Baker signs bill to transfer courthouse to SRA

The former Salem Superior Court building on Federal Street will be turned over to the Salem Redevelopment Authority for redevelopment. The courthouse dates to 1862. (File photo)

SALEM — It's official. The old Salem Superior Court on Federal Street, as well as the county commissioners building next door, will be turned over to the Salem Redevelopment Authority for $1.

Gov. Charlie Baker signed the bill to make it happen, sponsored by Rep. Paul Tucker and Sen. Joan Lovely, late Friday afternoon.

The Redevelopment Authority will be tasked with seeking bids from private developers to bring new life to the courthouses buildings at 32 and 34 Federal St., which have been vacant since 2012. A study the SRA commissioned last fall suggested housing as the most viable option.

The agency is scheduled to meet Aug. 8. City Planning Director Tom Daniel, who serves as executive director of the agency, was away this week and unavailable to comment.

Tucker, during a brief break Monday afternoon in the House's budget deliberations, said he was "very pleased" about Baker signing the bill. Tucker and other city and state officials have been talking about what to do with these historic buildings for years.

A key holdup to any plans, however, has been an ongoing feud between Secretary of State Bill Galvin and Southern Essex Register of Deeds John O'Brien over moving the registry back to the downtown.

Until recently, Galvin had retained first option on reusing the vacant courthouses for the registry, which used to be located in what is now the family and probate court on Federal Street. The registry moved to Shetland Park in 2008 during construction on the new Ruane Center, which opened in 2012.

O'Brien wants to stay at Shetland Park, while Galvin has persisted in trying to relocate to state-owned property and save $645,000 a year on rent. 

Galvin initially looked at the former district court on Washington Street, but then expressed interest in the old superior court. Bills have been introduced and re-introduced on this subject, until finally the Legislature approved a bill last year.

That version carved out up to 20,000 square feet of space — three courtrooms and a clerk's office — to be used for the registry. As the state began exploring options for a public-private redevelopment of the building, however, it became clear it wasn't feasible, officials said.

So this spring, Tucker and Lovely filed new versions of the bill, striking language that required space for the registry and instead left only a preference for use by the Secretary of State, if it is feasible.  

That bill was signed Friday by the governor.

It states that upon transfer of the property to the redevelopment authority, the agency has to include the option — within any request for private bids — of possibly creating a condo or other real estate interest to be held by the Secretary of State's office.

But if that option isn't feasible or all sides can't agree on the terms and conditions, the SRA can proceed with the sale of the buildings without a transfer or lease.

When the revised bill was filed in May, Debra O'Malley, a spokeswoman for Galvin's office, reiterated Galvin's desire to return the registry downtown and said conversations were ongoing with the officials involved.

On Monday, not much had changed, according to O'Malley.

"We are still considering the options. If there is a feasible way to relocate the registry to the old courthouse without becoming a tenant, we would still be interested," she said.

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