This letter was submitted to the SRA in advance of their April 14, 2021 meeting. You can review the submitted meeting material, including other public comments on the SRA website via this link.
April 13, 2021
Ms. Grace Napolitano, Chair
Salem Redevelopment Authority
City of Salem
90 Washington Street
Salem, MA 01970
Dear Ms. Napolitano,
Historic Salem writes to provide comment on the proposal for 38 Norman Street on the SRA agenda for April 14, 2021.
We have been in private and public conversation with the development team and appreciate their responsiveness to our feedback, specifically on the topic of design and materials.
As we shared with the development team and now with the SRA, we have significant concerns about how a building of this height will impact Crombie Street, as well as how it will fit in the context of nearby historic neighborhoods.
38 Norman sits at the juncture of Crombie, Summer, and Chestnut Streets, each of which features iconic historical Salem architecture. Directly adjacent to this site is Crombie Street, a narrow way on which are located the last remaining small-scale residential houses in the downtown area. Crombie Street is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, 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.”
On the other side of this project is a Georgian-period mansion that contributes to the historic streetscape of Summer Street. Crombie and Summer Streets were once part of the larger historic residential district that included both Chestnut Street and Gedney Street, but a series of destructive urban renewal demolitions on the proposed site and nearby blocks (where the Holyoke Insurance building now stands), created a rift separating these streets from one another.
This project is a rare opportunity to re-connect neighborhoods that were torn apart in the 20th century and therefore the height and massing should be inspired not by the nearby urban renewal-era infills, but by the remaining historic residential buildings. Because many of these buildings, such as the Salem Inn and 2-4 Chestnut Street are quite large, their influence can allow the developer to meet their goals within the scale and massing of the surrounding neighborhood.
At five stories, the proposed building would tower over adjacent Crombie Street, including its direct neighbor, the Wendt House. This house at 18 Crombie Street was saved from demolition several years ago through the joint efforts of Historic Salem and the City of Salem. We strongly oppose allowing this height. An important SRA goal is to ensure that the designs of new downtown structures fit with the context of Salem’s remaining irreplaceable and highly respected historic architecture (Plan goals 2, 3 and 4).
In order to reduce the height of the building and increase ameliorative step-backs on the ends, we also ask the developer to consider whether the building could be fully residential. Retail at this location is not clearly necessary to meet Plan goals and without easily available on-street parking it may be difficult for tenants to succeed. On the other hand, residential on the ground floor would strengthen the residential link to the past and reinforce the connection between Summer and Crombie Streets. If retail were removed then, rather than seeking PUD approval, the applicant could seek a variance on the parking requirement that the SRA, and perhaps other community members, could support.
The overall massing and height of the building, the way it steps back at the ends and the uses in the building need to be addressed before the project is sent to the Design Review Board. At that point HSI will have further comments on design specifics, such as architectural treatment at the ground floor and execution of design elements.
We appreciate the efforts of the SRA to review these projects according to the Downtown Renewal Plan and in the context of our historic urban core. We thank the developer for their outreach to us and other community members. We look forward to seeing how this property can become a cohesive part of this historic neighborhood.
Caroline Watson-Felt, HSI Board President
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