Saturday, May 26, 2007

Salem's Future in a Second Energy Crisis: Recommendations

[This post is part of the World Without Oil game. Events in the game may not be factual, but my opinions are real.]

In the fall of 2006, RCG, a large developer based in Somerville, had plans for the downtown. They planned to develop 180 condos on three six-story buildings with a 500 car underground garage.

In public hearings, the plans were excoriated, with public response almost unanimously negative.

Last December, RCG cancelled the project.

[UPDATE: RCG came back and agreed to develop a smaller project to begin in April '08. Whether it was a negotiating ploy or an acknowledgement of changed circumstances is unknown.]

That was probably the best thing to happen to Salem.

In the mid-90's to the present, Salem and many other North Shore communities had condo fever (or luxury-apartment fever). Developers promised us the moon and the stars if we would let their projects be built. The people they hoped to have live here, at $400,000 per mortgage, were said to be dynamic, up and coming and added to the "character" of the city. Money really was the "report card of life" as they say.

In Salem, history was not a fact but an attribute to be sold. Too often, history represented nothing more than property values to the developers and to those that moved in.

Worse yet, Salem was becoming a bedroom community, slowly losing the diverse economy it once had. Those that moved in, and those living in "historic" districts came to believe Salem was a fantastic historical theme park, a perpetual Currier & Ives print where the horses never poop, where you can live in 18th century houses and still park your SUV's on the sidewalk on Federal St.

In a city, you are never far away from the infrastructure that you need in order to live. Roads, sewers, water mains, power plants, substations, rail lines, gas stations, garages, streets and sidewalks are all necessities today, just as stables, carts, wagons, rail lines, trolleys, markets, docks and sheds were in historic Salem. People sold on the historic fantasy become very resentful of this fact, as we have seen when the Federal Street association killed the Salem Depot project.

Salem was not and is not a bedroom community or a historic theme park. It was and still is the crossroads of the North Shore. If you understand that, Salem is a great city. It was and is a living city.

As we go through the Second Energy Crisis, I have recommendations to insure that Salem remains vital:

1) We must diversify our development. We cannot depend on an endless stream of affluent yuppies to inhabit luxury condos. Because there are no amenities downtown for them, they will have to drive--remember that proposed 500-car garage? This was already questionable even before the gas crunch, let alone now.

We let our commercial tax base disappear, as former factories like Parker Brothers became luxury apartments. This must not continue. We need more commercial properties such as offices, light industrial and the like. It's a crime that the old Sylvania property on Boston Street has never been developed.

Even more importantly, we need more retail downtown oriented to residents. Losing our old downtown as we did is still a blow all these years later.

2) Salem must have improved public transit. Public transit is not "welfare transit" but a vital link for people within the city and outside it. The Blue Line must be extended to Lynn at a minimum. The decaying Salem Depot must be renovated and serious consideration given to electrifying the Rockport/Newburyport Line.

Blue Line service to Salem should be seriously studied. If it's not possible for technical reasons, the MBTA should also consider converting Route 455--the busiest T route in Salem, serving the Point, Salem State College and South Salem--into a trolleybus. Or at least making it a frequent (15 minute) feeder serving the new Blue Line at Central Square, Lynn.

3) We must consider life without the powerplant. This is a recommendation for which I don't have a good answer. Dominion's Salem Harbor Station is a polluter, but it is also our largest source of tax revenue. It's also our backstop against power blackouts on the North Shore.

Nevertheless, we face Global Warming as one of our many challenges. Some scientists, such as Dr. Hansen (well known from NASA) have recommended phasing out coal-fired power plants, such as Salem's. Our plant is old and it's not certain whether it could have the necessary technology (carbon sequestration) fitted to continue operation.

Salem will have to imagine scenarios without the power plant and deal with them accordingly.

4) Put a moratorium on new parking garages and major road projects. Salem's Last Road really is Salem's last road. Since writing this, I've learned that the private garage planned for 10 Federal St. (next door to me as it turns out) is now on hold. It might turn out that we should build a garage at the Salem Depot as was originally planned, but I believe it'll be the last one for the foreseeable future.

Lastly, I want to remind elected officials, neighborhood associations and citizens of one point again: Salem is a Living City. Our purpose is to make Salem a prosperous city for everyone who lives, works and visits in it. Salem doesn't exist to boost your property values or give you a historic fantasy, and it isn't an empty vessel for developers.

With good leadership and citizens who recognize the kind of community they live in, Salem can get through the Second Energy Crisis much better than many other suburban communities.

Let's get started.

UPDATE: Perhaps Portland, Oregon could be a model for us?


synonym for light said...

where will the retail goods for the downtown shops come from? how will they be transported to the shops?

what about food. is there space for a community garden or room for individuals to have their own gardens?

what clean / renewable resources are untapped that can keep the city vital and help it be sustainable?

I like this game. :-)

David Moisan said...

I'll answer the garden question first. Remember that we have three parking garages (2 public, 1 private). We simply use the top deck in each. That covers downtown a little bit.

Salem is a crossroads city; there will always be traffic. I didn't say it would be by cars, though. Surrounding communities such as Peabody and Danvers have more land available for agriculture.

We will sell things to each other even if they're used and the parking garages become flea markets just like the MIT Flea Market that Boston ham radio operators know.

Why am I obsessed about downtown stores? I just miss our downtown very much. We had an ideal living arrangement and we threw it away for happy motoring.

If we fall back to 1692 living standards, we're dead anyway.

Take care.

David Moisan said...

Re: Gardens: I forgot to mention a big garden we have: Salem Common. Despite what people on Washington Square believe, the Common was not established for yuppie homeowners to preserve their property values, but was originally a pasture and grazing area.

Plenty of space for a garden there!