SALEM — An appeal interrupting the construction of the Gateway Center took an important step forward Wednesday as project supporters and opposition clashed over the proposal’s current design and possible negative impacts.
The state’s Department of Environmental Protection held a site review at the Gateway Center at the corner of Boston and Bridge streets on Wednesday morning. The project proposes construction of a two-story Community Life Center for the city and another building with first-floor businesses and 117 residential units on successive floors.
The visit was scheduled to take in testimony from those behind the project and neighbors appealing a recent Conservation Commission decision that moved the project forward.
The project was approved years ago as a single building with the city’s long-sought-after Community Life Center on the first floor and office space above it.
Developers had to go before the commission recently to amend the plans and break the project into two buildings after tenants for the proposed building proved to be in short supply. The new version of the project replaces the office space with residences, and the commission ultimately amended its prior order of conditions to allow the change.
Neighbors to the project appealed that decision to the DEP, calling for a higher level review of the project and its local approval.
At the site review, the appellants argued that the project has changed too much to be eligible for an amended order of conditions.
Instead, issuance of a fresh order is needed, according to area resident Jane Arlander, who spoke on behalf of more than 15 neighbors present at the site review.
“We believe, first of all, that this is a new project. We feel this project has a whole new use,” Arlander said. “Whether it’s under the jurisdiction of the state, I think ‘use’ does have an impact on wetlands.”
Area resident John Carr also took issue with the change in use.
“There are many in the city who don’t regard this as merely a slightly amended project,” Carr said, “but a fundamentally different project in any number of ways.”
Those opposing the project as currently designed also took issue with the number of parking spaces. In her comments, Arlander said zoning regulations required there to be two parking spaces for each of the residential units — 234 spaces total — and another 80 would be needed for the Community Life Center.
With 298 spaces slated for the new version of the project, Arlander said there wouldn’t be enough parking for people coming to businesses at the site.
“We do need some commercial spots,” Arlander said. “If you add this all up, you’re going to need more parking.”
The site review was attended by several city officials, including City Councilors Heather Famico, William Legault and Robert McCarthy, Mayor Kim Driscoll and Planning Director Lynn Duncan.
Duncan took particular issue with a suggestion that there wasn’t enough parking. Instead, she argued the opposite.
“There’s too much parking on the site,” Duncan said.
The need for two spaces per residence stems from an amendment called for by a resident when the North River Canal Corridor Zoning the development is subject to was first created, according to Duncan.
“People talking about the combination of residential, community life center and commercial... It’s going to be a great example of shared parking,” Duncan said.
Abutters also raised concerns about flooding at the site due to its proximity to the North River Canal, as well as nearby elevation changes leading to heavy storm water runoff that some said have been a problem in the past.
Peter Ogren, president of Hayes Engineers and an engineer on the project, refuted the claims.
The appeal “indicated it was an area of chronic flooding,” Ogren said. “I haven’t been able to verify that personally.”
Ogren listed several times when he or his staff visited the site during storms where flooding was threatening the area. They didn’t see it happen at the site, he said.
“Whether the site has flooded at other times,” he said, “I don’t know.”
But he called for evidence of flooding.
“I don’t think anybody has ever submitted a picture of the flooding,” Ogren said.
The site review ran for about an hour and a half. Those who couldn’t make the visit are still able to provide feedback by contacting DEP Environmental Analyst Heidi Davis by emailing email@example.com.