Nothing is ever easy, it seems, in New Bedford.
They’ve been talking about mixing restaurants and some retail uses into the State Pier since Jack Markey was mayor in the 1970s. They talked about it some more when John Bullard was mayor in the late ‘80s.
Mark Montigny’s been talking about it a long time. And Tony Cabral. And Jon Mitchell. And on and on.
There’s been bills proposed and bonds authorized.
They’ve all been talking about it almost as long as they’ve been talking about extending rail to the pier. For freight. For passengers. For whatever.
The legislation has come up this year and that year. The lobbying has been done by this mayor and that mayor.
But nothing ever seemed to get done about it on Beacon Hill until late Tuesday night when the Senate and House finally came to a compromise.
Somehow, some way, something seems to have broken through.
Going forward, they’re going to allow “accessory uses” on 20 percent of the square footage on the west side of the pier, which for the next 35 years will be managed by MassDevelopment, hopefully a dynamic change from the sclerotic management of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.
The lobbying behind the scenes over mixing different types of business on the pier was said to have been intense.
For a long time the fishing industry has been suspicious of mixed uses on the waterfront, although there aren’t any fishing vessels berthed directly on the State Pier. There is, however, considerable freight shipping that pulls in there, and a few tourist boats. The big business is the fast ferries to the Islands taking off from the north side, particularly in summer.
But the pier sits directly across Route 18 from the downtown, and despite the demonstrable progress the city center has made in the last decade, on many a summer day very few of those ferry passengers are crossing over to downtown.
There simply is no line of eateries and retail shops along the pier that would draw the travelers’ eyes without crossing the fast-moving Route 18.
The Senate, under Montigny’s guidance, had the more forward-looking legislation. It would have allowed 25 percent of the entire Pier — which let’s face it on many days is mostly empty space — to be devoted to accessory uses.
The problem on the House side is that the delegation was divided and leadership did not want to be in the middle of the fight.
Bill Straus of Mattapoisett, the influential joint chair of the Transportation Committee, argued that any encroachment of shops or restaurants might endanger the Pier’s industrial uses. The dreaded phase “Newportization of New Bedford” was thrown out by some. As if that would be entirely a bad thing.
Tony Cabral seemed to have been trying to thread a needle through Straus and Montigny.
He originally inserted a provision for the Pier similar to Montigny’s in the House bill but it was cut from the final version.
Then up popped a House provision that would have capped mixed uses at 10 percent between the northwestern and southwestern corners. Another provision would have restricted anything that interfered with rail or trucking coming to the pier. Poison pills for the restaurants and retail that Montigny and the city were seeking.
But somehow, some way, they got to the 20 percent compromise and both Straus and Mayor Mitchell pronounced themselves satisfied. If the rail ever does come to the State Pier, they’ll have to work out the logistics in the future.
So there’s going to be some shops, maybe some eating spots on the State Pier directly across from downtown. We’ll see if it helps hop-scotch the tourists across Route 18.
Retail, restaurants and industrial piers have worked comfortably together in places like Portsmouth, N.H., and Portland, Maine, for many decades. Maybe it will work here.
Or maybe it won’t, and we’ll have to petition Boston to do a “Little Dig” through the center of the city, putting Route 18 below ground level.
Now that would be a political storm that would make this one look like a few sprinkles.
Jack Spillane is the Sunday and editorial page editor of The Standard-Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org