With new construction projects proposed throughout the historic downtown and our ongoing efforts to expand historic protections to all Salem neighborhoods, the work we’re doing at HSI often outpaces our communications to the community. 2021 has been “all hands on deck” to collaborate with our volunteers, neighborhood representatives, developers, and City officials. Of the numerous projects underway simultaneously, there is one active project which demonstrates the imperative need for two initiatives we have been working on this year: “A Citizens’ Guide to the Downtown Renewal Plan” and an expanded Demolition Delay Ordinance. We’ll be talking more about these efforts in the coming weeks but today, let’s talk about the James Barr House at 25 Lynde Street.
The home of a privateer, the James Barr House at 25 Lynde Street, is a very rare example of a pre-revolutionary building surviving in the downtown. As part of this project, the roof has been completely replaced as has much of the original historic material. The Barr House is one of many historic buildings that falls under preservation protections, not by a Local Historic District, but by the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA).
The SRA has many-fold responsibilities - ultimately they review and approve all design and development changes in the downtown urban core. In cases where this includes new construction, the Plan says that they are to be guided by the design guidelines found in the Downtown Renewal Plan, and in the case of historic buildings the Plan says that they are to be guided by the Secretary of the Interior Standards for Historic Preservation, the same standards applied in the Local Historic Districts. Essentially the SRA acts in the place of the Salem Historical Commission for buildings within its boundaries and has similar powers to restrict demolitions and inappropriate construction. The question citizens need to ask is, is our SRA meeting the preservation standards and expectations set in the Downtown Renewal Plan?
Historic Salem has created the “Citizen’s Guide for the Downtown Renewal Plan” with the hope that this summary document will make it easier for community members to advocate for the historic buildings that are within the downtown urban area. HSI's ability to effect change is purely through advocacy and relationships, just like Salem’s citizens. Community engagement and advocacy is necessary to effect SRA to advocate for more stringent reviews and approvals for the historic buildings in their jurisdiction. A recently created abutter notification requirement will help let neighbors know about project reviews. As part of our advocacy work, we rely on the concerned public to let us know if you learn of any similar projects.
In addition, the significant demolition of the Barr House is an example of why we need to strengthen the CIty’s current Demolition Delay Ordinance. Right now, a Demolition Delay is only triggered at 100% and so developers are able to retain a very small portion of the building and claim the work to be a renovation. We believe, in the case of the Barr House, that an expanded demolition delay ordinance which redefines the threshold of demolition to removal of over 50% of the exterior of a building, and an extension of the wait period from 6 months to 12+ months, would have allowed for closer oversight of the changes and design to this historic property. (We have a more comprehensive outline of what we’d like to see in an updated ordinance HERE in a downloadable file).
Among other benefits, strengthening these two specific aspects of the Ordinance would allow for intervention by the Salem Historical Commission before an historic building has lost so much of its original material and appearance as to essentially have been demolished. We are working with City Councillors and City offices on this effort, and hope to see a revised Demolition Ordinance filed with the City Council this month.
Ultimately, the efforts to protect and save the historic infrastructure of Salem are shared by all of us who live and work in Salem and believe in the preservation of this city’s historic fabric. We welcome the enthusiastic support from the citizens of Salem and hope that more voices will be added to the conversation in effective and productive ways by use of the “Citizen’s Guide to the Downtown Renewal Plan” and as the Council considers the Demolition Delay Ordinance.
To read more about the history of the Barr House, we suggest you read Streets of Salem’s recent post. We are so grateful to have local historians and preservation enthusiasts like Donna Segar for bringing attention to these important places.
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