By Bethany Bray
---- — It has been decades in coming, but Salem may finally get a new senior center.
The City Council voted 10-1 last night to approve Mayor Kim Driscoll’s new financing proposal for a planned community/senior center at the corner of Boston and Bridge streets.
Councilor-at-large Arthur Sargent was the lone vote in opposition.
Councilors Michael Sosnowksi and Jerry Ryan, who voted against locating the senior center at Boston and Bridge streets in 2009, changed their positions and favored the project last night.
Driscoll had advocated heavily for councilors to approve a bond to pay for the city’s portion of the development — the final OK needed for the project to move forward.
Councilors voted first approval of the bond last night. A second vote for final approval — at the board’s next meeting on March 28 — will be needed before construction can start.
Sosnowski voted in favor reluctantly, saying it would be one of the worst things he’s done as a city councilor.
“I feel like I’m being blackmailed into this,” said Sosnowski, the Ward 2 councilor. “This whole thing here absolutely stinks. ... I’m going to hold my nose as I vote because it stinks. ... I think this is the worse thing we could do. The seniors don’t want it there.”
The 20,000-square-foot Gateway Center will be part of a public/private development that will also include offices and a 374-space parking lot. In 2009, the city signed a $5 million purchase-and-sale agreement with developer High Rock LLC to buy a large portion of the proposed four-story building.
Councilors approved the financing plan last night with three amendments, which Ryan, the council president, had negotiated with Driscoll over the course of yesterday: the hiring of a full-time Council on Aging director to work at the new center, requiring the developer to begin construction within the next year, and including an agreement with the developer that the city would be “held harmless” if anyone were to become sick from pre-existing contamination at the site.
The long-vacant property at Boston and Bridge streets was once a Sylvania plant. Those opposed to the plan to put a senior center there have raised concerns over contamination from the property’s past.
“We deserve the very best we can give (the city’s seniors), not a polluted site at Boston and Bridge streets,” Sargent said.
David Sweetser, manager at High Rock, the project’s developer, assured councilors last night that the site will be remediated to meet Department of Environmental Protection standards, and the new building will be safe for people of all ages.
Numerous city councilors lauded Ryan for his work negotiating the amendments.
“These are very good and reasonable terms that will only improve the project,” Ward 5 Councilor Josh Turiel said.
Last night’s vote came 24 hours after a nearly four-hour City Council session on the senior center issue. A majority of the comments made by the standing-room-only audience were in favor of the new center.
Several councilors said they had been flooded with emails and phone calls from residents concerning the project.
At the end of Wednesday’s meeting, Sosnowski, Ryan and Todd Siegel did not say how they intended to vote on the issue. Sargent said he’d vote against the new financing plan, and seven councilors said they’d vote in favor: William Legault, Robert McCarthy, Josh Turiel, Paul Prevey, Joseph O’Keefe, Kevin Carr and Tom Furey.
The road to a new senior center in Salem has been long and controversial. Multiple locations have been considered over the tenure of several mayors.
Driscoll has said the property tax revenue from the Boston/Bridge complex will cover the city’s bond payments, as well as renovations at the current senior center, a 150-year-old building at 5 Broad St.
“I’m grateful we’re just able to put this to bed,” Driscoll said after the council’s vote last night.
Bethany Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.