SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

December 4, 2013

Peabody housing project questioned

By Alan Burke
Staff Writer

---- — PEABODY — At first glance, a proposed new housing project on Main Street looks to be just what the doctor ordered. It has the support of City Hall and seems on course to help revitalize an area needing both commercial and residential development. Even so, the project could face some tough questions when backers seek a special permit from the City Council tomorrow.

The proposal seeks to transform an office building at 98 Main St., currently owned by North Shore Community Action Projects or NSCAP, into an apartment complex with 10 one-bedroom units. Developers Norman Lee and James Gebo propose to buy the structure and promise, “The exterior and interior of the building will be totally renovated and the building brought back up to code.” They point out that “it is conveniently located right on the local bus route for those without a car and within easy walking distance to many restaurants, laundromats and retail stores.”

Community Development Director Karen Sawyer wrote the board that her city department has no objections to the project, adding, “We look forward to working with the new owner as he looks to transform this property. We also look forward to assisting NSCAP ... to more suitable quarters.”

The special permit is to allow the change of use from commercial to residential, Gebo said.

The building, first constructed in the early 1800s, contains nearly 7,000 square feet of space, enough to produce 10 units of 500 to 550 square feet, according to the developers. They propose to put two apartments in the basement, three on the first floor, three on the second and two on the third floor. In addition, says their lawyer Athan Vontzalides, there’s enough adjacent space for parking to give each unit two spaces.

“The whole idea is to revitalize the downtown area,” Vontzalides added. “You have to have people there to go to downtown businesses and spend their money.”

Per city regulations, a few units would be designated for affordable housing. Lee and Gebo have already initiated four successful projects in Peabody.

Parking might be the Achilles’ heel of this one, said Councilor Dave Gravel, whose business is across the street. Up to now, the adjacent Knights of Columbus Hall has had permission from NSCAP to use its parking spaces at 98 Main St. to accommodate the overflow at evening bingo games, Gravel said. The new project would turn those parking spaces over to the residents.

“That’s 15 to 20 spaces they would lose access to,” Gravel said. Consequently, representatives of the Knights have expressed their opposition.

“That seems to be the crux of the issue,” said Gravel, though he raised additional questions about the relatively small interior space set aside for each unit and the problems created for a single-family home at the back of the property.

“It’s not zoned for 10 units. What we’re looking for is mixed use. ... And this is not what people envisioned in terms of mixed use,” Gravel said.

“It’s a tight area,” Councilor Tom Gould said. He predicted debate over “whether it works in that specific location. ... Parking’s tight. Right next to the Knights of Columbus.”

“I don’t believe it’s appropriate to punish a landowner because the abutter doesn’t have enough parking,” Vontzalides said.

As to what might happen if the project fails to win approval, Vontzalides said that the possibility of a 40B, which bypasses local zoning regulations by including a portion of low-income units, hasn’t been discussed.

Alan Burke can be reached at aburke@salemnews.com.