Downtown Analysis: Al Boulanger Can Finally Rest

Utile consulted old maps of downtown in drafting Monday’s presentation.

Terra-cotta from the Daggett Building near the top of the Herbert H. Goecke Jr. Memorial Parking Deck.

Terra-cotta from the Daggett Building near the top of the Herbert H. Goecke Jr. Memorial Parking Deck.

There’s a lot to like about the Haverhill Transformative Development Initiative (TDI) study that was unveiled Monday.

In fact, almost everything in it—from essentially restoring pre-urban renewal Fleet and Bailey Streets to filling in the enormous hole in Merrimack Street streetscape—has been cited over and over again. The difference this time is the same 40-year-old solutions come from an out-of-town “expert.”

Yes, the nagging problem unaddressed by Utile Architecture & Planning’s study is the city’s recurring game of one-upmanship at the intersection of local politics and special interests. What Utile overlooked—and, admittedly, wasn’t paid to find—was the real problem: the city’s collective low self-esteem. Every now and then, a few local old-timers muster up the energy and confidence to propose solutions to the city’s problems. Lacking self-esteem, elected leaders have historically dismissed these ideas, reasoning anyone born here must be inherently defective like them. Mayors over the years have seemingly embraced the old General Electric mentality that ideas have no merit if they are “not invented here”—at least not by the administration in power.

Some of those ideas include restoration of Winter Street through GAR Park to a new T-intersection where Bailey Boulevard now meets Main Street, renaming Haverhill Place “Fleet Street” and filling in the gaping hole on the north side of Merrimack Street. Utile’s study doesn’t mention Winter Street, but adoption of such a plan would help undo one of urban renewal’s biggest mistakes, better align route 97 through downtown and fix two intersections on the state’s list of the top 200 worst accident zones. Otherwise, Utile comes close.

It is no knock against Utile—and MassDevelopment, the quasi-public agency that paid them—that they missed the city’s collective pride problem. They, as goes the cliché about consultants, were paid to borrow our watch, tell us the time and then walk off with the watch.

Where It Began

Demolition takes place in the Pentucket Urban Renewal District (Main and Water Street areas). (Photograph courtesy of David J. Connolly.)

Demolition takes place in the Pentucket Urban Renewal District (Main and Water Street areas). (Photograph courtesy of David J. Connolly.)

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Haverhill Housing Authority—doing the dirty work of elected city leaders—tore down virtually everything downtown between Main and Mill Streets. As bad as that was, the agency came back to pluck off dozens of buildings between Merrimack and Winter Streets. Hundreds of residents and businesses were displaced and many streets eliminated.

Utile basically says all of this was a mistake. It says the city should put more housing downtown, bring back businesses and restore some of those streets.

Attorney Albert Boulanger must be turning in his grave.

Albert D. Boulanger.

Albert D. Boulanger.

Boulanger, who died in 1987, was one of those locals who stood up to city hall. Perhaps the biggest critic of urban renewal, he all but stood in front of the condemned buildings to stop the wrecking ball during the 1960s. He, a local attorney who set up his law office in 1952, accurately predicted urban renewal would tear the heart out of the city. Boulanger, like many others who followed him, was dismissed as a “local yokel.” How could his lifelong experience compare to those out-of-town experts?

Newcomers to the city have long pointed out the obvious—Haverhill has great potential if it can only get out of its own way. Members of Team Haverhill have wondered, for example, about the barrenness of post-urban renewal Water Street. The group’s early “visioning” exercises called for a Water Street amphitheater overlooking the Merrimack River. What the local yokels could have told them was, even backed with millions of dollars in federal urban demolition money, the housing authority couldn’t afford to take out the electrical substation there.

The real problem with all of these exercises is they fail to draw in the knowledgeable old-time “townies.” Yes, indeed, those still-living townies or local yokels are understandably discouraged. They, like Al Boulanger, fought the good fight, but were ignored.

Recurring Mistakes

Back in the late 1970s, Mayor Lewis C. Burton was another one of those locals who saw a problem. The new parking deck planned for Merrimack Street would leave a gaping hole in the streetscape. He wrested control of urban renewal from the housing authority and ordered the deck be moved back from the street so buildings could be placed in front of it.

Not to give credence to a political adversary, the next couple of mayors left the space vacant. One even argued, “We can’t put buildings there. Where would Newman (of Newman’s Furniture across the street) park his trucks?” Of course, there was another problem—of exactly the kind serving to discourage the local population. The parking deck began to tear itself apart during its first winter under construction. It became one of the many Massachusetts public construction scandals of the day. It was left unfinished with rebar sticking out of the tops of incomplete columns.

When finally completed during the early 1980s, one of few developers to consider the area wondered how it could possibly work around the monstrosity. Crysen Limited Partnership did manage to build what is now Pentucket Bank at White’s Corner and the Pentucket Medical Building before giving up. The parking deck—soon to be named for late City Councilor Herbert H. Goecke Jr.—was simply too new to even consider tearing it down.

Adding insult to injury, the new Haverhill police station was sited above the parking area during the late 1990s. Not only did the $6.6 million project become a victim of another construction scandal, a portion of the new Park Way—between How and Main Streets—was discontinued.

Interestingly, Utile’s new study suggests Park Way be restored, the deck demolished and a “ladder” street constructed roughly where the old Fleet Street had been before urban demolition. Complicating the idea of knocking down the parking deck is the fact some of its spaces are assigned to the new Harbor Place project—a political maneuver to avoid any zoning variance hearings.

To give credit where it is due, Sally Cerasuolo-O’Rorke had the vision to consider demolishing the old F.W. Woolworth’s and replacing it with what will be known as Harbor Place. Her timing—just before the crash of 2008—was a bit off, but the project is progressing. Few, however, have their ideas backed with tens of millions of dollars in state money. Thank you Rep. Brian S. Dempsey!

The message for Utile and MassDevelopment is don’t count out the locals. You invited them to see the some of your conclusions Monday, but you didn’t work hard enough to gather their ideas in the first place. Instead, you took the easy way out—visiting a few hand-picked special interests to tell you what some wanted to hear. Appropriately just before Christmas, you might do well to heed the words of George Bailey in the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life:”

“Just remember this…that this rabble you’re talking about…they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.”

4 thoughts on “Downtown Analysis: Al Boulanger Can Finally Rest

  1. This effort was a disaster. Utile and Tim Love are just scam artists. First Haverhill, now Revere + Suffolk Downs, in the future, who knows. Haverhill needs a better library and a good hotel, done. Look at what Pittsfield did with Hotel on North. Haverhill has the North Shore next door, utilize it

  2. Well said WHAV, well said. The same urban renewal ideas tore down beautifully designed buildings and stoic architecture, tearing out the heart and soul of other cities as well. While we can agree these ideas are worthy of discussion, what about the other end of downtown ? Don’t they matter in this equation ?

    How about the traffic issue now being exacerbated to a point where many I speak to hate driving downtown ? Anyone try to take a left coming from either water st. or Merrimack st. ? Good luck with that ! You have a narrow road with parking on both sides and now you want to double the volume of vehicles ? The more you develop down there, the more large vehicles will be required to deliver ” stuff”. Where are the delivery zones going to be ?

    Sure it’s great to say all the things we should do, but where is the money going to come from ? While the city has benefited greatly from Rep. Dempsey’s ability to stuff cash in the general budget to bail us out from what was blatant corruption and cronyism, he won’t be around forever. Then what ? Will developers be willing to put money into a city that can’t even get a working parking plan in place for 8 years ? I hope so !

  3. Urban Renewal destroyed what downtown Haverhill could have been….has anyone visited Newburyport ? I moved away in 1973 only to return many years later to see what a mess had been made…..some wonderful old buildings that could have been restored….let’s hope they get it right this time …who was the genius that put in the shopping mall on Water Street ?