BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — It is one of the largest local construction proposals in recent years: a hotel, almost 100 residences — including a floor of graduate or faculty housing for Salem State University — a restaurant, retail stores, office space and a multi-deck parking garage.
Yet, despite its size, significance and location — right along Washington Street — it has drawn little public notice.
There are meetings underway about the $45 million project, but few attend. That may be because the proposal is before an obscure city board: the Salem Redevelopment Authority’s design review board.
The six-member board, made up largely of architects, handles everything from store signs to building design. Members pore over complicated schematics and sometimes talk in a language only they understand, using words like “elevation,” when they mean a drawing of the side of a building, or “fenestration” instead of windows.
But this is where city projects, little and large, go to be tweaked or sometimes almost totally redesigned. This is where the clay of a developer’s proposal gets molded into a building that will be part of the cityscape for decades to come.
This is where the hotel/residential project is right now.
The hotel development is being proposed by RCG, the Somerville developer of Derby Lofts and Tavern in the Square developments, a company that owns a large slice of the downtown. In this case, they want to demolish buildings they own at Washington and Dodge streets and construct three large, adjoining buildings, which would be six stories tall in some places.
The plan made headlines last summer, largely because of interest from Maine Course Hospitality Group, which is eyeing an 85-room hotel with an entrance at Dodge Street and Dodge Street Court.
The design review board has met on this project four times, including last week, but only a handful of people have attended the meetings at 120 Washington St. Among the “crowd” last Wednesday night were five city councilors, several of whom had been contacted by Historic Salem Inc., a private preservation group concerned that this important development is moving along under the public radar.
While the board appears to be giving the development largely good marks, there were harsh words last week for part of the proposal — the design of a large residential and commercial building along Washington Street.
“It looks like something out of Miami,” said board member David Jaquith.
Based on input from the board, the developer has made significant changes so far and is expected to make more by the board’s next meeting Feb. 26.
Review of this project is far from over. It will go back to the SRA and on to the Planning Board, which generally draws bigger crowds.
The design debate aside, there is consensus that this is an important project for Salem.
It may not be as “sexy” as the planned $200 million Peabody Essex Museum expansion or have the public impact of the reconstruction of the Salem commuter rail station, but this development will sit on a major roadway through the heart of the downtown and be seen by thousands of motorists every day.
“This is a big enough project that it will (help) define what Salem looks like,” said Emily Udy, preservation project manager for HSI.
“It’s very important — its location, its size,” said board chairman Paul Durand, a principal at Winter Street Architects of Salem. “It has a big impact on the downtown — more than any other project I can remember in the past.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.