Developer Seeks to Reverse Urban Renewal Pact, Shed Retail Space for Apartments

Click image for Haverhill City Council agenda.

The rear of downtown Haverhill’s One Water Street apartment building. The apartment building went up in 1971 over objections the land should have been used for commercial purposes. (Courtesy photograph.)

A nearly 50-year-old urban renewal compromise could be partially reversed by Haverhill city councilors in March if a Water Street building owner gets its wish.

Arrowpoint Burlington, owner of the mostly residential 1 Water St., is expected to file an application with the City Council Tuesday night to convert a commercial storefront into three more apartments. If approved, the developer’s lawyer says, the nine-story building would contain 167 apartments and five business spaces. While the application is being filed at Tuesday’s meeting, councilors are not expected to act on it until March 12.

The application brings full circle a debate over the future of a street that was once a thriving shopping district featuring such large chains as Sears, Roebuck and Co. Although nearly lost to history, Water Street was once as important to the downtown retail economy as Washington and Merrimack Streets. It was part of a district that called itself the “Northeast Shopping Center.”

The current application appears to call for a little history lesson. As early as a Planning Board hearing in 1963, residents opposed a plan for total demolition of nearly everything between Wall Street at the river’s edge to Summer Street and between Main and Mill Streets.

Water Street was intended to be rebuilt as a modern retail and commercial district, but a lack of interested developers left the vacant land as, what residents derisively called, a “dustbowl” by 1970. The pressure was on the Haverhill Housing Authority to fill empty land with anything.

In 1983, Pentucket Urban Renewal Project Director Kenneth Salk looked back on the project with regret. He said an office building and motel should have been built at 1 Water St. Instead, MB Associates and Fambank Development was allowed to buy the land for $41,000 in 1971. It became the site of a nine-story, then-$3.3 million apartment building. Part of the first floor was reserved for commercial space as a compromise to keep some semblance of a commercial district.

Height restrictions on the building were also waived despite objections the apartment building would block views of the Merrimack River.

In 2016, Arrowpoint Burlington purchased the building for $15.6 million from Rivers Edge Apartments of Braintree.

At Tuesday’s meeting, councilors are also expected to consider new rates for private snow plow contractors and learn of council President John A. Michitson’s thoughts on “key citizen goals and outcomes for 2019,” among other items.