Pier, waterfront development on tap in Salem

HADLEY GREEN/Staff photoMore than 40 acres of land around Salem Harbor Footprint on Fort Avenue stands to be developed in the coming few years.

SALEM — By the beginning of 2020, a second ferry could be running off Blaney Street, plans to develop 45 acres of land owned by the Footprint Power Salem Harbor Station could be well underway, and upgrades for a commercial pier may not be that far behind.

It's shaping up to be a busy year at the power plant property on Fort Avenue, and the city's newly formed Harbor Port Authority will be overseeing the work. The authority met for the first time Thursday. 

Port authority member Bob McCarthy, who also represents the Derby Street neighborhood on the City Council, said he's "excited about the whole process" beginning to unfold. 

"We don't have (Route) 128 running through the middle of Salem. Some of our neighboring communities that do very well with having highway connections... the water is our connection to the world," McCarthy said. "How we utilize that is going to be big."

It starts with the power plant's old pier, a chunk of property no more than 5 acres in size that for decades hosted coal ships and oil tankers for the old Salem Harbor Station. 

"I went back and found the first article that was written about me when I ran for office 14 years ago," McCarthy told the meeting Thursday night. "I said Salem has to reinvent itself on the water."

While Salem has become popular for tourists in the weeks leading up to Halloween, McCarthy said more waterfront access could help make the city a busy port for visitors year-round. 

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who chairs the port authority, concurred.

"It's an amazing opportunity we have, not only with this pier but certainly as the 45 acres (around Footprint) gets built out, we'll be able to influence that," Driscoll said. "We won't be able to 100-percent control that — it isn't our land — but we'll have a lot of opportunities to shape and influence what goes on there."

The pier, she said, is the first piece. 

"The use of the pier will have an influence on the use of the property around it," Driscoll said. Those steps will play out "in 2019, but right now we're working on trying to get a timeline for the process."

Regardless of when the work begins, city Harbormaster and port authority member Bill McHugh says it needs to be done by 2020. That's because the Ritz-Carlton has booked Salem for a visit from a new 600-foot-long cruise ship that year.

"I look at the arrival of that vessel as somewhat of a deadline to have some sort of gentrification down there," McHugh said. "It doesn't have to be massive pier improvements, but at least a flat lot, no construction equipment ... no steel laying around, something so that people get off and don't feel like they're in a construction zone."

For all of that to happen, Footprint needs to first button up its site. Scott Silverstein, chief operating officer of Footprint, said that shouldn't be a problem. 

"The key is to finish up the exterior stuff as soon as we can get it done," Silverstein said. That should be complete in the spring. "The bulk of the work left to be done is the wall and berm and — once that's complete — obviously the landscaping. That'll include the pathways, lighting, all that stuff."

A lot of the landscaping work will be tied to the seasons. Then once the pier planning starts moving forward, Silverstein said they'll look at developing the 45-acre lot.

"Then the focus will flip to the real estate side, continuing our conversations with the city and broader conversations about what the rest of the site looks like," Silverstein said.

That includes "what uses are consistent with our neighbors," Silverstein continued. "We want to see what the city wants to see, what the city needs and how all of that dovetails with all the various regulatory overlays on the property."

That issue has been a talking-point for the historic Derby Street neighborhood ever since Footprint landed its permits to break ground in 2015. Some of the city's most cherished history lives on Derby Street, including the nearby House of the Seven Gables, so many residents in the neighborhood have feared what 45 acres of development could mean for their quality of life.

Being said, all of that starts with planning the future of a repurposed commercial pier.

"We're getting our legs under us operationally to figure out... how are we going to undertake the tasks that are necessary for this organization to get to the next level?" Driscoll said. "There aren't very many commercial piers in the middle of a neighborhood, a historic neighborhood in particular, and that brings with it additional challenges we're going to need to better understand."

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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