BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The Salem Redevelopment Authority has approved a tentative agreement with the state to acquire two court buildings.
Although the document is being reviewed by state agencies and is not expected to be finalized and signed for several weeks, the agreement sets the stage for another significant phase in the redevelopment of Federal Street’s courthouse row.
The two court buildings in the agreement — the District Court on Washington Street and the Superior Court/County building on Federal Street — have been vacant since the opening of the J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center two years ago.
Although the buildings are being heated, local officials and historic activists are concerned about their condition and have urged the state to act quickly to reuse them. The Superior Court, with its historic law library, is of special concern.
The SRA hopes to have documents reviewed and signed so that a request for proposals from developers can go out soon, likely early next year, according to Planning Director Lynn Duncan.
“We’re going to do that as fast as we can,” said Robert Mitnik, chairman of the SRA.
While the future use of those buildings is only speculation at this point, SRA officials appear eager to take on the challenge in the wake of their success with the redevelopment of the old Salem Jail, which the city acquired from the state for $1. It was turned over to a private developer who converted the old jail to housing and a restaurant. Although the restaurant recently closed, there are plans to open a new restaurant.
A few years ago, when the state conducted a survey to see if other state agencies had an interest in the vacant courts, the only response was a general expression of interest from Salem State University. The college still has its eye on the Superior Court building and now even has a use in mind.
“Salem State University continues to have a strong interest in having a presence there,” said Karen Cady, a university spokeswoman. “We would look to be an anchor tenant in the building, probably for academic space for the School of Graduate Studies program.”
As part of this process, state Rep. John Keenan and state Sen. Joan Lovely have filed legislation on the turnover of the court buildings.
They plan to meet this month with Secretary of State William Galvin, who wants to explore the possibility of bringing the Southern Essex Registry of Deeds back from Shetland Park, where it moved during court construction, to the District Court building. Galvin wants the registry in a public building and to stop paying private rent.
There is general agreement among local officials that now is a good time to get going on the court buildings. Not only has the new state courthouse opened, but the commuter rail station and a new garage are under construction, and other downtown projects are underway or in the offing.
Meanwhile, the $60 million renovation of the Salem Family and Probate Court building, which is next to the Ruane court building on Federal Street, is scheduled to start in March.
“We hope to capture the momentum in Salem right now,” Keenan wrote in an email.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.