EPA has a pamphlet on “Energy Advice for Owners of Historic and Older Homes,” in which they give great advice and information, and also talk about “comfort levels.”

When I bought my first home in Newburyport in 1981, a historic home, it never occurred to anyone I knew to take an old historic home down to the studs. We did a lot of things recommended by the pamphlet by the EPA, but we were also willing to live with a lower “comfort level” for the privilege of living in a historic house. Yes, the houses were drafty* but that was just part of the deal, and also the codes are very different today, then they were in 1981.

My impression is that folks who are buying homes today in Newburyport want a 100% “comfort level.” It’s not just what the building inspector may or may not be saying, bottom line, the people moving here now often want a new home inside an old shell, (please see a previous post about other things that folks want, and Alex Dardinski’s very thoughtful reply). How to balance historic preservation, and all the regulations and expectations in the year 2015 in Newburyport?? I do not think that there are easy answers to that question.

Alex Dardinski articulated his point of view, “I don’t want to live in Williamsburg, but in a tapestry of history rather than a single place in time.”

Rennovation on Lime Street, September 2015
Rennovation on Lime Street, September 2015

*This is from “Energy Advice for Owners of Historic and Older Homes”

“Walls: To insulate or not to insulate?
Wall insulation can be problematic in historic structures as it is difficult to install properly due to the unpredictable nature of historic walls.
• There may be old knob and tube wiring in the wall which would present a fire hazard.
• Blocking, fire stops, or forgotten or obsolete chases will result in cold pockets. Anywhere the insulation does not or cannot reach, such as the junction between the exterior wall and the floor joists, can create thermal bridging. These cold pockets and thermal bridges set up areas where moisture can condense. (Imagine a cold glass on a hot day and the beads of water than form on the glass to understand this concept.)
• Any time you have moisture in the wall, the possibility of decay and mold increases.
• Pumping in dense pack cellulose insulation in the walls can cause the keys that attach plaster walls to the supporting lath can be broken, necessitating repairs.

The trouble and expense of insulating historic walls may not be the best bang for your buck. Once you have air sealed and insulated your attic, tuned up (or replaced your furnace), and completed some of the higher priority energy saving techniques you might then consider insulating your walls but get advice from an expert. By undertaking these other energy-saving measures first, you may find that your comfort level goes up and your energy expenses go down significantly without the need to insulate the walls.

Tip!
If your home dates to the 1850s or earlier and its frame is made of wood, there is a good chance that is has post and beam construction rather than balloon framing. This is an important consideration if you’re thinking about adding insulation in the walls.

Without modern vapor barriers and insulation, air and moisture in the house moved more easily between inside and outside. Adding insulation to the wall cavities without understanding how the house functions as a system and without establishing new ways to circulate air through the home can cause moisture to accumulate. High moisture levels can result in mold and rot, creating serious problems for the homeowner as well as unnecessary expense.”

Newburyport Ward 1 Primary Election, 2015, Meet the Candidates

Ward 1 Primary Election Results

Sharif Zeid 143,  Ted Waldron 98,  Mike Ferrick 33
Mainland:  Sharif Zeid 130, Ted Waldron 65
Plum Island:  Sharif Zeid 13, Ted Waldron 33

Newburyport Ward I Primary Election (Tuesday, September 29, 2015) Meet the Candidates

Meet the Ward 1 Candidates

Meet the Ward 1 Candidates
The Primary is Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Emma  L. Andrews Library and Community Center
77 Purchase Street
(on the corner of Purchase and Marlboro)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015
6:30 PM

The Candidates are:

Michael Ferrick,
Edward Waldron III, Facebook Page
Sharif Zeid, Website

Map of Ward 1, Newburyport, MA
Map of Ward 1, Newburyport, MA (press image to enlarge)

Here is a list of all the candidates running for City Council and Newburyport School Committee on Tuesday, November 3, 2015, with links to websites and Facebook pages.

No Mandatory Composting in Newburyport

If I lived in a red-leaning Southern State, I would be viewed as a dark-green, environmental socialist.  In Massachusetts, I think I would be viewed as a light-green environmental trouble maker, pain in the butt.

When it comes to mandatory composting in Newburyport (we are not there yet, but that is the endgame). “NO.”

Newburyprt composting bin
Newburyprt composting bin

As a friend of mine said, “No is a complete sentence.”

A lot of people I know are really, really excited about the two year pilot composting program that Newburyport is “experimenting” with (the Newburyport Organics Pilot Program, Towards Zero Waste Newburyport) .  For them, “It’s the bomb.” And I’m thrilled for them.

As the old saying goes, on this one, “Live and let Live.” For all the folks out there who are wicked excited — Awesome!! And there are lots and lots of folks, who if it is compulsory, will not comply, period. And they are too afraid to speak up, because they feel as if they are being manipulated and railroaded into eventually having mandatory composting.

“No is a complete sentence.”  On mandatory composting, “No.” And for those who are excited, go for it, just do not make it obligatory for every resident in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Newburyport’s Future, Balancing the Love of New with the Love of Old, Historic Preservation

This is Alex Dardinski’s reply on Facebook to an earlier post of mine, “Newburyport is Losing its Patina, and Historic Preservation.”

“I don’t want to live in Williamsburg, but in a tapestry of history rather than a single place in time.”

House before renovation © Alex Dardinski
House before renovation, photo courtesy of Alex Dardinski

I think about this concept all the time in my work life designing products,  as well as my personal life, restoring a historic Newburyport home — how to balance the love of new with the love of old? The term I always come back to is “palimpsest,” which in architectural terms would be the traces of the many years of use and reuse upon a facade or plan.

I struggle with the notion of doing a perfect museum grade restoration for many of the reasons that you have stated. I have lead paint concerns with my young family. I want a more open plan than the carpenters of the 19th century could provide. I want to have some modern conveniences too. I also want my house to have some patina, some soul. A connection to its past with real quality materials that were crafted when the house was built.  The best find I ever made in my house was evidence that my house was “converted” from a square 2 story box into a stately 3 story second empire victorian by the Caldwell Rum family. That was an earth shattering revelation. I wonder how controversial that was at the time. It was a pure case of gentrification, circa 1870! But that is my favorite detail about my house and that part of its history makes me love it even more.

We MUST have some essential historic protections and zoning that keeps the character of our city intact. But I don’t want to live in Williamsburg either, but in a tapestry of history rather than a single place in time.

The first room I renovated when I was 25 years old was truly in need of a gutting. It was heavily water damaged and the horsehair plaster was falling off the walls. I took out the plaster, accidentally destroyed most of the trim, then went the lath, then I added modern insulation and rewired it all. It was 100% new. Now that is the most soulless sheetrock clad room in my house.  So since that overreach, I have tried to fix real problems more surgically. Leaving many traces of the past as I go, knowing that in 100 years the work I do today will be part of the historic archive too — that the work of every tradesperson that will have touched my house adds to the “palimpsest” of the house.

On a larger scale, that is the story of Newburyport. The first period houses sat far apart from one another on large tracts of land. You see houses that once fronted the river, but now are 2 or more blocks away from the banks. They might face the wrong way from the street and seem odd until you close your eyes and imagine the wide open acres that separated these early structures from one another, long before the streets were fully laid out.

Second period houses came and filled in the density of our historic neighborhoods. That early construction boom must have come as a shock, but it makes the density (and one could argue the sense of community we enjoy is because of it) of our little city. Mid century Italianates then Victorians that must have seemed like modernist heresy to the purely colonial streetscapes of the early 1800’s.  But in retrospect where would we be without them today? They add such color to the fabric of the town.  In the period following the depression and post industrial Newburyport, many bad architectural choices were made, largely out of poverty, and so many of them have been erased in our city’s recent evolution.

So I guess my image of “the right thing to do” on my house of for the town in general is also still evolving. But I know that every change came with controversy. We must recognize that the best changes stand the test of time and the worst most often do not.  We won’t be a town of vinyl siding in 100 years. The good choices will stand and the McMansions and the other the hasty choices will be largely edited away.  We will still be a historic town, a beautiful town. And the things happening today even if controversial will be but one part off the palimpsest of the city’s history.

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Alex Dardinski for his thoughtful, informative and optimistic addition to The Newburyport Blog.

House after renovation
House after renovation

Three Young Men that Give me Hope for Newburyport’s Future

What these three young men have in common, to paraphrase President Kennedy, is, “Ask not what Newburyport can do for you, but ask what you can do for Newburyport.”

And for me, these three young men honor Newburyport, they link the stories of Newburyport’s past to what will be the story of Newburyport’s future.

Tom Salemi

Tom Salemi
Tom Salemi

I first got to know Tom Salemi when he became a fellow Newburyport blogger, the editor of The Newburyport Posts.  Tom had been a reporter for the Newburyport Daily News in the early to mid 1990s, left Newburyport and then returned to our wonderful city.

Much to my surprise (and I was somewhat alarmed for his sanity), Tom jumped in feet-first  into the world of Newburyport civics, and became a member of what I think of as Newburyport’s most toxic committee, the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority (NRA).

Tom became a member while the NRA was exploring the possibility of putting some buildings on Newburyport’s Waterfront.  The chaos and hostility that ensued was mind-boggling, I was sure that Tom would step down.  But Tom Salemi did not, instead he became chair of the NRA (I worried for his sanity), and has throughout his tenure conducted himself with grace and dignity, listening to the overall call for the Waterfront to remain “open,” and withstanding the onslaught of Citizens for an Open Water Front (COW) and calls by members of the Newburyport City Council for the NRA to disband.

You got to really love your city to preservere and work as a member of the NRA and to look  for a solution that has alluded the city for 50 years. This young man, Tom Salemi, self deprecating, funny, and without a hint of entitlement, gives me hope for Newburyport’s future.

Jared Eigerman

Jarred Eigerman
Jarred Eigerman

I first got to know Jared Eigerman during the push to have Newburyport have a Local Historic District (LHD).  And then, much to my delight, Jared decided to run for Newburyport City Council for Ward 2, and he won.

Jared was born in Newburyport, left our city and has now come back. He is a native son. Jared is one smart cookie, and again, self deprecating and without a hint of entitlement.  He wanted to become a city councilor not for power or to one day become mayor, but, in his words to me, “to write good laws.” And the first law/ordinance that Jared sponsored, was to protect downtown Newburyport and Newburyport’s Historic District, something that people had been trying to do for 50 years. It passed the Newburyport City Council unanimously, with the support of the “No LHD” folks and the “Yes LHD” folks.  No small accomplishment.  Yes, Newburyport historic preservationists still fight on, and people find ways to maneuver around the ordinance, but still, what an accomplishment.

Jared Eigerman honors Newburyport’s past, its stories, and wants to make sure that its history is intertwined with the story of Newburyport’s future.  And Jared Eigerman is one of the young men in our historic city that gives me great hope for our future.

Alex Dardinski

Alex Dardinski
Alex Dardinski

I don’t really know Alex Dardinski except through Facebook and talking to him while he takes his young son in his very cool bike, riding around our historic city.  Alex was born and raised in Newburyport, his family moved here in the early 1970s when real estate could be bought for $9,000. Alex has witnessed the change in Newburyport and can envision its future. And Alex is passionate about a vision to make Newburyport more walkable and pedestrian friendly, and reducing a reliance on the automobile.  He is involved in Newburyport’s Greenway and Newburyport’s Open Street Event.

Alex has also written a very thoughtful post for The Newburyport Blog on historic preservation in Newburyport, and his own personal experience of renovating an historic home.

As many people know, I love walking in Newburyport. I do it every day, and I also love historic preservation, and that may be why I resonate with Alex Dardinski so much.  And Alex is one of those people who links the stories of Newburyport’s past to what Newburyport’s story will become, and he gives me great hope for the future of Newburyport, Massachusetts.