SouthCoast Today-Our View: Port plan sets the right course

March 27. 2016 2:01AM
The New Bedford waterfront has been the city’s most important natural feature longer than there has been a New Bedford. It supported or continues to support whaling, textiles, manufacturing, fishing, ferries and freight, through two economic pinnacles.
Today it hosts the richest fishing port in the country, a thriving and attractive home for recreational boaters, and a growing freight function. Tomorrow, through the potential of offshore wind energy, it could support the largest offshore wind resources in the continental U.S.
The many facets of the Port of New Bedford represent a portfolio of assets, including not only the various commercial enterprises — some dependent on the water and some not — but also the brilliant recreational benefits to the city’s residents and visitors.
Under the direction of the city administration, a consultant report titled “New Bedford Waterfront Framework Plan” proposes to manage all these assets to provide a stable, sustainable, flexible plan for the future.
Officials, property owners, and the public must consider the many options and decisions facing the port with or without the Framework Plan, but the report’s development has done the first good service by reaching out to stakeholders.
According to the report, existing industries in the 600-acre, 3-mile-long study area south of Interstate 195 to the hurricane barrier support about 4,000 direct jobs and almost $3 billion in annual direct sales.
Complex policy, property, and legal issues would have to be organized to allow any planning proposal to go forward, but it is well worth noting that the priorities we see in the report are appropriate. Among the four goals listed, three explicitly address the well-being of the public through education, improvement of access, and strategic coexistence with commercial functions. It is true that there can be no true success without both economic and public benefits.
The 10- to 15-year look into the future is mapped out by the consultants with a complex matrix that considers infrastructure challenges, such as the need for changes to State Pier and the attempt to get freight rail extended to the Marine Commerce Terminal in the South End. It also anticipates legal issues about state and federal zoning, and around the governance of State Pier, whose owner — the commonwealth — may not necessarily have the same expansive vision for maintenance and public use as city officials.
The report points out that development patterns for the fishing industry have spread out over recent years, with jobs accruing even outside of the city limits, but suggests that the regulatory environment and the changing ocean will likely lead to maritime-related businesses returning to the waterfront for motives of efficiency.
In other places, the report discusses business relocation out of one or more numerous mixed-use “subareas” to take advantage of synergies and free up parcels that promote more industry clusters.
There is a long path between the vision and its realization, through commerce, legislation and policy, but the process so far has made strong efforts to address stakeholder concerns. Whatever twists and turns develop from the Framework Plan, a solid team of knowledgeable city officials and an intelligent approach to change greatly improve the chances of beneficial outcomes for one of the world’s most diverse, interesting and influential waterfronts.
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