SALEM — With a new year now in motion and the housing crisis still escalating under COVID-19, a new group has sworn to fight overdevelopment in the Witch City.
The "Not For Sale.m Coalition" is a grassroots organization describing itself on social media as a group "of diverse neighbors from across Salem working together to stop overdevelopment." It's growing following can be seen in the scores of lawn signs and banners on private property around Salem.
The group says it isn't inherently against development in Salem, but is focused on protecting Salem's wetlands and fighting construction at risk of flooding from rising sea levels.
"The Not For Sale.m process has become a template for how we can effectively engage on these projects, and that it's collaborative and across the city," said Polly Wilbert, a member of the group and president of the South Salem Neighborhood Association. "What we're trying to do is weigh in on what we believe will be negative components of these projects — especially because, suddenly, we're facing enormous, very large developments."
The group is made up of people who organized to oppose or improve projects in other neighborhoods around the city in recent years. In the past, they worked independently of each other. Stacia Kraft, a past write-in candidate for City Council, is one of its members.
"I was aware, and Steve (Kapantais) is aware, and Polly is aware, that there are many people fighting big battles by themselves," Kraft said. "So we were just trying to get everybody on the same page so we aren't reinventing the wheel all the time, and we can give support to the different neighborhoods."
The group formed late in the summer, in part on the announcement of a possible project targeting Lee Fort Terrace, a 50-unit Salem Housing Authority wedged between Fort Avenue and Szetela Lane. City officials teased the idea of redeveloping the site this summer, which raised concerns about the property supporting far more units than it does today — and doing so just yards from Collins Cove.
Members of the group have also been frequent voices against large-scale projects, including those proposing hundreds of units along Highland Avenue.
While wetlands concerns and density commonly come up in project discussions, flooding is another worry.
This past fall, Salem Sound Coastwatch held an online meeting featuring Kirk Bosma, a senior coastal engineer with Woods Hole Group. The presentation focused on what flooding could look like around Salem during major storms in the coming decades.
"Some of this is probably not surprising," Bosma said during the presentation. "North River is an area that has some pretty high risk of flooding. There's some areas up around Collins Cove, both on the east side and the west side — the Salem power plant area, ... Palmer Cove, Derby Wharf, other areas where we see some of these colors start to reveal themselves."
Major storms, by 2070, would heavily inundate low-lying areas in the city like the North River corridor, where several projects — 31 to 37 units of housing proposed on the Ferris Salvage property on Franklin Street, more than 100 units proposed on the "crescent lot" parking area outside of the MBTA garage and 117 condo units at the corner of Boston and Bridge streets — are near the river.
Some could argue the group is just opposing projects and using sea-level rise as an excuse for doing so. But the group supports what Steve Kapantais, another member, calls "smart development." He pointed to a proposed North Shore CDC project that would build senior housing in the Federal Street neighborhood using the now-vacant St. James Church school building.
"I'm hoping we can find more projects like St. James on Federal Street," Kapantais said. "That's a project that includes historical preservation, input from the neighbors, touches on affordability on many different levels. That's the kind of project we think is successful in Salem and delivers for the residents and the neighbors."
Flooding, city needs are in each decision
Tom Daniel, Salem's director of planning, outlined that there are two avenues for which projects in the city get reviewed on flooding and wetlands concerns. An easy one that needs little explanation is the Conservation Commission.
In addition, "the Planning Board gets involved. There's something called the Flood Hazard Overlay District," Daniel said. "So a property that's in the flood hazard overlay, within the district, needs to get a special permit from the Planning Board."
With that, Daniel said, future flooding concerns are addressed. And they typically need to be addressed, as any reasonable developer wouldn't propose something that would be uninhabitable decades down the road, he argued.
"It isn't just the Planning Board that's concerned about that," Daniel said. "Obviously, the person who's building whatever they're building wants to make sure it's going to be something that can endure."
The density discussion, meanwhile, raises an interesting question about how Salem has changed over the years.
To channel that, Daniel noted the eras of development Salem has moved through over time. The single-family homes built in the 1950s using vacant farmland responded to what the city needed at the time. And in the seventies after Route 128's malls decimated downtown Salem, the focus became economic development — malls, parking garages, things considered unsightly today but massively popular at the time.
"You see the changes in subdivision design, the style of houses, how they're laid out," Daniel said. "What's fantastic about Salem is that there are all these options. You can have a ranch. You can have the executive, big-buck single-family home. You can have a historic single-family residence, or you can rent an apartment or have a condo — and there's actually public housing."
Projects like the hundreds of units targeting contaminated sites along Blubber Hollow, for example, represent the present-day projects responding to Salem's modern-day needs, according to Daniel. Higher densities help provide sellable units to take the teeth out of the housing crisis and, particularly where site cleanup is involved, make some projects financially viable.
"In Salem, right now, it's housing that's able to support the development costs," Daniel said. "And that isn't to say we want everything to be housing either. It's either looking to create housing opportunities or ensure that there's economic development and employment opportunities as well."