SALEM — After more than a year of work, dozens of hours of hearings and one failed ordinance proposal, the City Council finally approved a special permit process Thursday night that will allow vacant municipal and religious buildings to be redeveloped into housing.

The approval, which came on a 9-2 vote, would now allow for the redevelopment of the old senior center at 5 Broad St., as well as enable the North Shore Community Development Coalition to pursue multifamily housing proposals for the vacant church buildings at St. James Parish, 150 Federal St., and Immaculate Conception, 17 Hawthorne Blvd.

Ordinance changes require two approvals to take effect. The vote Thursday night was the necessary final approval.

“This has been a long haul,” said City Council President Steve Dibble, “15 months, 16 months, whatever number you want to put on it.”

The first attempt was an overlay targeting the entire city that would have affected specific buildings. It was controversial and failed in May on a 7-4 vote, one vote shy of the supermajority required for zoning changes. An attempt to reconsider the vote a couple of weeks later sank 6-5.

In response, planners introduced a special permit process that doesn’t require new zoning. It allows developers to apply for a permit directly and it would be available in residential zoning districts and industrial sites.

Councilor-at-large Arthur Sargent was one of the two dissenting votes on the measure. He argued zoning shouldn’t be changed “to accomplish something we can do without changing zoning.”

The concern, for Sargent, stems from the fact that the two North Shore CDC projects could be completed without the special permit through a “friendly 40B” process that city officials less prefer.

“Some of the effects (of zoning changes) are felt right away, some 20 years from now, some even longer,” Sargent said. “My view of it is we can do it as we’ve done so many other things — by other means.”

Sargent’s dissenting vote was joined by Ward 4 Councilor Tim Flynn.

Councilor-at-large Tom Furey, among the nine councilors supporting the measure, called the ordinance “a proposal to give a second chance (to vacant properties) and new life in Salem.”

“Housing is a human crisis,” Furey said, “and we need this as one of the many tools to have a positive impact.”

Domingo Dominguez, another at-large councilor, initially made a motion to lower the proposed threshold for affordable housing units within such projects from 80% of area median income to 60%, but then later withdrew that motion and eventually voted in favor of the proposed permit process.

“Latino families can’t afford to live in Salem,” Dominguez said. “To me, this is heartbreaking, because when you see a family that can’t live where they want to live, it’s very, very, very, very dramatic and means they have to start over in another place.”

With the special permit process in place, it remains unclear what the timetables are for the projects that can make immediate use of it. 

On Friday morning, city planning director Tom Daniel said the department is “very happy that the ordinance was adopted.”

“Now we have the ability to move forward with 5 Broad St.,” Daniel said, “and the North Shore CDC has a preferred permitting path for them as well, with an opportunity for more community review for those projects.” 

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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