Jeff Cohen Answers Our City-Wide Master Plan Question
Is The Legacy Master Plan Still Relevant?
The City of Salem City Wide Master Plan was written in 1979 under Mayor Jean Levesque. It was last updated in 1996 under Mayor Neil Harrington. Does this Master Plan, as written and updated remain relevant to the needs of the city in the east 21st Century?
Although the City Master Plan of 1979, updated 1996, was a thoughtful comprehensive plan at the time, 23 years doesn’t take into account how Salem has evolved since. With the expansion of the Peabody Essex Museum & NS Medical Center, Salem State College becoming the University, the climate changing and boom of our downtown economy, demands on City services, infrastructure and housing have accelerated in ways that couldn’t be anticipated. I will address some of what I believe should be explored in an updated plan.
The focus on the downtown economy should continue, but we should expand what is considered downtown to The Point Neighborhood as adjacent and dense and there are significant opportunities to increase mixed use development. However, with so much new development happening throughout the City, there must be focus on ensuring that small business development increases along the entrance corridors and includes the necessary infrastructure enhancements. This will lessen the traffic congestion and improve neighborhood quality.
The plan also focused on the development of the waterfront and we have a unique opportunity to affect what happens at the Footprint and Shetland Park properties. As Footprint has a schedule to retire the plant, we should work with the owners recommending open public space and commercial use, such as a renewable energy/battery storage facility that will make Salem part of the future innovation economy. As we negotiated that the plant would be able to accept power from sources such as off shore wind, it should be part of regional projects. Shetland Park has many small businesses, government agencies and non-profits and our hope should be that they are able to stay at the property. As the new owners consider their next steps, we should encourage incubator technologies and start ups. The property also is in an endangered area for coastal flooding, so the owners must take the necessary steps to make this resilient as well.
The City benefits from tourism, but there must be a better balance between it and that derived from our rich history. It’s important to make the historic fabric of Salem a priority and this can be accomplished by bringing the Salem history that the PEM moved to Rowley back to Salem and better recognizing those that contributed to our City throughout. We are a City comprised of many cultures and highlighting contributions will increase the tourism, but also enable all residents to know more about those we’re neighbors with.
The transportation component was somewhat limited to the Salem Beverly project (bridge) and we must continue to explore all the methods possible to alleviate traffic and parking issues, which are barriers to a healthy economy. A free intercity shuttle for residents (non-residents would pay a fee to finance), a 2nd commuter rail stop near SSU, scooters, bike shares, a regional transportation authority (working with adjacent communities) and improvements to sidewalks for accessibility will reflect the changing generational changes in vehicle use. We must also update our zoning so that parking emulates this and isn’t a barrier for development.
The composition of our community is also evolving rapidly. For example, the percentage of Hispanics in Salem was 6.7% in 1996 and about 20% now. As we attempt to improve our schools, we must devote more resources to educating a more diverse population and we must better communicate services to all communities.
Gentrification is much more of an issue today than was when the plan was revised and this will adversely affect the character of Salem’s neighborhoods. Though we cannot prevent it, we must develop thoughtful condo regulations and zoning policies so that the diversity by income levels doesn’t evaporate before we can affect the changes we need. Our rental stock is diminishing and we need a program to maintain, even increase it with affordable housing initiatives such as an improved ADU regulation, inclusionary zoning (on site and tiered) and tenants rights legislation.
The plan assumed affordable housing was not an issue, but it is perhaps that which is most immediate and urgent now. Diversity of incomes, a healthy rental market, density & parking considerations and new creative zoning must be integral in our modernizing our statutes.
We are already experiencing the affects of the climate crisis and Salem has many areas threatened by flooding, heat zones and carbon. Resiliency zoning, increased minimums for efficiency & sustainability for developments and retrofits and an expanded tree canopy are imperative to ensure Salem is viable for future generations. Gas and water infrastructure are now health hazards that must also be addressed. We need micro grids and escape routes and emergency procedures (already being worked on by police, fire, IT, etc.) so we are safe during emergencies.