, Salem, MA

December 10, 2013

Our view: Still work to be done on Peabody housing proposal

The Salem News

---- — By a 5-to-5 vote, the Peabody City Council last week effectively scuttled plans to turn a downtown office building into much-needed apartments.

It will be a shame if that kills the project for good because there is plenty to like about the plan to transform an office building at 98 Main St., owned by North Shore Community Action Programs, into a 10-unit apartment building.

The developers, Norman Lee and James Gebo, have already initiated four successful projects in Peabody. The plan calls for 10 one-bedroom units of 500 to 550 square feet, with two apartments in the basement, three on the first floor, three on the second floor and two on the third. And there is plenty of space for parking, with each unit getting two spaces.

Of course, nothing is simple in Peabody, and it looks like parking is the major issue. Not parking for the apartments, but for the neighboring Knights of Columbus Hall, which currently uses the 98 Main St. spaces to accommodate overflow parking at evening bingo games.

In the days before last week’s vote, Councilor-at-Large Dave Gravel admitted as such, calling the 15 to 20 spaces that would be lost by the Knights “the crux of the issue.”

At last week’s council meeting, however, Knights member Tim Barry said the problem wasn’t parking — it was the type of people who would move in to the area.

“Someone who rents an apartment is not vested in the city,” he said.

We disagree. More Americans are renting these days in the wake of the Great Recession and a crumbling housing market. Home ownership is simply too expensive or too risky for many people right now — it has nothing to do with being invested in a city, a neighborhood or a street. The city can’t afford to cast those people aside.

What’s more, the fact remains that renting, while often less expensive than home ownership, is not cheap. Rents in Greater Boston now average $1,800 a month, the third highest level in the nation. And the median rent in the area is $1,000, according to a study released yesterday by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

The best way to drive down cost is to make more units available. As the study’s authors note, “rehabilitation of older buildings would provide the kind of modest but secure housing that is difficult to add through new construction.”

The Main Street proposal has much going for it, including the support of City Hall.

Before last week’s vote, Community Development Director Karen Sawyer wrote that her department had no objections to the $1.1 million project. “We look forward to working with the new owner as he looks to transform this property,” Sawyer wrote. “We also look forward to assisting NSCAP … to more suitable quarters.”

The sale is also important to NSCAP, as it would bring in much-needed money to the organization, which counts 3,700 Peabody residents among those it serves.

“It’s very important for our organization that’s being hit with federal cuts and state cuts,” NSCAP’s Susan Fletcher told councilors last week. What’s more, she added, the move would also add the property to the tax rolls, which should be welcomed by taxpayers across the city.

And if councilors are truly interested in revitalizing the downtown, the city needs to have more people living there.

“If Mr. Lee doesn’t go in there today or tomorrow, we’re looking at a rundown building,” Councilor Dave Gamache said. “What we don’t need downtown is another vacant building.”

There is a glimmer of hope. Councilors spent a lot of time trying to forge a compromise before taking their tie vote. A deal can still be reached.

Time to get back to work.