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Power lines hamper development in Lynn

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The power lines are drawn over Lynn waterfront revival

By Alan Lupo | December 30, 2004

Inside the Mass. Merchandise Mart on the Lynnway, you can buy a toilet seat, a fancy knife, a wedding dress, makeup kits, tube sox, and Puerto Rican CDs. You can look at a tapestry of the Last Supper hanging on a wall down the hall from a small rocking horse that costs you a quarter a ride.

Next door at Building 197/8, people of various economic classes wander among the surplus and salvage for which the chain is known to shop for "Good stuff cheap," the store motto.

This chunk of Lynn, like much of the rest of that city, is diversity to the max. This is, for example, where immigrants show up to start that trip to the American dream of entrepreneurship, and where all manner of folks show up to buy what they figure is better-than-wholesale. Unlike most of the area north of Boston, this is not white-bread city. But those tired of Lynn being fiscally down at the heels would like to see a change here, some high-end redevelopment.

Creating that will not be easy. Just a few yards south, behind a tall metal fence, is a wasteland of open space, wild grass, untended bushes, and large piles of trash and rubble. All this, the land occupied by the stores, the parking lots, the vast space, all of this is what Lynn pols say is the greatest piece of potential waterfront development north of Boston.

"You can dream your biggest dream on the waterfront," says Lynn state Representative Steve Walsh, "and you could actually do it. It's an empty canvas, and it could be the showplace of the North Shore."

That's an old song, one that has been warbled for a half-century or more. Sometimes, the singing has been off-key. At times, those who wanted to develop some or all of the land turned out more likely to be the subject of media investigations than successful proponents of that much sought-after new gateway to Lynn.

In the bad old days, Lynn pols and their pals in the private sector made deals to do development. These are different days, insists a new generation of local leaders. They contend that the only obstacle to the development of condos, apartments, a hotel, sports and cultural venues with that dynamic waterfront view, is what has stood stubbornly in the way of every developer, good or bad.

You can spot the problem easily, as you drive north over the General Edwards Bridge and steal a look to the right. Power lines. Big, tall, imposing power lines, 40 of them, most of them 50 feet high, some 75 feet, that run along the border of what Lynners call South Harbor. They belong to New England Power, and a portion of the land belongs to Massachusetts Electric, both subsidiaries of National Grid, a London-based utility.

You could teach a law school course on property just by delving into the history of which public and private entities have owned pieces of the more than 60 acres. Boston business tycoon Joe O'Donnell owns a piece. An out-of-state guy owns another piece. Mass. Electric owns another chunk. But no matter who owns what, no outfit can develop part or all of the site unless those power lines are buried or relocated.

To do so costs big bucks. National Grid says burying them could cost from $5,225,000 to $6,800,000. Relocating the poles would cost more. The utility does not wish to spend those bucks.

Jackie Barry, a National Grid spokeswoman, says the company is willing to work with public officials and developers "on a plan to relocate the lines overhead or underground as long as it's a plan that will enable us to continue to deliver electricity reliably and safely to our customers, and as long as our customers are not the ones paying for relocation."

Walsh insists, "Mass. Electric won't negotiate. When they do come to the table, it's just a lot of talk. A year ago, I thought we left a meeting with clear to-dos, and I've never heard back from them. Mass. Electric has put blinders on and has said, 'We're not even going to discuss the site with you.' It's our prized jewel, and they refuse to even entertain the notion of development."

Given that frustration, Walsh and Lynn Representative Robert Fennell have introduced a bill requiring utilities to bury electrical lines that might cause a power failure, such as the one parts of Lynn, Nahant, and Swampscott experienced recently. He volunteers that the legislation is imperfect, but he's hoping that it will get a public hearing, that, if nothing else, will add pressure to the utility to take on at least part of the cost to bury the lines.

That's one approach. Another is being pursued by state Senator Thomas McGee. He says he's been talking with key officials in the Romney administration to set up a meeting early next year with National Grid "to see what we can get the Grid to do." McGee says support for development is no longer limited to Lynn but, rather, includes a number of interested parties on the North Shore. He successfully managed to include in a state transportation bond bill $14 million to bury those power lines, but when it comes to bond authorizations, nobody is ever sure if and when the money actually will show up.

Dealings on a state level raise another question -- will other legislators and Romney officials go out of their way to help Lynn? This columnist did a long search of campaign contributions from officials and employees of National Grid and found that over the last 2 years, they gave a total of at least $85,350 to candidates of both political parties. Why?

"We are a major employer in the state," Jackie Barry explains, "and like many other major employers, we participate in the political process in accordance with all the laws and regulations to advocate on behalf of our 1.3 million customers as well as employees and shareholders."

Neither Walsh nor McGee feels those contributions would prevent other legislators or the Romney administration from helping Lynn realize its decades-old dream.

"This plays into what Governor Romney talks about," McGee says, "the opportunities for developing in urban centers with transportation nearby and for revitalizing urban areas with housing and economic development. Lynn could be a showplace for that."

"Could be." McGee and the others want to change that tune to "Will be."

From The Boston Globe

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This is an interesting issue. Power lines take up large amounts of valuable land in Mass and it will come to a point where it will be cost effective to take them down.

There is a set near my house that I would love to see turned into a bike trail and housing.

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The power lines are coming down over the Providence Waterfront as part of the 195 relocation project. There was a lot of back and forth over who was going to pay for it. They had to be moved to make way for the relocated highway, and it would have been tragic to miss that opportunity to bury them.

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