I have been watching and listening to the public hearings over the proposed redevelopment of the former Universal Steel and Trading Corporation site on Bridge Street with great interest and concern. The site is located adjacent to a distinctive late nineteenth-century factory building owned by the F.W. Webb Company, a large distributor of plumbing supplies, which seeks to abandon this same building and build a new (far less distinctive) showroom and sales facility next door. Objections to the proposed building could be based on its rendering alone–it’s the typical glass and faux-brick generic building that we’re seeing everywhere and anywhere–but there are several other key factors which make this project troubling and controversial. The site is also located adjacent to the northern boundaries of the McIntire Historic District, in close proximity to the well-preserved colonial and Federal houses of Federal and River Streets. The owners of these houses do not want a large commercial building (the actual elevation of the proposed structure is a matter of debate) casting a shadow over their streets, and the intensity of their opposition has been fueled by the fact that they believed that the long planning process resulting in the creation of the “North River Canal Corridor” a decade ago ensured that more creative uses for this area would be pursued. The second factor is the contamination of the site and the costs and consequences of cleaning it up. The property was transferred to the city of Salem after Universal Steel ceased operations, and the city requested aid from both the EPA and the Massachusetts DEP to conduct a partial clean-up, which involved the removal of over 4,000 tons of contaminated soil. After this process, the city paved over the site to create a temporary parking lot while the new MBTA garage was being built. Once that project was completed the city sought a more profitable use for this parcel–and F.W. Webb put forward the only proposal. The new construction will require a more comprehensive clean-up, and the costs and potential health threats of such an invasive process are a matter of concern to everybody, but especially those in the adjacent neighborhood. A third major factor is the transfer of an “ancient way” from public ownership and use to Webb: Beckford Way, in existence from the seventeenth century, which will be transformed from public pedestrian path to private truck access and loading dock. Opponents of the Webb proposal ask (quite logically I think): if the Company is going to abandon its present building altogether, why doesn’t it relocate to a section of Salem that is dedicated exclusively to commercial uses and leave our neighborhood–and our way–intact?
Aerial view of the site of the proposed new F.W. Webb building, marked by the X; the initial clean-up in 2012, with River Street houses in the background, EPA; these same houses last month (before our recent snow) looking over the temporary parking lot and reflected in the North River; Beckford Way.
You can read a more detailed summary of the project here, and also peruse project documents. The narrative presents a decidedly pro perspective, but you can easily discern the debate in the FAQ section. We’re in the midst of the process: already the City Council has held two public hearings on the project and there are more to come. As I intimated above, I’m very sympathetic to the concerns of my McIntire District neighbors (and believe the present Webb building would make fabulous housing given its proximity to the train station) but am also striving to widen–or elevate–my perspective, inspired by both a phrase I heard repeatedly at the first public meeting—“spot zoning”—as well as one of the more thoughtful observations of the night, expressed by an earnest River Street resident: Salem’s fabulous history and outstanding architecture is constantly at risk from unsound planning. These words resonated with me immediately as I feel that way all the time: our city’s piecemeal planning has led to undistinguished architecture, unlimited accommodations, and unceasing divisiveness, and it will continue to do so until we can all look at a bigger picture. Salem is hardly the only historic city facing myriad redevelopment challenges and opportunities at the moment: why can’t have a more comprehensive and proactive plan rather just reacting, reacting, reacting? Look at the example of our neighboring seaport to the north, Portsmouth, NH, which is pursuing “character-based zoning” (which must surely be the antithesis of “spot zoning”) by plotting out its development goals and proposals in “textured” 3D models that are available to the public on a web portal, so that everyone can see what proposed buildings will look like, in context and as part of a whole. We don’t even seem to know the actual height of the proposed Webb building on Bridge Street, much less how it will look in relation to its neighboring buildings (but I’m thinking, not good).