Michael Cusick Answers Our Questions
Road Rebuilding Projects, Entrance Corridor Zoning, North River Canal Flooding & Polluted Runoff
Question 1 – The Boston Street rebuilding project is soon to be at the 25% design phase with Mass DOT, and the Highland Avenue re-design is in the preliminary phase. What are your priorities for the planning of these two Salem entrance corridors?
Boston St reconstruction should, and is planned to, follow the Complete Streets model. Widened sidewalks, protected bicycle lanes, two and only two well-marked traffic lanes with turn lanes at intersections, visible bus stops and pedestrian crossings, tree canopy restored. These measures would reduce vehicle speed, improve safety, and reduce accidents. Boston St now is a speedway with frequent frightening accidents. In my 20 years of living off Boston St can recall three accidents, in a single block, where vehicles veered off into homes, the latest being 83 Boston St this past winter, where a pickup plowed into the basement, regrettably taking out the owner’s wine collection.
The Main Street Corridor Project five years ago, just up the road in Peabody, shows that the model works. Conversion of a four-lane auto-dominated roadway to a two-lane pedestrian/bicyclist friendly roadway birthed a commercial and residential revitalization. New brew pubs, coffeehouses, a hotel, sidewalk cafes, seemingly open monthly where none such things were before. So who cares if cross traffic is slow – that’s the entire point. A people and business friendly environment any time over a vehicle friendly one.
The Highland Ave Corridor is likely averse to a Complete Streets conversion. The aesthetically displeasing and people unfriendly strip malls, big box stores, and fast food restaurants are sure to continue to reign supreme, at least for the next few decades. All that could be hoped for are reduction in speed limits, more well-marked pedestrian crossings, walkable sidewalks, and perhaps, just perhaps, marked (not protected) bicycle lanes. It’d be a start.
Question 2 – Ward 4 features a unique for Salem mixture of Business Highway (B2), Residential 1-Family (R1) and Residential 2-Family (R2) Zoning on both Boston Street and Highland Avenue. What should be done to fairly address the concerns of both the residents and the businesses?
The Boston Street Corridor should become a Business Neighborhood, also known as an Urban Neighborhood: pedestrian oriented and commercially viable neighborhood in line with the area’s historic and aesthetically pleasing heritage. For this to happen, zoning would have to change from Business Highway to Business Neighborhood. Such a change would have many pleasant aspects, among them parking lots to the rear or side whenever feasible, building facades close to the street, mixed use with dwelling units above commercial 1st floor spaces, and strong pedestrian connections to the street. As in Peabody, businesses would thrive, and residents would enjoy more nearby urban amenities.
Boston St once was an Urban Neighborhood, replete with shops, markets, pubs, cafes and more, so returning Boston St to its past (back to the future perhaps) is no pie in the eye scheme. There are tentative signs that it might be returning to an Urban Neighborhood, what with the recent opening of the King Bakery and promised opening of New England Gourmet Donuts where Roasted Peppers once held forth. A neighborhood pub and coffeehouse would only improve the streetscape.
Would that the Highland Ave Corridor also could become an Urban Neighborhood, but afraid that is not feasible. Unlike the Boston St corridor, the Highland corridor never had a past as an Urban Neighborhood. Unlike the Boston St corridor, the Highland corridor does not have a residential presence that would push for nearby urban amenities. Unlike the Boston St corridor, the Highland corridor does not have a storied architectural heritage. The basic ingredients needed to make a transition into an Urban Neighborhood are simply missing. Highland Ave has earned its Business Highway zoning designation and will retain it indefinitely.
Question 3 – The North River Canal is the largest source of fresh water to Salem Sound. The North River is listed on the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s list of impaired waters and suffers from severe flooding, polluted urban runoff, pathogens and visible environmental degradation. How should the City prioritize improvements to this vital waterway to mitigate both flooding and environmental issues?
Before getting to desired improvements of the North River a brief history on how far it has come, to dispel any rising sense of despair. Ever since Captain William Trask in 1636 built his grist mill at the large bend in the North River, near where Grove St today crosses the river, the North River flowed as a fetid sewer dumped full with industrial waste. During the heyday of the leather industry, mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, the multihued river was particularly fetid, so much so that the jest went the water ran red at the mouth of the river it must be cordovan leather day upstream.
Over the last few decades cleanup of the river has progressed so well that fish now spawn in the river and a great blue heron patrols the river banks feeding on said spawn.
But must not let this good news discourage any further striving for improvement. Salem Sound Coast Watch has taken the lead in cleaning up the river, what with annual clean up days (at one of which this candidate picked up river trash as a volunteer) and with plans in place to mitigate flooding. Those plans need to be funded and implemented with all due urgency. Developers of major projects along the river must ensure that plans are in place to combat flooding and minimize runoff. They mostly do so now, not so much out of a sense of beneficence but because they want to protect and preserve their massive investments. The worm in the apple is reconstruction of often-flooded Bridge St between Flint and North St, a goal mostly out of the hands of city officials because as a state highway (MA-107) any rebuilding is the responsibility of MassDOT. Accordingly, city officials and councilors should lean on the state, but 25 years after rebuilding plans were first filed, hope of implementation of said plans keep dwindling.