Column: Our responsibility to Salem, past and present | Opinion

To the editor: Salem is at a critical juncture.

Large, out-of-context building designs are beginning to overwhelm our defining historic architecture. How can we ensure that the historic character and integrity of Salem is maintained and enhanced when the designs of new development do not reflect or respect our historic community?

We have been here before. In a 1960s urban renewal plan to build a four-lane highway through our downtown, we very nearly lost the essence of Salem as an icon of historic early-American architecture. Ultimately, we lost 45 historical buildings to urban renewal – a significant portion of our downtown demolished to make way for what, at the time, was perceived as new and better.

It was in response to community protest, and with the impetus of the writing of New York Times architectural critic and preservation advocate Ada Louise Huxtable, that community leaders took a firm stand and pivoted from those destructive renewal forces. As a direct result, the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA), created in 1962 and revised under Mayor Sam Zoll, was tasked to ensure preservation in our downtown.

What was saved of our historic built environment from those efforts is now revered by residents and visitors alike as a key component to our core identity – endlessly photographed and shared across the world. But the face of downtown Salem is rapidly changing, and it is due in large part to new construction that is missing key details and design elements that should be used to inspire new design. Are the current design trends of downtown development, which lack key design context, a new form of urban renewal? Salem’s longstanding design requirements were implemented to ensure that new construction stands the test of time, complements our historic architecture, and bolsters engagement with downtown businesses. Are we seeing these standards consistently met?

In many ways, the impacts we are facing today are as important as those of 1960s urban renewal: building designs that offer little or no regard for or compatibility with Salem’s historical architecture. The difference is that today city boards have important and powerful tools in place to ensure that new development is contributive to our highly respected heritage architecture.

An updated Downtown Renewal Plan was adopted in 2011, with months of public input including from Historic Salem, Inc., and requiring adoption by the City Council and approval of the Commonwealth. This plan empowers the SRA, advised by the Design Review Board, with the responsibility to ensure the application of specific design guidelines through “preservation and enhancement of historic and architectural values and … the construction of new buildings and facilities compatible with the preservation and enhancement of such values.”

Adjacent to the downtown, the North River Canal Corridor zoning provides similar guidance and is overseen by the Planning Board, with the Design Review Board in an advisory role. This ordinance was also the result of a years-long public process and City Council vote and outlines specific design guidelines for the development of previously industrial parcels along the North River.

The question is, why are these tools not being used to the fullest extent possible?

We recognize and sincerely appreciate the many hours of volunteer time that members of City boards contribute and applaud successful review efforts such as the Halstead apartments on Mason and Flint Streets and the recent collaborative progress being made on the design at 38 Norman Street. However, several recent actions are concerning. For instance, City boards have used restyled commercial sheds and warehouses as guiding precedents for their approval of a new building design on North Street at the entrance to the downtown that will in no way complement, let alone elevate, the historic architecture valued in Salem. Throughout the city, ubiquitous boxes are being built with little relationship to the scale, detail, and materials found in our historic downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.

We are deeply concerned that in some cases oversight boards seem to have lost sight of their very clear responsibility to preserve and complement our historic architecture. Some members seem to discount the specific guidelines in City design guides, zoning, and planning regulations related to scale and materials. Sometimes, development teams pick and choose from suggestions made by the boards when in fact the boards are empowered to restrict or deny designs that don’t thoughtfully consider the context. In addition to this, there have been instances when community engagement in this public process has been discounted or dismissed. When dozens of public comments are overlooked and designs that do not even reflect the specific feedback given by boards are approved, the community is justifiably confused and frustrated.

This is not intended to say that new development is unwelcome, that developers are not entitled to a return on their investment, or that contemporary buildings should be replicas of historic buildings (a position that Historic Salem does not advocate). Still, we as a community are stewards of extraordinary historical assets that we rightly value. Civic review processes need to assert that thoughtful development design is key to maintaining the character of this significant historical city.

At this point in history, residents and visitors alike cannot be faulted for looking around, seeing the design, scale, and materials of new downtown buildings, and asking, “What is going on?” A pattern of new construction, unconnected to its context, that does not meet our own standards, let alone elevate the historic architecture and development patterns in the city, abdicates our collective responsibility to Salem of the past and Salem in the future. Historic Salem, Inc., as is outlined in our mission, will continue to advocate that new construction meet a higher standard. We invite citizens to join us in voicing concerns directly to elected officials and in public review meetings.

Mary Wilbert Director Historic Salem Inc. Board

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