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The Universal Steel/F.W. Webb Proposal: Many Questions, Not So Many Answers

The Universal Steel/F.W. Webb Proposal: Many Questions, Not So Many Answers

By Josiah Fisk

On the surface, it seems simple enough. A plumbing supply business wants to move to larger quarters. The city owns the lot next door. The city wants to sell, the business wants to buy and build. The city gets money (purchase money plus higher taxes). The business gets a larger, more modern facility, and adds more jobs. What’s not to like?

As it turns out, quite a lot. The major issues:

• Environmental risks. This site holds some of the worst toxins known, including lead and PCBs (which accumulate in the body) as well as many other types. The clean-up has left the site capped and safe to use as a parking lot. Any new construction means digging up more toxins.

• Poor economics. The City would get $1 million for the property, but after paying off a loan associated with the most recent environmental work and factoring in the tax benefits to Webb, it would only be able to keep a fraction of that. Webb’s new building will raise its tax bill, but it still won’t be a lot of money – the City estimates $100,000 a year. The handful of houses within spitting distance of the property add more to the city coffers than that. And a parking lot right near downtown is almost a guaranteed annuity for any city whose economy is as robust as Salem’s.

• Lower property values. Not only would the neighbors have to endure the intrusion of a large industrial-type building that blocks their views and makes noise, but their properties, according to an experienced municipal appraiser, will likely decline 15% in value.

• Major change in zoning. The proposed change from residential to automotive/commercial (necessary to accommodate the project) would open the door to future developments on this property that are even more inappropriate. By right, Webb or any future owner could open a used car lot or a fast-food restaurant, or build an even larger commercial building.

• Regular flooding. Flooding is already a regular occurrence on this part of Bridge Street. The frequency and severity will only increase, and likely very soon. Raising the building would keep it dry, but that won’t solve the access problems during times when the water is too deep for customers to come and go.

• Inappropriate site and scale. Webb is a $1+ billion company, with more than 25 facilities in Massachusetts alone. Virtually all of these are in industrial parks or commercial areas. The Universal site abuts, on two sides, a historic neighborhood that is nationally known and one of Salem’s tourist draws. Across the street (and the rarely used rail tracks) is a park that was reclaimed, with public money, from an industrial wasteland. On the fourth side is Webb’s existing building, an historic 19C brick mill building that is a prime candidate for renovation into brick-and-beam offices or condos. Downtown and the T station are just steps away. It’s a fair question as to whether this is an appropriate site for a large warehouse/wholesale/retail/distribution facility that is oriented to vehicular traffic and offers no real connection to the neighborhood or to pedestrians or bicyclists.

• Loss of a pedestrian way. Most of Beckford Way, which has existed since the 1600s and is used daily, would be discontinued. It’s a smaller issue than some others, but given the existence of those others, it’s unclear why this, too, should be sacrificed.

It was only a little over a decade ago that the City, with the North River Canal Corridor Master Plan, made a commitment to revitalize the North River corridor as a residential, office, and retail-focused area. That transformation has been happening, so it’s a surprise to see the Mayor now promoting a project that in size, function, and disconnection to its surroundings feels like a return to Bridge Street’s past instead of a step towards Salem’s future.

There is one thing everyone agrees on, and it’s not a small point. Webb is a great company and the City should work hard to keep it in Salem. But not at this location. In outgrowing its building (which is already vastly larger than anything near it), Webb has also outgrown the neighborhood.

For the City, the economics of Webb relocating to another site within Salem are strong — enough that the City could offer them even bigger financial incentives and still come out ahead. Webb has been in this location for decades, and their preferences are not to be taken lightly. But neither are the concerns of neighbors, who also have been here a long time, who pay more in taxes than Webb, and who have invested a lot in their homes on the faith that the City would not push something on them like this project.

Somewhere out there is a solution everyone can live with. As long as the Mayor continues to aggressively promote this proposal instead of engaging in real dialogue with neighbors, that solution will remain elusive. That’s unfortunate, because this is the kind of situation where everyone loses, even if one party wins.

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