Locals welcome $86M project

Courtesy PhotoCelebrity shoe designer Stuart Weitzman is proposing to build an $86 million shoe museum and cultural arts center at 12 Washington Square. Here is an artist rendition of the proposed project.

Haverhill residents and other observers of the downtown are largely ready to roll out the red carpet for famed shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, who wants to take over the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority location in the heart of the city and build an $86 million shoe museum and performing arts center.

The Weitzman Initiative for the Arts and Industry is proposing a cultural center and museum at 12 Washington Square, which currently houses a public bus depot and parking lot along the Merrimack River. The project has been in the works with the famed designer for two years, Mayor James Fiorentini said.

Heading up the possible transformation of the 34,000-square-foot property is a group that includes local people Ben Consoli, owner of a multimedia company, and architect Matt Juros, among others. The group bid just $1 for the property, which is estimated to draw 53,000 visitors annually if it becomes the arts center, according to Cambridge-based consultant ConsultEcon.

“Haverhill is experiencing a lot of incredible momentum right now,'' Consoli said. "This is one piece of the puzzle. If this does happen, it really could redefine what Haverhill is. It takes its history, modernizes it and excites a whole new generation of people.”

In its very early stages, the proposed complex includes an eight-story main building that would house a multi-purpose theater, educational institution and a public gathering space. A cafe, museum store, restaurant and maker-spaces are also planned, according to the proposal. Weitzman's iconic shoe collection would also be displayed.

A new 50-space parking lot is also part of the proposal. Consoli and his fellow board member Juros said they do not anticipate parking to be an issue.

“Everyone on the board either lives or works in Haverhill, or both, so every decision we make impacts all of us,'' Consoli said. "Right now, it's way too early to give any definitive answer on how that's going to be tackled, but what I can tell you is that we aren't going to make any decisions that are going to negatively impact the parking in Haverhill. That's a huge concern for all of us.''

Several residents who are learning about the proposed center aren't totally convinced, however.

“We have to be more mindful that every time we put another business downtown, we have to provide parking,” said Kimberly Zizza Arahovites, who lives in Bradford. “We're trying to attract businesses, but then we put these impediments in that prevent them from succeeding long-term. We also have to provide for patrons to access those business.”

Resident Joyce Seiler said putting the complex downtown could hinder attendance at the museum part of the complex.

“Ease of accessibility is paramount to inviting your audience into your space,” she said.

Others wonder what may happen to the current MVRTA bus terminal. MVRTA officials said that if the project progresses, they would continue to have a bus stop in Washington Square in front of the current location, but would move their customer service office to the Granite Street parking garage several blocks away.

Abutter Paul Bergman of the engineering firm Paul Bergman and Associates has maintained a Washington Street business for 26 years and said he isn't worried about the parking situation. While he would like to eventually see a the parking deck on Merrimack Street rebuilt to accommodate the influx of downtown traffic, “the parking thing can be addressed,” he said.

"That (parking) should by no means be a showstopper, just like it wasn't a showstopper for Harbor Place,'' he said.

People who support the proposal say Weitzman's creativity could pay dividends for decades to come.

“The city badly needs a performing arts center,'' said John Nolan, who lives in Bradford. "Every major city has one and Haverhill will never rise above its current level without one.''

Resident Gerald Schiavoni echoed Nolan's statement.

“We need to reinvest in culture and put a new face on this city,” he said.

“This museum will be another totally positive change for our city,” City Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O'Brien said.

Fiorentini said any decision to sell the property to make way for the arts center would be up to the City Council.

The developers invited residents to stay up to date on the project through a website called WeitzmanInitiative.org.

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