BY TOM DALTON STAFF WRITER
The Salem News
---- — SALEM — A proposed market-rate apartment project at the site of the former Salem Oil & Grease factory secured a key approval last night despite strong opposition from a half-dozen city councilors.
The Planning Board voted 8-0 to grant a special permit to Legacy Park, a 141-apartment complex planned at the contaminated site dotted with vacant buildings along the North River Canal. It will have three four-story apartment buildings, 215 parking spaces and an entrance off Harmony Grove Road.
The $20 million project by MRM Development of Beverly will have one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments with expected rents from $1,400 to $1,800.
Even with this vote, the developer still needs approvals from the Conservation Commission and a state agency. But last night’s vote was a key step, coming after nearly a year of review by the board.
“This is a critical approval,” said Joe Correnti, the developer’s attorney.
City councilors turned out in force to oppose a largely residential development in an old industrial area known as “Blubber Hollow,” where they wanted to see commercial development.
Ironically, the project was able to go forward thanks to a zoning amendment approved more than a year ago by the City Council allowing up to 50 percent residential use in this business park district. Councilors said they agreed to that change only to assist a planned and later abandoned Lowe’s development on Highland Avenue.
“This is not what we intended,” Ward 2 Councilor Mike Sosnowski said.
The developer and lawyers for the city said the project met zoning guidelines and was legal. The developer even agreed to purchase more than an acre of adjacent land from Harmony Grove Cemetery to ensure that the residential component of the project was under 50 percent.
The project had strong backing from Mayor Kim Driscoll and other city officials. City Planner Lynn Duncan said it is expected to generate an estimated $250,000 in new tax revenue. Duncan said the city is appreciative that this developer has come along during a difficult economic time to clean up and develop a polluted former factory site.
“If we had a choice between a commercial development and a predominantly residential development, we would recommend the commercial development,” she said. “That really isn’t the choice here.”
Councilors and neighbors said they feared that this development, along with other residential projects planned along the canal, will create myriad problems in a tightly packed neighborhood with narrow streets.
“It’s all going to happen at ... the same time,” Ward 6 Councilor Paul Prevey said, “and that entire area is going to be gridlock.”
“I want to see the area get developed, I just think this is too much residential ...” Ward 4 Councilor Jerry Ryan said.
Councilor-at-large Arthur Sargent said a residential development this large is going to be a financial drain on the city.
Although less than half the 8-acre site is being used for housing, Sargent said the remaining sections are largely unusable. To make his point, Sargent used an eight-slice pizza as an analogy.
“We’re being left with the crust here for the commercial side, and it’s not worth eating.”
As one of the conditions to its approval, the Planning Board included an amendment that will allow for more commercial development on the site in the future. Currently, the only planned commercial use is in a vacant Salem Oil & Grease office building.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.