, Salem, MA

February 6, 2014

Our view: Vote 'Yes' on Brimbal Avenue

The Salem News

---- — For all of the recent debate over the proposed redevelopment of Brimbal Avenue, the issue now comes down to a citywide vote on a relatively minor zoning issue. Even if voters Saturday overturn the City Council’s vote supporting the project, there’s a good chance the plan could move ahead in some form anyway.

That doesn’t mean voters don’t have a chance to make a statement. They should vote “Yes” Saturday, giving city leaders the options they need to make sure the best-possible version of the project moves forward. A “Yes” vote would also demonstrate a commitment to economic development that would preserve and hopefully improve the quality of life for citizens in all of the city’s neighborhoods.

The vote has been framed as a decision on the entire project. It is not.

Voters are being asked if they agree with a City Council vote to rezone a 3.6-acre piece of land on Brimbal. The change would allow a land swap between the state and developer Steven Cohen’s CEA Group, which would then apply for a special permit from the Planning Board to build a $20 million shopping plaza on Brimbal Avenue.

Part of that development includes $5.2 million in state-funded traffic improvements to the connector road between Sohier Road and Brimbal Avenue. The land swap would move the connector road in such a way that benefits the CEA project.

A second phase of roadwork, expected to cost $20 million, would include a bridge over the highway, opening commercially zoned land on Dunham Road to development.

Much has been made of the fact that some aspects of the first part of the plan have changed. The state now appears to prefer building the new connector road in place, instead over the old dump about 400 feet away. CEA has offered to pay to shore up its land to keep the original plan in place.

So now the city has two options: rebuild the access road where it is now, or move it across CEA Group property, as the land swap would allow.

We agree with Mayor Michael Cahill, who believes it is important to keep both options on the table.

In a column on these pages Jan. 29, Cahill said “Since we have two road designs and both need to be further explored to determine their viability or ‘buildability’ in order to keep both options alive and available to the city, I cannot agree with the assertion that a ‘No’ vote is best for our city. Beverly needs the traffic safety improvements and economic development this project can bring, and we need to keep our options open regarding which possible road design to present to the state.”

Cahill is right — Beverly needs the economic development the project would bring. Smart development adds to the city’s tax base and contributes to better schools, safer roads, improved public safety and a more reasonable burden on taxpayers.

The city has been in this position before. It was former Mayor Bill Scanlon who led efforts to turn the former Shoe factory into the still-growing Cummings Center, turning a rundown, essentially abandoned complex generating $160,000 a year in property taxes into what it is today — a 2.3 million-square-foot office park that generates more than $2.3 million a year in tax revenue for the city.

This is the type of transformation that allows cities to make giant leaps forward — without the taxpaying contributions of the Cummings Center, for example, the city would not have been able to afford to build its new, state-of-the-art high school, renovate its elementary schools or even consider a new middle school. These are benefits enjoyed citywide, not in a single neighborhood.