BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — Salem State University will begin preliminary utility work next week on a 400-student, five-story residence hall it plans to build on its central campus along Loring Avenue — and the proposal has some neighbors up in arms.
The proposed new dorm, set to open in the fall of 2015, has sparked concerns for its size, proximity to nearby houses and speed at which the project appears to be moving.
“I, for one, feel blindsided,” said Polly Wilbert, a member of the South Salem Neighborhood Association.
The new state building, which is exempt from local zoning, was discussed at an Oct. 15 meeting of the Salem State University Neighborhood Advisory Committee. Architects even brought along a model.
Following that meeting, Ward 7 City Councilor Joseph O’Keefe wrote to Edward Adelman, executive director of the Massachusetts State College Building Authority, to share his concerns.
“This letter will confirm my objections to the mass and height of this proposed central campus residence hall,” O’Keefe stated.
Specifically, O’Keefe said he is concerned about a five-story residence hall being located near residents’ homes, he and suggested a four-story building would be better.
“I do not believe residents ... on Loring Avenue should look out their rear windows to an adjoining five-story (60 feet) residence hall literally hovering over their homes,” he wrote.
The new dorm would be the third residence hall built on the central campus in the past decade. Atlantic Hall, with 450 beds, opened in 2004, and 525-bed Marsh Hall opened in 2009.
A college spokeswoman stressed that plans are not final.
“There were some concerns expressed by neighbors, and I think those concerns were definitely heard,” said Karen Cady. “What the architects are currently doing is reviewing the various options to see what accommodations can be made to address those concerns.”
The college’s architects will present new, and possibly modified, plans at a Nov. 19 meeting of the Neighborhood Advisory Committee.
Making both sections of the new dorm four stories would be a “real plus,” according to Jim Rose, who chairs meetings of the South Salem Neighborhood Association. Under the current plan, the dorm has two sections connected by walkways, one four stories and the other five.
Although the plans may not be final, a tentative timeline has been established. Cady said they hope to have construction trailers on the site by the end of February. The new residence hall is scheduled to open in the fall of 2015, she said.
Mayor Kim Driscoll said she is aware of the concerns and has spoken to Salem State President Patricia Meservey.
Driscoll feels neighbors want “more beds on the campus” but are concerned about the height and massing of buildings near homes. But the mayor is confident the college will make the dorm “fit in South Salem.”
“I certainly think the college was hearing the concerns of residents, councilors and even myself, and is trying to address them,” she said.
Like dominoes, plans for the residence hall have set off a chain of events.
Salem State is proposing building the residence hall at the site of its current campus police station and main central campus parking lot. The dorm would have two sections: a five-story building near Loring Avenue connected by walkways to a four-story building roughly on the site of the parking lot, according to people who saw the model.
As a result, the police station will be moved to a large building on the central campus that currently houses the Bertolon School of Business and a recital hall.
Across the street, the college plans to raze several former Weir factory buildings it bought in 2010 to use as temporary parking during construction. Eventually, the college will build a parking garage on its main or central campus, Cady said.
Josh Turiel, councilor in Ward 5, which is next to the campus, sees pluses and minuses in the proposal.
“It’s not a bad-looking building,” he said of the new dorm. “The problem isn’t the five stories so much as it is that the five stories directly overlook houses on Loring Avenue. It hangs directly over the backyards, and I think that’s just not acceptable.
“Overall, the vast majority of their expansion plans are manageable and fit fairly well,” he said. “The issue I have is how this new dorm will interface with the neighborhood directly adjacent to it.”
Wilbert doesn’t feel neighbors have received sufficient notice or information or have been given a chance to provide feedback.
“I don’t feel people understood what was being considered and how fast this was being moved along,” she said.
Cady said Salem State has tried to keep residents informed through the Neighborhood Advisory Committee, which recently spent one session on long-range plans.
She said the college also is trying to respond to growing student demand to live in dorms, a demand that grew even stronger after the college scrapped plans announced earlier this year to build temporary modular housing. The college has set a goal of putting 50 percent of its 5,500 undergraduate students into residence halls. It’s at about 35 percent now.
Currently, the 2,000 beds on campus are filled with some students living in double rooms that are now “forced triples,” according to Cady.
“We have a waiting list of people wanting housing,” she said, “and we’re not even taking more names for the waiting list.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.