SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 8, 2013

Watson: A controversial addition to Swampscott’s downtown

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — I am prompted to write this column by a controversial new building in Swampscott’s old downtown. People love it or hate it — but I’ll get to that.

In Swampscott, as in so many old communities, the traditional town center has been buffeted and somewhat hollowed-out by the decades-long competition with shopping malls and other retail nodes.

Before World War II and through the 1950s, the unequivocal and uncontested “downtown” of Swampscott was located alongside the ocean along the stretch of Humphrey Street from the fish house and harbor to the Hawthorne-By-The-Sea restaurant and the obelisk monument on the town green.

Without the pressure from the many stores that are now located in Vinnin Square (a mile from downtown) and the region’s malls, Humphrey Street possessed enough businesses, offices and residences to form a critical mass of synergistic mixed uses that together formed an economically viable and visually imageable town center.

In such a downtown — just as in a mall — no single building and its architecture, and no one shop and its economic activity, explains the success of the whole. Rather — both visually and financially — a healthy, attractive town center is a commercial and architectural ensemble. Each structure and each business, while possessing individual merit, is a player in a symphony that creates both a memorable sense of place and a functioning business district.

In a thriving, welcoming downtown, the quality and design of the buildings are important, and the mix and quantity of businesses are important. Critically — and suburban downtowns often undershoot this target — creating a distinctive, exciting, vibrant downtown demands an intensity and a density that are significantly greater than the surrounding precincts.

Critically, it is density, stimulation, opportunity, business, visual interest, physical placeness and other people that draw us into town centers.

After the alternative shopping districts began eroding Swampscott’s downtown 45 years ago, it slowly faded. Every decade, there were fewer and fewer shops, smaller and less prime businesses, less distinctive and less maintained architecture, fewer street trees, and less density and vibrancy.

Today, two large, dead parking lots occupy prime spots on Humphrey Street where three-story buildings once stood right at the sidewalk edge. There are many, cheap, one-story buildings — devoid of character, presence, and space-building qualities — in too many spots along the main street. Just recently, at the downtown’s most prominent intersection, yet another new one-story building replaced an old three-story structure. Without sufficient densities, we are making impossible all of the tangible and intangible attributes that are necessary to create and sustain an interesting, financially successful town center.

Now to Humphrey Street’s new building, called The Concordia, located right downtown. I love the building, its size, its density, its architecture and its pitch-perfect presence. It could have been built in 1880 or 1920 and it would have fit right in to vernacular Swampscott.

The building is three stories, wood-shingled, has period trim detailing, varied massing volumes and projections and rooflines, well-proportioned windows and generous roof overhangs, and possesses a superbly handled sense of scale and contextual role-playing in its contribution to a better streetscape.

Many Swampscott residents dislike the building. They say it is too large and too tall, and because it replaced three separate structures, they miss the glimpses of ocean that previously existed. Also, the demolished buildings were very old, which indeed is a genuine loss, but they were extremely unexceptional specimens.

Many who dislike the building just universally oppose any increase in density — and any mixed-use zoning — anywhere in town, and many of them are simply resisting change. Ironically, many townspeople lament the slow demise of Humphrey Street while opposing measures and initiatives that could bring back its health.

Attempted reforms for Humphrey Street have been stymied repeatedly for 30 years. Every ambitious effort to rezone Humphrey Street with a special “overlay district” — with liberal but strict rules and incentives to promote the heights, densities, quality architecture, mixed uses, large-species trees and parking solutions appropriate to a downtown — has been defeated.

I don’t believe that this is a question of being pro-business or anti-business, as some claim. I believe the opinions on this matter turn on the pictures that each citizen holds in his head — either pictures of the town as it is, or pictures of what it could be.

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Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. He is a registered architect and served 10 years on the Swampscott Planning Board and was the town’s representative to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Contact him at watson@nii.net.