4 Franklin Street (the former HMA car wash) sits on a major entrance corridor to our historic downtown and inside the North River Canal Corridor (NRCC). The Planning Board is reviewing a proposal to build an ambulance depot on this site and as part of the review, the Design Review Board (DRB) provided a recommendation that didn’t meet the City’s standards as outlined in the Commercial Design Guidelines (2005) or the NRCC zoning ordinance.
What can you do?
If you believe Salem is an important historic coastal city with a need to respect and enhance our preserved fabric, and that developers should, at a minimum, be expected to meet the existing standards, then before the next Planning Board meeting tomorrow, Thursday, July 8th, let the Planning Board know (via email@example.com) that the DRB got this one wrong, and that we look to the Planning Board as the empowered municipal authority to ensure that the NRCC and other commercial design guidelines are met at 4 Franklin Street.
Both the North River Canal Corridor District and the Entrance Corridor Overlay District were implemented to preserve and enhance neighborhood character and to ensure that these areas are improved for the best interests of the city. City approval boards exist to administer community vision as established by documents voted on by the City Council. It is hugely disappointing for a member of the DRB to state that “we’ve put a lot of responsibility on the owner of this property to become the gateway to Salem” when, . from our perspective, Cataldo bought that responsibility when they purchased this entrance corridor plot that has been regulated by the NRCC and Entrance Corridor overlay for years. They should absolutely be held to the standards set for them by the guidelines without any question or allowances made.
The Cataldo garage proposal does not meet the spirit and intent of the NRCC in many ways (including incompatible use and lack of sidewalk activation) but in addition the DRB has now recommended the massing and materiality of a building that does not reference its surrounding historic Northfields neighborhood and rejects specifically encouraged materials for the building facade. In fact, unlike other recent North St. arrivals like Valvoline and the Salvation Army Chapel, which did build with complementary materials, Cataldo seems determined to disregard the NRCC design guidelines to build a structure more like an industrial storage shed. The DRB made their decision while discounting significant and very specific public comment opposing the design and materials that were proposed and requesting more attention be paid to color, architectural detailing, and shape of the roof.
What is wrong with the DRB decision?
irst and foremost, the Cataldo garage is Phase 1 of a proposed two-part development, where the second phase is a residential development along the North River. Phase 1 will set the visual and materials precedents for Phase 2 and this low standard sets a precedent for other new construction projects in close proximity including other projects on Franklin and Commercial Streets as well as the large project in early design on Bridge Street’s “Cresent Lot.” To start wrong is to end wrong. Secondly, it is giving a pass to a multi-million-dollar Massachusetts corporation with 800 employees by not requiring them to invest in the best and most compatible building design on a prominent gateway site. Part of a gateway where hundreds of thousands of visitors to our city begin to get their sense of Salem as an historic place. History means millions of tourist dollars to our city.
Cataldo’s design needs to be much better, and it can be with some specific and careful design adjustments. The development team did not begin this process without guidance. There are requirement in the NRCC Zoning as well as the City of Salem’s Commercial Design Guidelines which includes the following language:
Page 18: “In Salem’s Entrance Corridors…the unique architectural character of the district must come before corporate branding.”
Page 24: “New Buildings need not, nor should they, imitate the…past. It is… more interesting to match materials, proportions and scale while using modern simple materials…the use of similar compatible materials and matching cornice lines…can ensure that new structures contribute to the character of the district.”
Page 26: “Using materials not commonly found in the immediate surroundings will make the development stand out and appear jarring. Salem has a long tradition of wood and masonry buildings. At the same time, new materials can be incorporated into projects as secondary elements…”
This site is prominent and will be clearly seen and it needs to meet the longstanding guidelines of the NRCC and the basic recommendations of the City’s own Commercial Design Guidelines. Further, the community at large has clearly expressed a desire for higher quality design and materials at this important site; many individuals have expended time and effort to articulate these community values.
We invite you to share your thoughts with the Planning Board at or before the June 8 meeting by sending them to firstname.lastname@example.org or by being prepared to speak at the meeting, which begins at 6:30pm. If you have previously provided comment to the DRB, you may want to reference that as well. We find that a wide array of respectful citizen voices is an effective way to ask boards to reconsider and hope you will add your voice to this conversation.
This is the text of a letter submitted to the Planning Board in advance of their May 20, 2021 meeting and to the Design Review Board in advance of their May 26, 2021 meeting.
Dear Mr. Griset and Mr. Durand,
As we have been participating in this community review of the proposed project at 4 Franklin Street, we have been pleased to see the unified opinion the Planning Board expressed regarding building placement and the receptiveness with which the applicant responded to this request.
We have one other major concern and that is regarding the materials in this proposal. The North River Canal Corridor Zoning Ordinance in Section 126.96.36.199 highly discourages the following materials: precast concrete, pre-fabrication aluminum or metal panels. We ask the Boards to work with incoming neighborhood member Cataldo Ambulance to merge the desired look of their brand with the neighborhood’s established “brand” or, as it is described in the Zoning Ordinance, “historic neighborhood character.”
The materials that are encouraged in the ordinance are brick, stone or wood. These, or similar, materials could lend a warmth and connection to place that the building, as currently proposed, lacks. The highly discouraged materials should not be allowed.
There are numerous examples in the neighborhood that the architect did not identify when presenting to the Design Review Board. The Valvoline building and the Salvation Army Chapel (image attached), both designed prior to the NRCC district designation, underwent extensive design work so that the buildings could meet their function, which includes contributing to the public realm. The historic fire station building on North St. provides public safety and is a relevant neighborhood design precedent. Indeed, North Street has a wide mix of historic building uses and there are a variety of forms and materials that could beneficially influence the design of this building.
Because this proposal meets so few of the stated requirements of the NRCC plan, we ask the boards to insist that the building take stronger material cues from the immediate neighborhood and from downtown Salem, the backdrop of this site.
We appreciate the work these two boards do to elevate development in Salem and we appreciate the opportunity as members of the public to have our thoughts considered.
There has been a growing conversation on social media in reaction to images that were recently posted on Instagram of a preliminary design for a potential building at 38 Norman Street here in Salem.
Although this project has not yet appeared on any City board or commission agendas, the site is in the Downtown Renewal Area and will be reviewed by the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) and the Design Review Board (DRB). The Downtown Renewal Plan is the document that these boards will use to evaluate and approve any downtown development.
This is what a close reading of the Plan reveals:
First - the objectives of the Downtown Renewal Plan support utilizing vacant or under-utilized land and further defining the edges of the Downtown Renewal Area as it abuts other neighborhoods. Clearly, the current site used for parking is an under-utilization of this downtown location.
Second - the language of the objectives and design standards overwhelmingly indicate that infill development should prioritize architectural designs that are compatible with their surroundings and are sympathetic to, or enhancing of, the historic and architectural values on adjacent properties. It is apparent that this project, as posted on September 14, would not do that.
Here are a few highlights from the Design Standards for the Downtown Renewal Plan:
The other document that the Design Review Board commonly refers to and which covers a wider area than just the downtown (for example, it is used in entrance corridors throughout the city) is the Commercial Design Guidelines. These guidelines talk about how to diminish perceived height and they prioritize surrounding building heights as a primary guideline for new construction.
Adjacent to this site is a narrow way, Crombie Street, on which sit the last remaining small-scale residential houses in the downtown area. Crombie Street is a National Register of Historic Places listed neighborhood, a designation that recognizes that “as the only surviving downtown residential group from the early 19th-century, the houses on Crombie Street provide important information about the character of the city at that time.”
To the other side is a Georgian-period mansion that sits just across the street from the historic McIntire District. This residential neighborhood is an important draw for heritage tourism in our city. Though many of the houses are large, the neighborhood is remarkably dense, with a great deal of defining period detail.
Importantly, the Commercial Design Guidelines state that, “Successful commercial districts strive to retain and replace missing buildings with compatible replacements that maintain the continuity of (similar) elements. Buildings that fail to have these essential elements erode the cohesive quality of the street.” The effort to replace missing buildings should be a guiding factor for design on a site that was once home to residential buildings and is now a void between two neighborhoods. The unique opportunity to serve as a bridge between the historic residential neighborhoods is missed by the current concept for this site. The incredible disconnect between height and scale of this proposal and adjacent properties will further separate the two and have a highly detrimental effect on the houses directly adjacent the property.
By applying the design standards found in the Downtown Renewal Plan, we believe that this development team can achieve their project goals while also enhancing the downtown neighborhood in which it sits. Throughout downtown Salem, commercial density is achieved while still maintaining a small-city residential and retail feeling that draws pedestrians, both visitors and residents.
We have reached out to the development team to offer our thoughts and have encouraged them to approach the site’s neighbors for input. As this project moves forward, we will be a strong and active voice in the public process. We invite all concerned members of the community to engage in the public review process that will likely start with the Salem Redevelopment Authority. You can sign up for their meeting notices and agendas here. https://www.salem.com/subscribe
As part of our advocacy and education mission we are developing a Citizen’s Guide to the Downtown Renewal Plan. Look for that in early 2021.
 Downtown Renewal Plan, City of Salem and Salem Redevelopment Authority, 2011. Page 3-1.
 Ibid. Page 3-8 and 3-10
 Ibid. Page 3-11.
 National Register Listing, Area Survey. Crombie Street National Register of Historic Places. 1979. Downloaded from MACRIS on October 19, 2020. http://mhc-macris.net/index.htm
 City of Salem Commercial Design Guidelines, 2005. Page 12. https://www.salem.com/sites/g/files/vyhlif3756/f/uploads/sdg_all_pages_0.pdf
Since the initiation of the North River Canal planning process in 2000, Historic Salem, Inc. has participated in and supported the goals of the North River Canal Corridor (NRCC) Master Plan and zoning ordinance. All the neighborhoods that abut the NRCC are historic neighborhoods which will be affected by development in the Corridor. A key aspect of the NRCC Master Plan is the importance of neighborhood character as reflected by the customized goals for each section of the Corridor. Another key part of the NRCC zoning ordinance is the review oversight of the Design Review Board (DRB).
The DRB is a board that possesses specialized skills and experience to address urban design issues as they apply in many areas of our city. Their value has been proven in the long tradition of work with the Salem Redevelopment Authority. The Planning Board and City Council have also shown their recognition of the valuable role of the DRB, as evidenced by the recent change that adds DRB review to projects in the Urban Entrance Corridors. We support the work of the Design Review Board throughout the city and find that the iterative nature of their review improves each project that they evaluate.
Since the introduction of the NRCC Zoning District in 2003, as far as we know, every development approved by the Planning Board has received a positive recommendation from the DRB. With the recent approval by the Planning Board of a project (16-18-20R Franklin Street) that received a negative recommendation from the DRB there is now precedent to allow projects with a negative recommendation to move forward.
This dismissal of the DRB decision undermines the clear intent of the NRCC zoning ordinance. Historic Salem believes that any project, in any zoning district, that must seek a DRB recommendation should receive positive endorsement to qualify for final consideration by other boards.
Historic Salem supports action to clarify the DRB relationship with the Planning Board to insure that the intent of the NRCC Master Plan and Zoning Ordinance is honored, and to improve communication and collaboration among all city boards.
Follow us on Instagram!