Is it better than a Junkyard?

Read this paragraph: ___________ is changing rapidly. Some of the changes have been good: the burgeoning art scene, the museum-building boom, the explosion in restaurants and the whole Napa-of-craft-beer thing, not to mention legalized marijuana. But there have also been some bad changes: the terrible traffic, the litter and pet waste everywhere, the sky-high rents and the swelling ranks of the homeless, not to mention legalized marijuana. It could be describing Salem at the moment! But it’s not: fill Denver in that blank space, a city that is dealing with far more growing pains than Salem, given its much bigger size. Denver’s building boom has given rise to a very boisterous public discussion about the merits and demerits of all the new structures appearing on its horizon, and this particular quote is from an article by art historian and writer Michael Paglia titled “Denver is Drowning in a Sea of Awful Architecture”. This just one of a sea of articles and posts expressing disdain for Denver’s “fugly” architecture: also see here, here, and here; there are also a good measure of constructive articles seeking a more aesthetic way forward for the Mile High City. Why am I writing about Denver? Well, when I did a Google image search of a planned housing development on Salem’s North River hoping for some sort of architectural context, the closest match I could find was one of Denver’s identified ugliest buildings. Here we are: one of five buildings consisting of 48 condominiums with underground parking proposed by the Salem development firm Juniper Point Investment Co. LLC for 16-18 Franklin Street right on the North River, a very visible “gateway” property.

Ghastly development

Ghastly 2

To be honest, I am unsure of the status of this proposed design: it was submitted to the Salem Planning Board at its last meeting on February 15 (after many continuances apparently) and those minutes are not yet available. And to be fair, the site of this proposed development is a junkyard: the long-lived Ferris Junkyard. So anything could be better, right? Well, NO. Too often in Salem I hear: it’s better than what was there before as a rationale for begrudging approval. This large waterfront property, which is adjacent to a park and another prominent property slated for redevelopment, deserves serious consideration of design and context. This is an amazing historic opportunity, as this site has been industrial-zoned for well over a century, but sits on the edge of a beautiful residential neighborhood and right across from Salem’s downtown.

Junkyard Salem News

Ken Yuszkus/ Salem News Staff Photo

Junkyard collage

Junkyard DC

North River 1912The site, and the North River coastline near the bridge, 1851, 1890s and 1912, when the first City Plans Commission report asserted that the river “needed to be redeemed”.

Given the long industrial usage of the property, it might be hard to find context, but can’t there be some feature—architectural or material—to indicate that these buildings will be located in Salem, Massachusetts and not Florida or California or anywhere else where flat roofs rule? Tanneries, coal sheds and the famous Locke Regulator Company (above): any inspiration there? Slightly to the north, North Salem was a botanical paradise—can’t this land be reclaimed as such? We need pear trees in honor of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle Robert Manning, a famous pomologist whose orchard was in the midst of Northfields, and whose residence remains on Dearborn Street. Perhaps some inspiration can be found in the work of Salem-born and -raised architect Philip Horton Smith (1890-1960), who really distinguished himself as a preservation architect in his Salem commissions but also designed a lot of new buildings, including the Hawthorne Hotel, the Salem Post Office, and the neighborhood of brick duplexes further along Franklin Street for the Salem Rebuilding Trust after the Great Fire of 1914. Smith was a true Colonial Revival architect, and I’m certainly not advocating for brick veneers on every new building in Salem, but just a bit more attention to place, as shaped by both the past and the present. I am certain that the neighbors have been waiting for something special to be situated in this particular place for quite some time; indeed we all have.

Salem Rebuilding Trust North Salem Philip Horton Smith’s  Franklin Street “low rent brick cottages”, 1915.

16 responses to “Is it better than a Junkyard?

  • Anne Sterling

    Thank you for summarizing the history of a charming neighborhood slumbering up here in North Salem. I had just mentioned to Historic Salem Inc that we hope to do more to celebrate the little brick houses built on Franklin St as a workers utopia after the Great Salem Fire. They did manage to turn it into a Utopia for kids with a neighborhood association that planned outings, parades, carnivals, picnics and games all summer long on Furlong Park (then called Franklin Park).

  • Peg Harrington

    Thank you, Donna for speaking out (thoughtfully) again about the sad state of development in Salem today. When i saw the preliminary plans for the KofC site on the Common, I got nauseous, and the North Salem parcel is just… depressing. On the days I commute by train to Boston, similar buildings are blooming like mushrooms along the corridor from Revere through to North Station – ugly, generic buildings that look like cheaply painted boxes. Ugh.

    • daseger

      I know, Peg: I wish we had a livelier discourse about all of these projects in Salem! I just don’t know how to make that happen: all the boards are full of well-meaning people, the meetings are public, there are several fb groups which discuss development, but still we get these generic designs that add nothing to our landscape–indeed, they take away.

  • greenheron628

    Ugh. In total agreement. I moved to Salem in 1991, pre-courthouse, pre-Village Tavern, pre-most of the imported Somervillian RCG Brickface Architecture™. I know Somervillian RCG Brickface Architecture™ well because I lived there 20 years before moving here. Eye malaise resulting from over exposure to Somervillian RCG Brickface Architecture™ is a major reason why I moved here. RCG, no dopes are they, have found Salem too, and are spreading the brickface virus with aggressive enthusiasm.

    As you point out though, not just us. Even Paris City of Lights is brickfaced with awful contemporary architecture, standing without shame next to gorgeous ravishing examples of period architecture. The Paris banlieues are even worse.

    I’ve no answers, but appreciate the venting opp 🙂

    P.S. worth mentioning: brickface and other such cheap materials are ugly enough when fresh, but as they age, crumbling flaking discolored decrepitude entropy ensues, and not the Wabi-sabi kind. Sensitive eye types like us are in for a rough ride.

  • az1407t

    What a hideous design! What ever happened to aesthetics? This style might be fine for Florida, but it just does nothing here. It looks downright cheap and tacky but I bet the units will cost a small fortune. When you look at the various periods of architecture represented in Salem that add so much charm and character, and then see more developments like this coming into the city, it’s downright depressing.

  • Mary Jane Kelley

    Smith’s brick cottages would have been charming and more than likely, still standing.
    Whatever type of housing/design is built there now, the units that face the river will have a disgusting view at low tide.
    I am truly sorry for them.

  • Chris

    Looks like the draft minutes from Feb 15th are now online

  • gallowshillsite

    Developers and planning board try to address many countervailing pressures, so something gets lost. The lot is toxic and needs to be cleaned at great $$$, so the size of the project must be increased to compensate the $$$; at same time NIMBY neighbors object to size so size gets decreased. Salem absolutely needs affordable housing, so size must increase to fit them in; NIMBY neighbors despise affordable housing so size gets decreased, and people of Salem lose. Could go on all day like this, but you get the idea.
    Most ridiculous constraint of all is the 2 parking spaces per unit, absurd b/c the project is next to the T station. Say that again…NEXT TO THE T STATION! Planning Board has cut this down to an ‘ideal’ 1.5 spaces per unit, still absurdly high. 0.5 spaces is the need. Is nobody aware of Transit Oriented Development (which neighboring Beverly has endorsed, but which is still a dirty word in Salem). For the danger pass by North River Apts at 28 Goodhue; 90 parking spaces, 2/3 never filled, toxic runoff into the North River, an acre of asphalt blocks rainfall absorption and increases flooding, etc etc.
    So given conflicting constraints short cuts must be taken, and one shortcut is the design. Which looks like what happened here. The building resembles nothing so much as a Kardashian swimsuit. So the accolades were surprising:
    Planning Board member: “this is a major step forward and it is obvious that a lot of thought went into this. Renderings are much more dynamic and exciting, for a much more successful project”
    Neighbor: “it sets positive precedent … Provides a sense of place, people will be proud to live there.”
    It appears that the 2nd submission got closer to the principles of neo-urbanism. Also called ‘post-modernism’, but I prefer the term ‘contemporary aestheticism’ 1st encountered in a Universal Hub post (

    The principles of contemporary aestheticism would be the subject of a year-long college course, but basics are:
    1) a building should reflect the neighborhood and local environment; this seems to be what your whole post was lamenting. In the UniversalHub post: “a creative response to its neighboring site context and urban conditions.” According to the Planning Board minutes, this principle is satisfied.
    2) a building should be diverse in uses: residential, commercial, 1st floor retail. According to the Planning Board minutes, this principle is satisfied.
    3) a building should engage with the urban street, placed forward to the sidewalk, or in this case, the river, with appealing sight lines and should adhere to Complete Streets, comfortable for cars AND bikes AND elderly AND children. According to the Planning Board minutes, this principle is satisfied.
    4) parking should be minimal, and if present hidden behind or under the building, out of sight, out of mind. Opposite of the suburban ‘strip mall’ aesthetic, with parking front and foremost. Damn there are too many strip mall aesthetics around. According to the Planning Board minutes, this principle is satisfied.

    Overall, this project fulfills new urbanism. Except for the Kardashian swimsuit design. And it is not big enough. But I’m willing to accept these faults if all else is satisfactory.

  • Judy French

    The clean-up costs of the Ferris lot contamination are estimated to be $500-$700 hundred thousand. There isn’t as much contamination as might be expected. At a, perhaps, low estimate of $300k average per unit for 48 condos, that’s $14,400,000 gross profit. At 31 units allowed per the NRCC plan, the profit would be $9,300,000.
    I love modern architecture and design. I also love the juxtaposition of old and new like that of the John Hancock Tower and Trinity Church.
    I do not think latest design proposal for the Ferris lot would enhance North Fields.
    According to the NRCC (North River Canal Corridor) plan, development there should be “in character with the surrounding context” “Enhance the public realm in keeping with our unique neighborhood character.” and it certainly doesn’t, unless it’s design is supposed to be in character with the K & C Auto Body building and other current commercial uses and not the residential character of the rest of Franklin St and North Fields neighborhood. (K & C and the other commercial businesses there are located/grandfathered in R2 zoning, by the way.) It even clashes with the Bell Apartments at Salem Station.
    The 6 story riverfront buildings would obliterate the views of downtown from Walter St and some nearby streets. 6 stories is taller than the depot garage, it’s taller than the 4 story yellow Bell apartments. How is this proposal an appropriate transition to North Fields in terms of design or color in addition to size? For reference, that Burnham crane is about 50 feet tall. A 6 story building would be at least ten feet taller, but I heard they also plan to build up the property below it by a few feet.
    The Ferris build will set a precedent for what will be approved for other parcels currently for sale and those nearby. What’s going to replace Ideal Transmission?
    The entire length of Foster St has ~41 residential units. Add in 48 units on Franklin, 29 at 9 South Mason St by the same developer, 61 units at the old District Court house, not counting future development. That grassy lot for sale on Franklin St is big. The recent Traffic meeting at the police station brought up issues of parking and traffic in North Fields. Speeding, competition for on street parking on surrounding streets, illegal left turns onto North st, traffic that has to funnel through the residential streets, etc.
    The next Planning Board meeting is tomorrow night, Thursday March 1st at 7 pm.

  • George O'Brine

    The design is not the best. if this were the only development it might be tolerable. It is obvious by the for sale signs that if this to much to large residential unit development is allowed to proceed others like it will follow. That will leave this neighborhood with lots of problems not yet mentioned by anyone.

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