SALEM — The four companies competing to redevelop the vacant Superior Court and County Commissioner buildings downtown are pitching everything from housing, retail and restaurants to a Parker Brothers children's museum that would honor Salem as the birthplace of the Monopoly board game.
The Salem Redevelopment Authority, which now owns the buildings, also requested prospective developers to consider in their plans possibly relocating the Southern Essex Registry of Deeds to the court properties.
It's something Secretary of State William Galvin, whose office oversees the registry, has been trying to do for several years and which has become a public feud with Register of Deeds John O'Brien, who sharply opposes the move. O'Brien prefers instead to stay where the registry is located now at Shetland Park, instead of returning to Federal Street.
Three of the concept ideas include relocating the registry to the buildings. The fourth — the North River Partnership for Community Reinvestment, which wants to create a regional children's museum themed around the Parker Brothers historical presence in Salem — frowns upon the move.
"Our proposal does not include developing 15,000 square feet in the Superior Court building for use by the Secretary of the Commonwealth," the proposal reads, "due to both cost and the inappropriateness of that use for the specific building."
The Redevelopment Authority had recently called for development teams to present conceptual ideas for redeveloping the two historic properties. Eight groups responded and the SRA voted in mid-August to invite four of them to submit formal proposals with detailed plans for the properties.
Those proposals are expected to come in this fall; the SRA is expected to select one to move forward in early 2020.
In addition to the courthouse buildings, there is a crescent-shaped parking lot included with the properties — it sits between Bridge Street and the commuter rail station at the end of Washington Street — and all four of the companies invited to move forward by the SRA had pitched some type of residential development for the site as a way to offset the steep costs of redeveloping and preserving the historic courthouse buildings. That effort has been projected to cost $50 million on its own.
The County Commissioner building, erected in 1841, is the older of the two buildings. The Superior Court was built alongside it in 1862. Both are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They have been vacant since 2012, when the J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center opened down the street.
Barnat Development, a Boston-based company led by local developer Sarah Barnat, wants to create "18-hour activity around the station," according to its plan. This will be accomplished "by reopening the courthouse to the public with a mix of retail, restaurant, governmental, hotel and office uses, while adding up to 165 new residential units at the crescent lot."
Barnat's concept would bring the Registry of Deeds back to the Superior Court building as an "anchor" use to generate foot traffic while "additional portions of the historic buildings can be transformed into offices for the legal and financial services sectors."
Details beyond that are limited.
"The program for the historic buildings will be more concretely determined after discussions with community stakeholders, study of the existing structure and market feasibility outreach," the company wrote. "Barnat Development has developed an extensive network of local advisors to generate interest and ideas in the areas of hospitality, restaurants, art galleries and interpretive historic exhibitions."
The plan doesn't mention further specifics for the crescent lot. Barnat recently completed a high-end apartment and retail building on Rantoul Street in Beverly, next to the Beverly Depot station.
J.H.R. Development, a Marblehead company led by J. Hilary Rockett Jr., wants to "create a development that moves the 'sense of arrival' into Salem, from its current location in the center of downtown, to Salem Station. This would positively impact travelers disembarking from the commuter rail as well as visitors who are driving into our Central Business District."
The company begins its vision with the crescent lot, where it says it would build a plaza and mid-rise building that would contain 20 to 22 housing units per floor, 12,000 square feet of commercial space and two levels of parking. J.H.R. also looks to put housing into the County Commissioner building, believing that 11 to 15 residential units would fit there.
For the Superior Court building, "our preliminary plan has been to pursue a public or institutional use for the Superior Court Building," the developer wrote. "Ideas include institutions of higher education, a justice museum or tourist attraction, the Essex County Registry of Deeds, or a similar public use."
The company also included a letter of support from Salem State University President John Keenan "expressing his interest in working with JHR on the reuse of the Superior Court Building." Even further, "we have also met with those who would like to create The Museum of Justice of New England at this site."
North River Partnership
The North River Partnership for Community Reinvestment, which is a joint venture between Diamond Sinacori — the company currently redeveloping the old district court — and North Shore Community Development Coalition — a Salem-based affordable housing developer — has a lot packed into its conceptual plans for the historic properties.
The partnership wrote that it's considering three uses for the Superior Court building, "the most visible being a regional children's museum that is themed around the Parker Brothers historical presence in Salem, and specifically this area of the city. We hope to engage Hasbro in this concept."
Further, the partners envision that "all or a portion of the building be utilized as a truly public space," along the lines of the District Hall property in Boston's Seaport District as well as the North Shore CDC's community center, Espacio, on Congress Street.
The partners would also seek to create a law museum out of the building's existing law library, "sponsored by local interests that have approached us about participation."
The County Commissioners building, meanwhile, would be developed by the North Shore CDC and turned into 10 units of affordable housing, while the crescent lot would house a 130,000-square-foot residential building with 130 units across seven floors. There would also be a two-story, retail/commercial wing that occupies the narrow space between Bridge Street and the garage, leading to the garage entry and train station.
Winn Companies, a major developer with projects in 22 states including Pequot Highlands in Salem and the Tannery Apartments in Peabody, has pitched three options for preserving the courtrooms and other critical rooms in the courthouse buildings while creating more than 15,000 square feet of usable space for each.
They're also accounting for the Registry of Deeds moving to the Superior Court, with each of the three options proposing the registry's relocation to different parts of the building while preserving unused parts for uses that aren't explained in the proposal.
The company also looks to put a six-story building on the crescent lot, which would include one story of parking at ground level and five for housing.
"We project that this type of construction would yield about 108 residential units," the submission reads, "with a mix of studio, one, and two-bedroom units geared towards a healthy mix of working-class families and young professionals."
For this project, Winn would partner with Ken Carpi and Nine Zero, a company associated with the recently finished City Hall Annex project at 90 Washington St.