Tag Archives: Peabody city council

Council set to sign off on a billboard for Bourbon Street?

4 Apr

 

blank-billboardBy Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

If you live on Bourbon Street, and found the giant billboard around the corner and next to the Subway on Lowell Street offensive, get ready to be even more annoyed closer to your front door.

CBS Outdoor will go before the Peabody City Council on April 29th to seek a special permit to erect a giant, electronic billboard at 8 Bourbon Street. The billboard madness continues.

If you live in that neighborhood, call your ward councilor, Joel Saslaw, and tell him to stop voting to approve these eyesores. Mr. Saslaw, after all, has already approved THREE of these new signs in the ward since taking office in January.

Your taxes are going up again: Merry Christmas, Peabody homeowners

13 Dec

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

taxesThe line is becoming cliché. Each year for the past 12 years, Peabody homeowners have seen it there in print the morning after each annual tax classification hearing before the Peabody City Council:

“Our residents still pay among the lowest annual tax bills in Essex County.”

Quick … someone cue Mary Poppins, since my message today to Mayor Ted Bettencourt and the city councilors is this: The sugar’s starting to become a little bitter when it comes to helping the tax medicine go down.

Last night, the city council agreed to yet another increase on homeowners. This one was pretty similar to the last one, and they tell us the average residential tax bill will increase by “just” $94. But let’s be honest: Most of us will end up paying more.

What that means is, since 2001 annual tax bills have risen by more than 30%.

What’s most-disturbing about the latest residential tax increase is that it’s hard to justify why we need any increase at all right now. We hear how we need to pay for a lot of expensive things, including a much-needed new middle school, and the disastrous decision to help fund a Taj Mahal-like new regional vocational school in Danvers. But don’t be fooled by that: As a city, we have $13 million in free cash right now, some of which will be earmarked to help offset the cost of those projects. This latest increase will not be used to fund major projects.

This latest tax increase is coming your way because, to borrow the words of Ronald Reagan, “we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.”

And it’s only going to get worse once we start chipping in at least $3 million annually so fewer than 160 of the more than 6,000 Peabody students can attend the new, ostentatious regional vocational school.

Starting next year, we’ll be not only funding a city budget and a Peabody school budget, but also a regional vocational budget, which will continue to increase each year. Clearly, it would have been a lot less expensive (and more Peabody kids would have benefited) had we revamped and funded our own voke program. We also would have retained control, rather than participating in what is quickly becoming an out-of-control hack-of-rama. That large sucking sound you hear is coming from Danvers, and it’s called MEGAVOKE! Can’t blame Bettencourt for this one, though, since he did vote against joining the voke district when he was a city councilor.

But I digress …

City spending increased $5.4M in 2013, but none of that increase was spent on major projects, such as the middle school or flood mitigation. A lot of it went to salaries, and new city jobs. In these times of financial insecurity, shouldn’t we be thinking austerity instead?

Clearly, there are things we need to pay for, and clearly this mayor inherited a lot of things within the city’s infrastructure that need to be fixed. But at this point, we also don’t see a plan for finding more revenue without putting an onerous burden on the backs of Peabody’s middle class taxpayers.

Where’s the plan to expand our commercial tax base?

Anyhow, here are all of the gory details in today’s Peabody Patch. The bottom-line is this: Your taxes are increasing again. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Billboards gone wild: Time to push pause, decide how many we’ll allow in Peabody

12 Dec

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

billboardThe end-of-the-year grab for riches is on, and tonight the Peabody City Council will be charged with either approving or denying another one of those unsightly electronic billboards for Route 1.

I say “grab for riches,” since someone who knows tells me that – once everyone takes their little cut — the total annual windfall for each one of these roadside eyesores could be more than $500,000.

These mammoth signs – which are “blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ our mind” – mean big bucks for Route 1 property owners and developers, the sign companies themselves, the city when it comes to permitting fees, and who knows who else will have their palms “greased.”

Instead of worrying about the threat of court challenges, the city council should tonight be voting based only on the impact these gigantic billboards will have on the quality of life of residents, driver safety, and the aesthetics of our community.

The vultures are so aggressive on this one that tonight the city council will hear testimony on two separate special permits for what would essentially be bumping billboards right next door to each other. One hearing is for a billboard at 47 Newbury at a small piece of property being developed in front of the Springhill Suites hotel. The other one is less than a bag of cash throw away at 55 Newbury in front of the Sonic Restaurant. Since state regulations dictate that the two billboards would be too close to each other, the city council can’t legally approve both.

The only responsible thing for the city council to do tonight would be to vote to approve neither until we can finally come up with some rules, and a civic vision on how many giant signs we’ll allow in our berg. Otherwise, Route 1 will end up looking like the Las Vegas strip.

By the way, this isn’t about trying to ban billboards, but it is about having some sort of control on how many we’ll allow and where. Another digital billboard is currently being installed at 71 Newbury St. behind Santarpio’s and the council did approve a digital billboard last week for 200 Jubilee Dr. (behind the Extended Stay Hotel. It’s already getting out of control.

The proposal for the billboard at 47 Newbury is being presented by World Realty Trust, which has partnered with another recently familiar developer. Total Outdoor Corp, currently in court with Peabody over the notorious Lowell Street billboard would construct the sign at 47 Newbury.

The city gets $25K for the permit on each of these signs, but should everything be for sale here without first understanding what the impact will have on our landscape?

It’s time to push pause here for a moment and decide how many of these we’ll allow, and where. Otherwise, we’ll continue on this path of haphazard community development, which over the long run is going to have a major and negative impact on resident quality of life.

Time to finally get serious about the vision for downtown revitalization

10 Dec

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

SquareSo far, we’ve seen baby steps and a piece meal approach to the revitalization of downtown Peabody. But we remain without a master plan for development, and without true visionaries to lead when it comes to getting us to a place where Peabody Square is no longer a ghost town at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night.

The problem we face in moving this forward was again on full display this past week when a developer came before the city council with a plan to jam 10 apartments into an old office building at 98 Main Street. During the debate, there was talk about a lack of parking, which is a major concern overall as we try to bring people back to the square. But there was also talk about what the vision should be for all future downtown development.

Many councilors argued against creating more apartments (these ones with future Section 8 housing potential), and for the need to think in terms of mixed-use development (e.g., residential on the top floors, commercial space on the bottom). Thankfully, the bid for a special permit at 98 Main went down to defeat with a 5-5 vote.

The issue at 98 Main is simply one symptom of a much larger problem.

We have no overall strategic plan/vision for development, but even if we did … we have no one to lead it. Community Development’s push and praise for the developer’s plan at 98 Main certainly shows that no one there has the skills, experience, or juice to lead the mammoth undertaking of bringing economic life back to the downtown.

Although I believe and support Mayor Ted Bettencourt when he tells us that revitalization of downtown continues to be a focal point of his legacy, I also think the Mayor needs to do what many of us have been urging since he was first sworn in almost two years ago:

He needs to enlist more skilled movers and shakers to help us with this. We need an experienced redevelopment “czar” with unprecedented power to get things done, including overseeing a comprehensive, step-by-step vision. But first, we need that plan, which right now is beyond the current competencies of those who lead our Community Development efforts.

It’s time to look at what other communities have done here, and see which models we can adopt.

But we’re not getting there by allowing developers to jam 10 tiny apartments into a space that might be better for retail space, and the types of businesses that make Peabody Square a destination rather than a pass through.

Those who think that bringing more people to live downtown is a key to our future success here are wrong and misguided. We already have thousands of people living within a half-mile radius of Peabody Square, and what has that gotten us? More barber shops, nail salons, and liquor stores.

Meanwhile, Salem is becoming the restaurant capital of the North Shore, and a destination for people looking for a night out or a day of boutique shopping. By now, we should all be a little tired of the claim that Salem can do this and we can’t because Salem has the built in advantages such as the waterfront. Most of the new shops and restaurants in Salem are down along Washington Street, which isn’t on the water.

Salem has been able to revitalize its downtown because, thanks to its civic leaders, it came up with a comprehensive vision designed to encourage the right kind of businesses downtown, and Mayor Kim Driscoll is using her power to ensure that it gets done right.

Mayor Bettencourt has the opportunity to now do the same.

Mr. Mayor, I support you, but it’s time to bring in some more talent when it comes to your Community Development department.  Let’s find out who those redevelopment visionaries are, and let’s hire them to help us with something that would become your major legacy piece as mayor.

Update: Stonewood owner asks that hearing on entertainment license be recessed

12 Nov

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Questions abound as EOP learns that Stonewood Tavern owner Sal Palumbo will ask that a hearing on amending his entertainment license be recessed on Thursday night when the issue  is due to come before Peabody’s City Council.

For various reasons, applicants sometimes decide  last-minute not to have their issue heard. Sometimes that reason is that they learn ahead of time that they won’t have the votes necessary to gain enough support for their issue.

In this case, the city council must still vote whether to recess the hearing and table the issue for now. Stonewood was attempting to expand its entertainment license to allow full scale bands in a recently added on nightclub area. Back in July 2011, when attorney David Ankeles, on behalf of Palumbo, brought the plans for the restaurant to the city council to get approval for a special permit to operate, the only real talk of “entertainment” was an occasional small jazz band within the confines of a 95-seat restaurant.

Since opening, Stonewood had been a positive addition to this South Peabody neighborhood as Palumbo’s property helped revitalize a previously abandoned lot on Lynnfield Street. But over the past several months, and following a large expansion, the Stonewood has been featuring full-scale bands in its new nightclub, which has drawn major concerns from neighbors who were led to believe that it would only be an upscale bistro.

According to a source, more than 20 neighbors had planned to be in attendance at the hearing on Thursday to offer opposition to a nightclub that is already operating without approval of the city council’s special permit process.

The question now is what becomes of the nightclub that’s already open? One possibility is that the building inspector’s office might be forced to issue a cease and desist order, essentially shutting down the nightclub portion of Stonewood until it can properly come before the city council.

Stay tuned. We’ll have more details here as they  occur.

In a related story, two sources tell EOP that Palumbo is also looking into purchasing the nearby parcel at 143 Lynnfield Street from developer Bob Denisco. Part of Denisco’s plans for the site, which once housed an old tannery, were to rent to the Yellow Jackets Gymnastics organization. We have no details at this time as to what Palumbo’s plans would be for that property.

Stonewalling on Stonewood? Come on, guys, do it right

11 Nov

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher 

stonewood

Opening day at Stonewood Tavern

Her fears alleviated by attorney David Ankeles, the neighbor, Mrs. Trainor, seemed satisfied afterward that the nice little restaurant going in across the street from her home would actually be a good thing for the neighborhood.

Following the presentation before the Peabody City Council back in July of 2011, she felt that maybe there was nothing to fear. This wouldn’t be a situation where “they get a permit and then all of a sudden they change all of the rules on you,” she was quoted in the notes at that special permit hearing.

No, not at all, attorney Ankeles and petitioner Sal Palumbo would insist. This was going to be a nice, little bistro, with 95 seats for diners, and room for another 15 to stand and wait for the next available tables on really busy nights. As for entertainment, maybe a cool little three-piece jazz band to provide a little background music while you dined on citrus marinated shrimp or panko encrusted chicken.

There was definitely nothing over-bearing or sinister in the plans for what would become the Stonewood Tavern on Lynnfield Street. It was redevelopment of a dingy property. It was the type of development Peabody needs and wants very much as we try to get more commercial tax dollars, and stabilize tax rates on residents.

Well, we wonder how Mrs. Trainor and her South Peabody neighbors feel now.  That nice little, quiet bistro is now morphing into a noisy — and potentially disruptive — nightclub and hangout.

Ankeles and Palumbo will be back before the city council on Thursday to “amend” their entertainment license. They want to be able to have full-size bands in their new nightclub on that location. Rock? Reggae? Hip hop? A Three Dog Night Tribute band? In fact, these types of acts have already been playing there for months following a large expansion to the building. Maybe a couple of mediocre reviews about the food on Yelp made them look for an alternate revenue stream?

Clearly, they’re already not living up to the terms of what was originally agreed to in their special permit, which means the city council should do the right thing here by the neighborhood. Tell Mr. Palumbo that his nightclub needs to close its doors for now, and tell Mr. Ankeles to bring his client back for a proper special permit hearing, where the neighbors can weigh in, and where the rights of the residents can be protected.

Who knows? Maybe the neighbors like eating firecracker chicken pasta while listening to some Danny Hutton lookalike sing “Joy to the World.” But come on guys, do it right. Either it passes muster with the neighbors, or you go back to serving spicy sausage mussels without a side of hip hop or rock ‘n roll.

Re-development in Peabody should always be connected to responsibility

25 Sep

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

It was a good meeting last night at the West Branch Library. A night during which residents were presented research by a consultant on how we can revitalize Peabody’s downtown, and then asked their opinions on what should go in currently developable properties.

But there was also a moment near the end the meeting that summed up a major challenge we face as we go through the process of not only revitalizing parts of our community, but also reinvigorating our economic engine.

When the presentation was over, and all of the brainstorming done, Community Development Office official Blair Haney made a comment that spoke to something that’s unseen by many, but gotten us into past messes when it comes to development. Essentially, what Mr. Haney told the audience was that — in order to move forward — we need the full cooperation of the Peabody City Council and the residents when it comes to granting developers special permits.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I don’t think Mr. Haney was talking about granting special permits to build everything and anything developers want. After all, haven’t we recently seen the ugly side of blind cooperation when it comes to many developers in Peabody?

But it should cause us to pause, think, and ensure that we don’t get fooled again. This is indeed a cautionary tale.

Wasn’t it unchallenged “cooperation” that got us that ugly condo complex on Walnut Street, and isn’t it unchallenged “cooperation” that is causing the residents of the Winona Street neighborhood near Route 1 major headaches? I could go on and on about developers maximizing profits by building cheap, ugly projects,  grossly violating the terms special permits, and not caring about residents’ property rights.

But let’s spare you of  those gory details, and say that I don’t think there are many residents who don’t agree that we need an economic rebirth in Peabody. After all, we have a lot to pay for these days, and bringing more responsible development to the city will help us pay for capital improvements. At the same time, it would stabilize the residential tax rate. More businesses mean a lot more commercial tax revenue, which in turn means that residents aren’t taxed to death. As a result, we’d find a sane way to pay for a much-need new middle school, and flood mitigation, and all of the other improvements necessary for our civic infrastructure.

Economic development would be a great thing for Peabody, but until we get smart about it and get the right kind of development, a request for our full cooperation with developers sends chills up the spines of residents, who have had their quality of life trampled on far too often.

As a city councilor, I would most-definitely be pro-business and pro-economic development. But the rights of residents still need to come first, and those developers with a track record of violating their special permits can’t be given more chances to mess this all up again. It can no longer be a case of everything goes in Peabody, not in our downtown, and not out on Route 1.

What we need is responsible and well-planned out community re-development, and for Peabody to partner only with reputable developers to get this all done. If it’s  not the right thing to do for a neighborhood, city councilors should never fear  saying “no.”

That’s what those residents who attended that excellent meeting last night want, and that’s what they and our city deserves.

Council expected to side with Mayor on removing Civil Service as criteria for picking police, fire chiefs

27 Mar

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt

Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt

The Peabody City Council’s Legal Affairs Committee did the right thing last night in voting to advance to a vote of the full City Council Mayor Ted Bettencourt’s request to remove the police and fire chief’s jobs from the jurisdiction of Civil Service.

Councilor At-Large Jim Liacos said it best last night when he argued that the Mayor should have the ability to “pick his own team” without being hamstrung by Civil Service scores. Removing the barrier allows Peabody to find the best candidate for filling those executive positions, starting with the selection of a new police chief when Chief Robert Champagne retires on June 1.

There is also the issue of a Mayor being able to fire a department head based on performance.  Right now, unless there is some malfeasance, that’s not allowed under the Civil Service system.

Although Civil Service test scores need to remain an effective way of avoiding political patronage when it comes to hiring rank-and-file firefighters and police officers, a Mayor should have the right to pick his/her own department heads and executive team, regardless of test scores. I wrote about this earlier in the Eye, if you’d like to read more.

“We all want the best candidate, the most qualified person, for this critically important position and I believe removing the chief position, for both police and fire, from Civil Service gives us the best chance of finding the right person,” Bettencourt said.

Just three members of the Legal Affairs Committee were present last night, with Councilors Liacos and Bob Driscoll supporting the Mayor’s request. Councilor At-Large Anne Manning-Martin wasn’t supportive of the Mayor’s request.

The matter will now go before the full council on Thursday, where it’s expected to pass. The vote would serve as a home rule petition that the state legislature would then have to approve and have signed by the Governor.

You can read the full story here in the Peabody Patch.

Please let me know where you stand by leaving a comment.

Learning what the job of being a member of Peabody’s City Councilor is all about

13 Feb

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Peabody's St. Adelaide Roman Catholic Church

Peabody’s St. Adelaide Roman Catholic Church

In this quest of running for the open Ward 5 Councilor seat on Peabody’s City Council, I’m learning that sometimes it’s not only about campaigning.  Sometimes, it’s about being a student. It’s about sitting back, watching, listening, and learning what it truly means to be a public servant.

That was certainly the case last night when I attended a special meeting at Wiggin Auditorium at Peabody City Hall. The meeting was held because people from a neighborhood community had a major concern about a pedestrian safety issue.  In this case, the community was  St.  Adelaide Catholic Church, my family’s parish, near the neighborhood in which I grew up.

The meeting was prompted by the tragic death less than two weeks ago of 87-year-old Ted Buttner. Mr. Buttner was struck by an elderly driver in the Lowell Street crosswalk outside of the church after attending a Saturday mass, and passed away shortly thereafter. He was from Somerville, but he often visited his daughter Patty Caton in West Peabody, and liked to attend mass at St. Adelaide.

The meeting last night came about because this horrible tragedy was another reminder of the dangers of that crossing. Recognizing the concerns of the St. Adelaide community, Ward 6 City Councilor Barry Sinewitz requested his fellow city councilors convene a meeting to discuss what could be done to make the situation safer for pedestrians.

The meeting was well attended, almost 40 parishioners, and five City Councilors. Mrs. Caton spoke first, telling everyone about how her dad was a wonderful, vibrant gentleman, and how important it was to keep a tragedy like this from ever happening again.

“We are heartbroken to have lost such a gentle, loving man who always had his arms extended to help everyone who knew him,” said Caton, the first of several parishioners who spoke, including church pastor, Father David Lewis.

Mayor Ted Bettencourt, who is a St. Adelaide parishioner, was there too to speak, as were City Councilors Mike Garabedian, Tom Gould, Anne Manning-Martin, and Arthur Athas. Peabody Police Captain John DeRosa spoke about more immediate visibility by officers, and other steps they are taking now to make the crosswalk safer.

The parishioners would like a pedestrian crossing light, a matter that will be taken up shortly the City Council’s sub committee on public safety.

You can read the full details of what transpired last night here in this well done article in the Peabody Patch.

My reason for bringing it up today was to not only update you on something we posted here earlier about this safety concern, but to point out an example of how government should always work for the people. Citizens have concerns. Elected leaders are supposed to bring everyone together to address those concerns.

I learned a lot last night about the type of City Councilor I’d like to be.

Sometimes campaigning isn’t just about working hard to become the most-popular name on a ballot. Sometimes, it’s about learning what the job is all about first, and taking those lessons with you into office.  It’s not about me, or what I know.  It’s about doing the peoples’ business,  first,  foremost, and always.

Approve funding for library repairs now, but how can we make this asset sustainable?

6 Feb

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

library

The historic Peabody Institute Library

A balancing act is going on right now between the need to be watchful of a limited pool of taxpayer dollars, and the necessity for preserving a historic and valuable community resource.

I’m talking about the current request to fund $3.1 million to make repairs on the Peabody Institute Library, a historic landmark downtown that was given to the city in 1852 by native son and world-renowned philanthropist George Peabody.  Since then, it has been a treasured resource for the community and in 1973 was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Now, we come to our dilemma.

Being that it is a 161-year-old structure, continuous repair costs are soaring, and they are soaring during days of dwindling state aid to cities and towns, and an already increasing tax burden on the middle class citizenry of working class Peabody.

Making matters more complicated are the current infrastructural needs all over the city. Among the largest projects are the tens of millions to be spent on a flood mitigation plan for Peabody Square, and a $40-plus million dollar (and much-needed) new middle school.

Complicating matters further are those in the community, and on the City Council, who feel that brick and mortar libraries are nearing obsolescence in a big data world where almost everything is available electronically, and where there are more personal electronic devices than there are toothbrushes.

But … can we afford as a society to just abandoned brick and mortar libraries?

Of course not.

If I were on the City Council, my vote on the $3.1 million would be “yes.” But my yes vote would come with conditions. I think some people have misunderstood Councilor Jim Liacos’ use of the phrase “money pit” during the recent debate on funding of the repairs. I haven’t spoken to Jim about this, but I think what he might be saying is, OK, we’ll approve the $3.1 million now, but can we please take a more extensive look at the future of the library and come up with a plan that ensures the building is sustainable from the standpoint of what the community can afford?

That doesn’t mean that we should ever consider bringing in the wrecking ball on a building of such historic significance. After all, I don’t think the citizens of Mount Vernon would knock down Washington’s farm house just because it was too expensive to maintain.

But what it does mean is a sensible master plan when it comes to refurbishment and ongoing maintenance. In other words, if we spend $3.1 million today, let’s hope it doesn’t mean another $3.1 million next year, and the year after that. After all, it was only two years ago that we spent another $3.1 million to fix the HVAC system.

If it meant that it could operate without further cost and within its annual budget for the next 20 years, I actually believe the taxpayers would warm up to spending even more on the library now. Maintenance would obviously then be the key factor, and at this point it should trouble taxpayers that many of these current repairs are being requested for a wing of the building that’s only about 40 years old. If we did an even larger renovation now, might we also be able to tap into some historic preservation funds, or perhaps, solicit some help from the private sector?

The bottomline, though, is – even in the age of smart phones, tablets, and data constantly at our fingertips – the main branch library needs to remain what it is now: A valuable community asset.

By the way, before the City Council takes this vote, I hope all 11 city councilors will tour the library to see what we’d be getting for our tax dollars. Library Director Martha Holden invited the entire council for a tour this week, and only four of them showed up. Let’s give the benefit of the doubt that the remaining seven didn’t show because of conflicts.  But  let’s hope they will tour on their own before voting to bond for the $3.1 million.

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