By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — If you think all that digging up the road and tearing up the sidewalks on Main Street in downtown Peabody is part of some maintenance plan, think again.
What’s happening is instead part of a long-range and ambitious program to dramatically transform the city center, to give it a shot of adrenaline consisting of new construction, new shops and eventually new people.
“When I ran for office,” says Mayor Ted Bettencourt, “one of my goals was to bring changes to the downtown.” That aim goes back to his days on the City Council, when then-Mayor Mike Bonfanti introduced a plan to revitalize the area by making it a more attractive place to live, a place where residents could fill empty upper floors and stroll in the evenings, remaining close to the action.
Currently under way is phase one, designed to slow down the traffic, by turning a four-lane Main Street to two, adding bricked and larger sidewalks, decorative lighting and greenery.
In phase two, Bettencourt envisions installing flood controls in Peabody Square — an effort expected to lessen but not eliminate the impact of periodic flooding. Finally, the renovation will be complete when the towering Civil War monument at the head of Central Street is moved to the front of the courthouse, and the traffic pattern is revamped.
“We have to show that we’re serious about our downtown,” says Bettencourt. And if they rebuild it, he believes, people will come.
“Didn’t Salem and Beverly both do it?” asks City Council President Jim Liacos. “The downtown in Salem is nothing like it was 20 or 30 years ago. It seems crowded and alive.”
By contrast, Peabody’s downtown suffers with empty storefronts. Large numbers of people drive down Main Street each day headed to or from places like Salem, Marblehead and Swampscott, and they seldom stop.
Infrastructure improvements alone won’t make them stop, says Liacos. He believes the downtown will need one more important element for success — “a big draw.” It could be the restaurant that everybody just has to go to, “ike a Legal Seafoods,” he says. Or it could be a large, high-end store.
Downtown Peabody has a few good restaurants now, says Liacos. “But Salem and Peabody have tons of good restaurants.” He laments the loss of Brothers in the 1990s. The eatery, which moved out as a result of a dispute with the landlord, now hosts crowds in Danvers Square as New Brothers Restaurant. Liacos comments that they still know his name when he stops there to eat.
Liacos hopes to see the revamped downtown attracting young adults, singles, living in the spaces above thriving shops and restaurants.
But it won’t be easy to make that happen.
Patricia Zaido of the Salem Partnership has seen her city blossom in the past decade. And while she wishes the best for Peabody, she can also cite some crucial differences between the two locations. For example, there is nothing comparable to the internationally known Peabody Essex Museum in the Leather City.
“Culture is a key to success,” she says. “A major catalyst for development is the art scene. Beverly has Montserrat College and Salem has the Peabody Essex. ... You want something that is alive with all kinds of art, music and theater.”
Zaido, who has a background in the arts, admits she might be prejudiced on this subject, but then she can rattle off an extraordinary number of theaters in Salem, including spaces for movies and live performers. “And Beverly has the Cabot Street Cinema,” she says. “They have the best movies. Really high end. And then you can walk across the street where you can go to a good restaurant.”
The Witch City also has a storied history, Zaido points out, drawing people to see witches, 19th century architecture, the Friendship and the Custom House.
“But Peabody has an interesting history, too,” says Zaido, “if they start looking at it and utilizing it.” The buildings of the downtown, many dating from the Victorian era, including City Hall and the Peabody Institute Library, offer the kind of architectural beauty seldom equaled in the decades since.
But Zaido cautions, “It’s a difficult thing to crack. ... It takes a lot of things coming together.” The downtown’s reputation for flooding remains a major obstacle, she says. And that sentiment finds an echo in Coldwell Banker Realtor Zoe Karademos.
Asked to talk about Peabody, Karademos says, “The biggest thing I’ve found — it floods out. There’s definitely that issue there.”
Most of the young married couples she brings to Peabody want to buy homes away from the downtown. “The market isn’t very strong downtown,” she says.
Meanwhile, single professionals often opt for another feature exclusive to Salem and Beverly: “They’re working in Boston and they buy in Salem where they can walk and use the commuter rail.”
Karademos applauds Peabody’s efforts, however. The downtown had begun to look rundown and needs to be more vibrant, she says. If the transformation could happen in Salem and Beverly, she adds, “I can only think they can do it in Peabody, too.”
Acknowledging the obstacles, including the fact that Peabody has no ocean, Liacos says, “You’ve got to try. I don’t think we can ever compete with the Northshore Mall. ... But there are a number of things we can do.”
He jokes, “I’ll start a rumor: Nordstrom is moving to downtown Peabody.”