Submitted to the Salem Redevelopment Authority on September 3, 2020
Dear Ms. Napolitano, Chair:
For nearly two decades Historic Salem, Inc. has been advocating for decision-makers to facilitate the successful reuse of these historic court buildings. We look forward to the selection of a development team to make this reuse possible. As the Salem Redevelopment Authority reviews the three proposals, we offer the following comments and questions.
We thank the SRA, city staff, state agencies and the developers for recognizing the value of these historic court buildings and targeting development plans that allow for their reuse. With this shared understanding and appreciation, the reuse plans can meet the goals of the Preservation Restriction, the SRA guidelines, the City Council’s goals in transferring the Crescent Lot property, and the historic preservation vision that our community has repeatedly embraced.
The Massachusetts Historical Commission will rigorously review the final development plans for compliance with the Preservation Restriction and we understand that these proposals include only conceptual drawings. We note that one proposal for Superior Court that include residential uses may indicate a reduction in the width of the existing corridors and this may not meet the intent of the Preservation Restriction. Likewise, the proposal to replace all the historic windows and store the original materials does not meet the intent of the Preservation Restriction, the care taken in mothballing the buildings, or recognize the value of having the historic windows at all.
The uses planned for the historic spaces will be key to this project’s success. It has long been HSI’s position that institutional uses in the Superior Courtrooms and Law Library that parallel their historic use as gathering and judicial spaces will allow for more public access as well as retention of their volumes of space. We are pleased to see this conclusion drawn by the development teams. Each use proposed for the Superior Court building appears to allow tenant fit out that preserves the historic fabric. Therefore, it is important that the SRA clearly understands the real-life feasibility of each proposed use/tenant. We request that each development team be asked what other options exist if the proposed anchor tenant were unable to proceed, and in that case how the developer will ensure public access to the Courtroom and Law Library spaces in the future.
In regard to using the former County Commissioners building for housing, we believe this can be a good fit for this space. We support others in the community asking that this project achieve ambitious levels of affordability. With the recognition that the public has limited access to financial data in order to judge feasibility we ask the SRA to represent the community’s desire for affordable housing as you review the project price proposals and proformas to ensure that there is a significant benefit to the community as a result of this conveyance of city-owned property.
All the proposals appear to improve pedestrians’ urban experience in this prominent city location by reducing the crossing distance at the intersection and by creating gathering space at the County Commissioners’ green and on the plaza space on the Crescent Lot. We feel the JHR proposal demonstrates the highest amount of creativity and an understanding of Salem’s urban conditions at this location, as demonstrated by the seamless integration of existing amenities with new connections. In all cases we will be looking for the selected team to enable connections between existing pedestrian access points (North Salem, Salem’s downtown and the Bridge Street Neck neighborhood) and enhanced ties to nearby neighborhood amenities such as Leslie’s Retreat and Furlong Parks. This is another way that the community will benefit from this transfer of public land. We also look forward to integration of plans between the development of these sites, the updated Harbor Plan, and the bike and open space planning process throughout the downtown.
We are supportive of using railroad rights-of-way but note that these have consistently been obstacles in other planning processes and would like to understand what work the development teams have done to address those issues. We would also like to better understand access to the North River and how that will work with the significant tidal levels of the river and the need to cross the often-busy access road to the MBTA parking garage to reach the water.
New Construction in Historic Downtown Salem
In considering the proposed designs for the Crescent Lot, we have the following comments:
The design should be led by the strong presence of 19th and early 20th century commercial and mixed-use buildings of Salem’s downtown. Just as the row of court buildings on Federal Street reminds us of Salem’s central role in Essex County law through the centuries, the historic commercial buildings along Washington St. remind us of Salem’s prominence as a commercial center in Essex County throughout its history. A new building that will define the entrance to Salem for thousands of people should be related to this commercial heritage.
The final design must be rooted in a sense of place and meeting the conditions of the City Council in transferring the Crescent Lot, in this case that the resulting project be, “compatible with uses in terms of scale, use, design, and historic character.” This will be achieved through a study of scale, massing and detailing of materials. While the Ruane Judicial Center and the MBTA garage are prominent contemporary buildings, we find their size and massing out of scale with the rest of Salem’s downtown and they should not be used as precedents for this development. As community advocates, we will support either traditional-style designs or complementary contemporary designs. A ready and successful example is the addition to the Probate and Family Court building that references the adjacent historic buildings in size and massing and marries tradition and modernity through the window patterns and materials.
The building elevations as measured from Bridge Street should not exceed four stories in keeping with longstanding downtown scale and, in particular, we think that the proposal for a 15-story building is significantly incompatible not only visually but according to zoning, wetlands regulations, or public safety infrastructure including fire department capabilities.
The mass of the building should be considered from downtown as well as approaching the site from North Salem on North Street. We request that each development team illustrate how the building sits on the foreground of Salem’s downtown by having a view shown from the intersection of North and Commercial Street, as was provided by Winn Development.
As stated in Section 3 – Design Standards of the the Downtown Renewal Plan, “Large scale developments or buildings shall be reduced in overall impact by providing variation in building massing,” with the standards presenting specific ways this can be achieved. Window patterns should be rhythmic, the street level should be pedestrian friendly at all sidewalks, materials traditional or modern should be finely detailed.
We look forward to the upcoming interviews of each development team and will provide further comment after their completion. Thank you again for your rigorous review of these projects and for consideration of our comments.
Signed by Caroline Watson-Felt, President
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