Councilors Approve Downtown Haverhill Sale and Redevelopment, but Threaten Mayor’s Next Budget

Rendering of revised proposal by the Lupoli Companies for Merrimack Street in Haverhill.

A proposal to develop a $160 million housing, retail and parking complex in downtown Haverhill received approval last night from the City Council with no votes to spare.

In lieu of promises from Mayor James J. Fiorentini to beef up firefighter staffing and other spending, several councilors gave their votes with a promise to kill the mayor’s next budget if issues are not addressed. Fiorentini, a strong advocate for the project, began by acknowledging some councilors’ concerns, but asked them not to place at risk this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“I ask you tonight to vote on the merits of the project and nothing else. Using this project as hostage to get what you want in the budget would have a grave effect on our city. If this project is held up tonight, you send a clear and powerful message to anyone who wants to invest in our city that their investment can be held up and defeated for no reason concerned with the project,” he pleaded.

Others speaking in favor included Pentucket Bank President Jonathan Dowst, Northern Essex Community College President Lane A. Glenn and Laborers’ International Union 175 Business Manager Michael Gagliardi.

“What we have here is a project that is going to create union jobs for the residents of your city. It is going to create opportunities for kids that are not college-bound to get into apprenticeship programs. So, with that, I think it is an easy vote for all of you to vote for your residents here. Take all of these external issues out of it and deal with them in an appropriate fashion,” he asked.

Developer Salvatore N. Lupoli reminded members he has long history in the city, building his third Sal’s pizza shop in an abandoned Kentucky Fried Chicken building on Winter Street. Lupoli Companies Vice President of Real Estate Gerry-Lynn Darcy hinted the developer would walk away if councilors delayed approvals to sell and allow development of about 4.5 acres of city land, including the Herbert H. Goecke Jr. Memorial Parking Deck.

Primary opposition came from members of the Haverhill Fire Department who have long been asking for greater staffing to correspond with Haverhill’s growth. Ryan Fairbanks of Haverhill Firefighters Local 1011 said he is not against growth, but is concerned about safety.

“Development after development without compromise is not sustainable. The Haverhill Fire Department, the agency primarily responsible for protecting those hundreds of millions in investments, including this proposed project, has less staff today than it did 18 years ago,” he said.

Council President Timothy J. Jordan reiterated his support for the fire department, saying staffing concerns have been raised and ignored since at least 2019. Councilor Melissa Lewandowski also expressed concern about the project’s impact on Haverhill’s already overcrowded schools.

Councilor Catherine Rogers said she is 100% in favor of both the Lupoli proposal and city firefighters. She said, however, councilors should vote down the mayor’s budget later this spring if there are no concessions on public safety, roadways and schools. Similarly, Councilor Melinda E. Barrett said she voted against six earlier housing plans over these same issues, but said, “We can get this done…If you have no faith in mayor, have faith in me.” Councilor Shaun P. Toohey said none of the quarrel really matters since this is the mayor’s last term.

Councilor Thomas J. Sullivan echoed the mayor’s request to not let it keep the project from passing. “I think that it’s crazy not to approve this project tonight based on the arguments that have been presented in opposition. I fully support the opposition, but not to croak this project. It is too important to the future of downtown Haverhill and to all of Haverhill,” he said.

Fiorentini grudgingly agreed to a suggestion by Councilor John A. Michitson that the mayor commit to adding at least four new firefighters this year.

In the end, the council cast the necessary five votes to approve the project with Lewandowski and Jordan opposed and Councilors Joseph J. Bevilacqua and Michael S. McGonagle recusing themselves due to potential conflicts of interest.

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