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December 6, 2013

Peabody council nixes proposed apartments

PEABODY — The plan to spend $1.1 million turning 98 Main St. into a residential building was stopped after an intense debate at last night’s City Council meeting.

A special permit was needed to gain permission for developers Norman Lee and James Gebo to complete the purchase of the historic structure from the North Shore Community Action Program, NSCAP, and gut the building before beginning interior construction. Their request failed on a 5 to 5 vote, even after an effort to work a compromise.

Speaking in favor of the project, Laura MacNeil, NSCAP director, told the council that the sale would not only provide needed funding for charitable works reaching 3,700 Peabody residents, but would also put a property on the city’s tax rolls. Invoking recent efforts to revitalize the downtown, she added, “This seems very much the direction the city wants to go.”

“It’s very important for our organization that’s being hit with federal cuts and state cuts, added NSCAP’s Susan Fletcher.

Opponents of the project included several members of the Knights of Columbus whose building abuts the property. They currently have access to NSCAP parking spaces in the evening, a privilege that would be lost if residents were to occupy those spaces. 

MacNeil warned, however, that NSCAP is moving in any case, and once it does, the parking lot will be sealed for reasons of liability.

Knights member Tim Barry replied, “It has nothing to do with parking.” Instead, he wondered at the sort of people who might rent the 500- to 550-square-foot apartments. “Someone who rents an apartment is not vested in the city. ... These people are going to be moving in and out, in and out.”

Perhaps the strongest argument, however, came from Bill and Tracey MacDonald, who own a single-family home at the rear of the property. They access it down an alley adjacent to the building.

“We come home at night to find people parked in our driveway,” Tracey MacDonald said. “Our quality of life is going down. ... We can’t even access our home.”

The new development would only make this worse, she said.

Bill MacDonald worried that vehicles sometimes can’t get down the alley, and the crowded parking lot on the other side is often impassable. 

“If our house was on fire right now ... the emergency vehicles would have no way to get down there,” he said.

Councilors were careful to praise everyone, citing the good efforts of NSCAP and the Knights, as well as past good work by the developers. Then, when Councilor Barry Osborne urged that the building ought to be “mixed use” with a retailer on the ground floor, he won quick support from colleague Dave Gravel, whose business is located across the street.

Gravel added that the special permit required before converting to residential was designed to encourage such things. 

“We didn’t say just bring us apartment buildings,” Gravel said.

But Councilor Jim Liacos raised concerns that special permits have brought the city lots of lawsuits. 

“And we seem to be losing all the lawsuits,” he said. 

Member Dave Gamache worried that there have been no other buyers for the structure.  

“If Mr. Lee doesn’t go in there today or tomorrow, we’re looking at a rundown building. ... What we don’t need downtown is another vacant building,” Gamache said.

Lawyer Athan Vontzalides stressed that his clients want to provide affordable housing for young people, teachers, city employees, professionals not yet ready to pay a hefty rent. He said his clients would provide two parking spaces for the MacDonalds, plow the spaces and tow any cars parked illegally. And he offered a few spaces to the Knights, as well.

The meeting adjourned for a bit of haggling, but no compromise could be reached. Voting to allow the apartments were Liacos, Gamache, Anne Manning Martin, Bob Driscoll and Arthur Athas, the ward councilor. Voting in the negative were Osborne, Gravel, Tom Gould, Mike Garabedian and Barry Sinewitz.

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

 

 

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