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Local News

November 30, 2012

Benton: Taking the politics out of development

Events this week revealed once again the logic of taking some decisions regarding downtown development out of the realm of politics.

The first phase of work on what should be a more pedestrian- and business-friendly Essex Street mall was approved unanimously by the Salem Redevelopment Authority.

There was plenty of opportunity for public input into this latest plan for improving this important downtown corridor. Due to actions taken decades ago, the ultimate decision was left not to the politicians on the City Council but to the appointed members of the SRA.

This is not to say the SRA is infallible, of course. In the late 1960s when members of that body proposed to destroy the fabric of the downtown by replacing historic structures with new roadways, voters elected a mayor, the late Sam Zoll, who immediately changed the composition and philosophy of the board to one that favored preservation over demolition. The wisdom of that decision can be seen in the vibrant central business district one finds today.

Salem’s success has been the envy of many older cities, including the ones next door. As was noted in this space last week, Beverly’s councilors have taken several positive actions in recent years to strengthen that community’s main business corridors.

In Peabody, development decisions continue to be governed more by paranoia than common sense. In a city where every golfer is considered a potential drunken driver and every voter a potential pedophile, the latest goblins are those marijuana dispensaries that would appear the inevitable result of the Nov. 6 statewide vote authorizing the use of the drug for medical purposes.

It’s a rather sad commentary on the city’s poor self-image that Mayor Ted Bettencourt and the council would naturally assume their city would become the prime location for such a facility. And the fact is their effort to pass a first-in-the-state ban is unlikely to pass legal muster.

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