SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 10, 2014

Benton: Centering efforts on the Square

Nelson Benton
The Salem News

---- — Start with four architectural and historic gems — City Hall, Central Fire Station, Peabody Institute Library and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument — dating back to the 19th century. Factor in its status as the major link between the regional highway system and the tourist attractions and major institutions (courthouses, state university, medical center, etc.) located in Salem. And try to envision the possibilities inherent in the underutilized properties that line the short stretch of the North River between Central Street and a transportation hub that offers direct bus and train service to Boston.

Downtown Peabody abounds with potential as yet unrealized. And at the start of his second term, Mayor Ted Bettencourt is determined to change the area’s fortunes.

For too many years, Peabody Square’s chief allure has been as an ideal place for TV crews to bring their cameras whenever rain and/or melting snow causes rivers to rise and streets to flood in the region. Rarely has it been the subject of glowing stories of downtown revival like those now routine for places like Newton or Newburyport.

Indeed, the burst of activity New Brothers Deli brought to Peabody Square in the Peter Torigian era quickly flamed out after the popular restaurant’s owners moved their business to the town next door, where it became a key component in Danvers Square’s resurgence.

Rather than lament what was or what might have been, Bettencourt appears determined to take advantage of the initiatives undertaken under predecessors Torigian and Michael Bonfanti to return the square to its historic place as a hub of civic life in Peabody.

Working with his counterpart in Salem, he has pressed forward with efforts to alleviate the flooding problems that occur when streams that flow from South and West Peabody meet the incoming tide from the North River in what was once a mill pond located under the present-day intersection of Central and Main streets. And he insists that the reconfiguration of Main Street from two lanes to one lane in each direction can keep traffic flowing between the highways and downtown Salem, while at the same time making the area safer for pedestrians.

In recent weeks, he has announced plans for a new hotel downtown in the O’Shea Building at the corner of Main and Foster streets and floated the idea of the city building a garage to accommodate what he anticipates will be an increased demand for parking. (A big part of what distinguishes downtown Salem from other older, urban centers is the presence of Hawthorne Hotel, which continues to function as both a first-class lodging establishment and a central gathering place for both residents and visitors.)

Bettencourt’s most daunting challenge may be convincing a City Council long paralyzed by fear of change and lack of vision to view downtown Peabody’s future with the same optimism he expresses.

As noted earlier, there is plenty of potential in the underutilized residential, commercial and industrial properties located along the North River corridor. But realizing that potential requires working with prospective developers willing to invest in the area, and making a reach or two like building a light-rail system linking the downtown with the MBTA’s new regional transportation hub in Salem.

Most urban planners will tell you that having more people living downtown is a good thing, not a bad one. And given the current traffic conditions in Peabody (like almost every other community on the North Shore), expansion of the public-transportation infrastructure should not be viewed as pie-in-the-sky but, rather, a commonsense solution to a problem that appears to be only getting worse.