, Salem, MA

December 31, 2013

Our view: A brighter future for downtown Peabody

The Salem News

---- — It’s been a good year for downtown Peabody, but all signs are pointing to an even better one in the year to come.

For many, even the phrase “downtown Peabody” might seem something of a misnomer. With a huge shopping mall down the road, the city has struggled for decades to forge an identity for the downtown. For the most part, it’s been a place people drive through, rather than to. But that could be changing.

Traffic improvements have made it easier to drive and safer for pedestrians, while adding more attractive elements to the streetscape. A downtown business association was launched and made its first efforts to attract customers with special events. And Mayor Ted Bettencourt, who had vowed to make downtown revitalization a priority, set the ball in motion to acquire more liquor licenses from the state to help downtown restaurants flourish.

Now, Bandar Development’s plans to open a boutique hotel and upscale restaurant in Peabody Square’s striking O’Shea building opens up a wealth of possibilities that could hardly have been imagined a year ago.

“That building represents the cornerstone of our downtown,” Mayor Bettencourt told reporter Alan Burke. Its redevelopment would be a major asset to the downtown. Much remains to be done to seal the deal, but the mayor appears confident that it can be wrapped up soon.

The city’s efforts to mitigate chronic flooding will, of course, play a big role in whether a more attractive downtown leads to one that is successful economically. Bettencourt’s decision, with the City Council’s approval, to acquire an abandoned, flood-damaged building on Lowell Street, near City Hall, raze it and create a green space that could help in mitigating damage in the future is a small step. But it’s a step that signals the city’s commitment to doing what it takes to solve the downtown’s problems.

A healthy business center along Main Street is surely desirable, but even more so is the community center that a thriving downtown can provide. Peabody lost that to the mall years ago, but it seems on a course to reclaim it — and make the downtown the heart of the city once again.

Bettencourt deserves praise for focusing on the downtown and coming up with practical ideas to help it blossom. The council’s backing for his new initiatives makes it possible to envision a true downtown in Peabody once again.