, Salem, MA

February 10, 2014

Our view: Brimbal project moves forward, with lessons learned

The Salem News

---- — Voters in Beverly made it clear Saturday: The city should move forward with plans to improve traffic in the Brimbal Avenue area and help spur development along one of its last commercially zoned corridors.

On the surface, it was a narrow victory: 3,978 citizens voted in favor of the measure, and 3,744 were opposed.

In reality, it wasn’t that close. Those fighting the plans needed 20 percent of registered voters to vote to overturn a City Council vote approving a land swap with developer Steven Cohen. That means 5,121 people would have had to vote “no” to defeat the rezoning. Not only did opponents fall short of that goal, they lost the vote outright, failing to convince folks in other parts of the city that the development was a bad idea. And there was every indication plans for a new shopping plaza and traffic improvements would go ahead regardless of the outcome of the vote.

Sunset Drive resident William Reilly told reporter Paul Leighton he voted “yes” because the project is in the best interest of the city.

“I don’t have a problem with that area being developed,” he said. “It’s going to be developed anyway.”

Opponents of the plan did score a different kind of victory, one that will also benefit the entire city: It will be a long time before a similar project, no matter the benefits, is rolled out in such a ham-handed fashion.

“We would’ve liked the results to be different, but our primary goal was to give folks the opportunity to vote,” said Dan DeAngelis of the North Beverly Neighborhood Association. “I was encouraged by the fact that so many people turned out on so important an issue to the city as a whole.”

Residents were asked to weigh in on whether they agreed with a City Council vote to rezone a 3.6-acre piece of land on Brimbal. That 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.

Plans include $5.2 million in state-funded traffic improvements to the connector road between Sohier Road and Brimbal Avenue. 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.

Both phases of the project would bring much-needed jobs and tax revenue to the city, which is why the plan had wide support among the city’s current and former elected officials, including Mayor Michael Cahill and his predecessor, William Scanlon, who aren’t known to agree on much.

While the proposal was — and is — solid, the way the city presented it to residents was often amateurish and riddled with missteps. City officials, for example, said holding voting at a single location (the high school) would save money. It didn’t. And it wasn’t until a week or so before the referendum that residents learned the project — and the state-funded road work — would likely go ahead no matter how residents voted.

To his credit, it was Cahill, who took office in January, who made the second issue public, despite his support for the project.

That’s a good sign. Residents will be looking for leadership from the Cahill administration as well as the City Council (whose president, Paul Guanci, opposed the project) and the Planning Board, which still has to sign off on Cohen’s special permit application. Thus far, Cahill has shown himself to be up to the task, sharing vital information with residents, whether or not it advances his cause.

In the end, that may be opponents’ real victory — forcing the city to do a better job of keeping its residents informed of a project’s progress, its ups and downs, along its entire lifespan, not after contracts have been signed and deals have been made.