SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 31, 2013

Project getting positive reaction

Salem: Residents 'on board' with plan for $45 million downtown development

By Bethany Bray
STAFF WRITER

---- — So far, Salem residents’ reaction to a proposed $45 million downtown development has been somewhat unexpected.

City Councilor Josh Turiel said the feedback he’s gotten has been “overwhelmingly positive — which is surprising, because almost nothing in Salem is overwhelmingly positive.”

But, he said, “at least conceptually, they’re all on board with it.”

Last week, developer RCG unveiled its proposal for a five-to-six-story building at the block bordered by Washington Street, Dodge Street and Dodge Street Court. The complex would have a mix of retail, commercial and residential units; possibilities include shops, offices or even a hotel.

While the project is in the very early stages — it has yet to go before the council or other city boards — Turiel said the emails, phone calls and online comments he’s received have been positive. The development would be located in his ward.

Councilor-at-large William Legault said he has approached some downtown business owners and residents about the proposal, and reaction has been “muted but positive.”

Other councilors said that they haven’t received any feedback yet from residents. Jason Silva, chief aide to Mayor Kim Driscoll, also said this week that the mayor’s office hasn’t heard much from residents on the topic.

The mayor briefed city councilors privately last week. Turiel said he doesn’t know of any councilor who is outright opposed to the project.

Driscoll has proposed including 38 city-owned parking spaces along Washington Street as part of the project. In return, at least 38 of the project’s 275 parking spaces would be made permanently available to the city.

A request to declare the parking lot as surplus will go before the City Council at its next meeting on Feb. 14.

Such a declaration would be needed for the city to put the parcel up for bid, for possible inclusion in RCG’s development.

“The use of the city lot (of 38 spaces), combined with several other parcels already owned by RCG along Dodge and Washington streets, would allow the new structure to be built closer to the curb line and help bring back a street edge at what is now a very wide thoroughfare along Riley Plaza,” Driscoll wrote to councilors in a Jan. 23 letter.

Driscoll submitted the request after the deadline to be included in the agenda for last week’s council meeting. Councilor Michael Sosnowski objected to accepting the request as a late submission last Thursday, so the issue won’t be considered until their next meeting, Feb. 14.

Most likely, the request will be moved to a subcommittee, where it will be discussed and vetted before it is sent back to the full council for a vote.

Once RCG files its plans, the project will also need to make its way through Salem’s planning and zoning boards.

“The design will go through some refinement while it goes through the whole permitting process,” Turiel said.

The proposed development would be on the edge of Mill Hill on land that was once home to Billy Ray’s Laundromat and a billiards parlor. RCG bought the property in 2006 as part of a $20 million downtown real estate deal.

Turiel said he feels the project will improve the character of a block that is a “dark spot” downtown.

“I don’t have any problem with it, conceptually,” he said. “... I think it’s going to be a nice shot in the arm for that neighborhood there. ... This is the kind of growth Salem is looking for.”

In her letter, Driscoll told councilors, “RCG has indicated a strong interest to develop this site with or without” the city’s 38 parking spaces on Washington Street.

A two-thirds majority vote of the council would be needed to sell the parcel.

“The proposed $45 million dollar development will add substantial tax revenues to municipal coffers,” Driscoll wrote. “... It will have the benefit of stretching our downtown up to this section of Washington Street and create a destination replete with wide sidewalks for al fresco dining and ample new retail space, combined with residential and office units above.”

This would be the largest project that RCG has undertaken locally since the development of the former Salem Evening News property several years ago, a block that is now home to Tavern in the Square. The company also owns the City Hall Annex at 120 Washington St., with a number of restaurants on the ground floor.

Bethany Bray can be reached at bbray@salemnews.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.