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
Submitted to Salem Redevelopment Authority on September 24, 2020
Dear Ms. Napolitano, Chair:
Having watched the September 15 and 17 SRA interviews of the three development teams responding to the Historic Courthouse Request for Proposals, HSI has the following comments to add to our previously submitted letter of September 3, 2020.
We understand that the SRA is deciding which team would be the best partner in working with the City to reuse the historic Courthouses – the prime goal of the request for proposals – as well as to improve the public realm and to build a new residential building on the crescent lot. Because it is clear that each team brings relevant experience and qualified consultants, the following comments are not meant to be prejudicial.
To ensure successful reuse of the historic Courthouses, the experience and financial stability of Winn Companies is advantageous, but we are concerned about the long-term ownership of the Superior Courthouse building. On page 69 of the proposal package, Park Towers (formerly Nine Zero Washington) is defined as being the owner of the Courthouse commercial space, albeit through a condominium legal structure. This is notable because we believe the lead developer in the team should especially have a long-term vested interest in the successful operation of the Superior Courthouse building.
If the plan is to have the ownership of the Superior Courthouse building be different than the ownership of the residential units, then the qualifications and enforceable obligations of that second ownership entity are as important as those of the proposal leader. The SRA should be clear about what will happen to leasing, management, tenant buildout of interior spaces, and long-term operating guarantees once Winn completes their short-term tax credit guarantees. We are concerned that this ownership division limits advantages of Winn as the lead developer with respect to the long-term operation of the Superior Courthouse building, which is a key SRA and community concern.
HSI supports courthouse uses that provide public access, like the concept of the Museum of Justice which seems particularly suited to this setting, but believes that in order to be successful a museum start up requires both substantial financial backing and programming in order to be viable and to attract sufficient visitor traffic to sustain it.
This team has significant local connections that would benefit the partnership and the Salem State public presence in downtown Salem in hosting lectures, presentations, conferences, and meetings, would be well suited to the grand courtroom spaces. We are also impressed by the innovative design elements in this proposal, which we agree could be functional and beneficial to the community. We reiterate, however, that there are many unknowns that could impact the feasibility of those specific site proposals, and if they did not come to fruition, the SRA should be clear about what that means for the plans overall and establish the expectation that similar innovation should be implemented in their place.
North River Partnership
This enthusiastic team emphasizes their willingness to work as partners with the City in redeveloping these historic buildings and adjacent spaces. A big part of that partnership will be designing the overall site and the new building on the crescent lot. Recent experience in Salem with the project’s lead developer leads us to wonder whether the architectural team, Gund Associates, will, in fact, continue with the project from beginning to end? If the design team were to change, as it did at 65 Washington Street, how would that impact their overall plan and how would the SRA regulate and reassess such a significant change?
Once a development team is selected, Historic Salem looks forward to continuing our advocacy for preservation and reuse of the historic Courthouses. We will also continue to advocate for a new building that complements the existing commercial scale and fabric of Salem’s historic downtown and for publicly accessible features that create pedestrian connections through the site that add vitality to adjacent neighborhoods and our downtown.
As members of the community and as stakeholders in the preservation of Salem’s historic fabric, we thank the SRA for its efforts on this significant project and for its consideration of our comments.
Signed by Caroline Watson-Felt, HSI President
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
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.
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