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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.

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.

Signs of our times: More ugly billboards on the way

24 Sep

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

While we’ve all been focused on the battle against the giant billboard eyesore on Lowell Street near Route 1, outdoor advertising companies have been lining up to erect even greater monstrosities in other Peabody locations. If you think that the static sign next to the Subway sub shop infringes on your quality of life, wait until you see what’s about to happen elsewhere in Ward 5.

Two giant, flashing digital billboards have been approved for Route 1, and now comes a third, which will soon go before the city council for approval. Welcome to Peabody’s version of the Las Vegas Strip.

Cove Outdoor Advertising is hoping to win city council approval to erect a 14 by 48 feet digital sign on Route 128 near Jubilee Drive. The city, meanwhile, stands to make $25K annually on each one of these eyesores. I know that Peabody needs revenue right now, but are we willing to destroy our community aesthetically for this sort of incremental revenue?

It’s definitely time for the city council to come up with some guidelines on how many of these we’ll allow in our community.  It’s also important that they ask some serious questions when Cove comes before them for a permit on this latest sign.

Here’s the link to the full article in the Salem News.

Please let me know what you think in the comments section.

More ‘good government’ needed to help Winona Street neighborhood residents

7 Jun

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

It’s been almost exactly four months since the city slapped a cease and desist order on the project owned by builder Richard Marchese near Route 1.  And today, the people who live on Winona, Anderson, Mouton, Cardigan and other affected streets, wait, worry and wonder how their properties and lives are going to be further affected as the remnants of Tropical Storm Andrea dump five inches of rain between now and Sunday morning.

Recently, while campaigning for Ward 5 Councilor, I had several conversations with residents living in this neighborhood where this irresponsible developer has operated with total disregard for peoples’ quality of life. They told me stories of flooded basements that had never previously flooded in 35 years of living there, and of their concerns over suspicious cases of cancer, which they feel might be the result of disturbing long-buried contaminants. I met Lou Maio, whose Winona Street property has been devastated by Marchese project runoff. A pool the Maio’s put in for their grandkids is now destroyed, and there is worry that their property will soon be worthless.

I live two miles from the project, yet even I now notice from my backyard how much louder the cars sound speeding down Route 1 since Marchese clear-cut that property of all of its trees. Make no mistake, this developer’s disregard for doing things right, has had a negative effect on a wide swath of West Peabody.

As I’ve written in this space before, good government means protecting the quality of life of residents above all else. But while the city has slapped a cease and desist on this developer, and the Peabody Planning Board continues to back that decision, the residents now need to know what else can be done.

They are waiting for the city and their elected officials to fight harder for them, and maybe even find a way to keep this developer from ever again conducting business in Peabody.  Currently, the cease and desist order only applies to the back part of the property, where residential homes were to be developed.  But work, for some reason continues on the commercial part of the property facing Route 1.

Meanwhile,  residents wait to see what comes next, and hold their breath in the wake of another torrential rain storm. Good government means standing up for people and against scoundrels intent on infringing upon their quality of life. So I ask you today, where is our good government?

Peabody’s general obligation municipal purpose loan nets very low 2.042% interest rate

10 Apr

The following press release was sent to The Eye by Mayor Ted Bettencourt’s office.

From the Mayor’s Office

Mayor Edward A. Bettencourt, Jr., is pleased to announce that the City of Peabody received competitive bids from bond underwriters on Wednesday, April 3, 2013, for $10,533,000 General Obligation Bonds.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch was the winning bidder on the Bonds with an average interest rate of 2.042%.  Bond proceeds will be used to finance Library Building Improvements, Water Treatment Plant Upgrades, Flood Mitigation, as well as to refinance bonds of the City dated February 1, 2005.  The refinancing will generate total savings of $327,327.

Prior to the sale, Moody’s Investors Service, a municipal credit rating agency, affirmed the City’s “Aa1” long-term debt rating. The agency cited the City’s sizable and diverse tax base, unused levy capacity, and stable financial position as positive credit factors.

“We’re obviously very pleased with the results of this bond sale,” said Mayor Bettencourt.  “Peabody’s strong ‘Aa1’ credit rating and the continuing low interest rate market enable us to make critical infrastructure upgrades while saving taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in interest charges.”

The bids for the bonds were accepted at the office of the City’s financial advisor, First Southwest Company, at 54 Canal Street in Boston, Massachusetts.

Companies putting up new, giant electronic billboards on Route 1 bear watching

9 Apr

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

What the Peabody City Council approved unanimously back in December,  could become a reality this week when Clear Channel Communications goes before the Mass. Office of  Outdoor Advertising (MOOA) to seek four electronic billboard permits on Route 1.

billboardThe new signs are at 71 Newbury (near Santarpio’s Pizza)  and 201 Newbury (a little South of Lowell Street).  It’s two polls, but Clear Channel needs four permits, since the signs have both South facing and North facing sides. At this point, we don’t have a true indication of what affect these billboards might have on this Ward 5 neighborhood.  But considering the battle we are in with another outdoor advertising company, Total Outdoor Corp, over a misplaced billboard on Lowell Street near Route 1, it’s important for the city to be vigilant on these new signs.

In any event,  we continue to have an issue in Ward 5, particularly on Route 1, when it comes to intrusive and excessive development, including the destruction of property on Winona Street due in part to a project by developer Richard Marchese.

The billboard issue needs watching. Although there is only so much we can do legally to stop these roadside eyesores from going up, we need to ensure that theses companies abide by the terms of their special permits.  In many cases, there are appropriate places for these billboards, and it’s a nice piece of revenue for the city coffers.  But none of these giant advertising vehicles should be erected in areas where it has a negative affect on resident quality of life.

The city did a great job of that in shutting down Total Outdoor Corp when they placed their 90-foot billboard poll close to Lowell Street, and not where it was supposed to go. Now, we need to keep an eye on Clear Channel, a company with a reputation for not exactly caring about how their giant signs affect quality of life of people who live in the affected neighborhoods.

Today, I was contacted by the environmental group Scenic Massachusetts, which lobbies to ensure that billboard companies do not violate state regulations.

Scenic Mass wanted to thank me for my stance on billboards as a Ward 5 Councilor candidate, and inform me that the MOOA would hold a hearing on these new electronic signs on Thursday, April 11, 11 a.m., at the Transportation Building (10 Park Plaza, Boston). The public is welcome to attend, but I’ll also try to update everyone where on what happens in regards to Clear Channel’s permit request.

Stay tuned.

Destructive Ward 5 project remains shutdown thanks to Peabody Planning Board

10 Feb

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Good government, which to me means protecting the quality of life of residents above all else, was on display again this past Thursday night.

The Peabody Planning Board remained on the side of the people living on the Winona Street side of Route 1 by backing a cease-and-desist order against a developer whose project is causing property damage and grief in this Ward 5 neighborhood.

The project, owned by builder Richard Marchese, has caused numerous resident complaints, and led Mayor Ted Bettencourt to obtain a cease-and-desist order from the city’s building inspector.

Thursday night, residents from the area told of how the clear-cutting the property of trees and other vegetation by the developer has caused flooding of property, and other destruction.

Winona Street resident Karen Anderson told the Planning Board that the destruction is “tearing the neighborhood apart.”

Others talked of water bursting into their basements, swimming pools filled with silt and mud, and one resident even told how 90% of her property had been destroyed and is now worthless.

The Planning Board listened, and kept the project shutdown. Marchese didn’t show for the hearing, allowing his attorney to be there to represent him, a fact that really bothered board member Joe Gagnon.  

“I’m very sympathetic with all the neighbors. You were harmed immensely. I’m emotional about it,” Gagnon said. “I’m very disappointed that Mr. Marchese is not here today. That really bothers me.”

Well said, Mr. Gagnon.

It’s good to see the city on the side of the residents. More to come here.

Basking in the warm glow this morning, thanks to the PMLP

9 Feb

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

plmpJust sitting with some java this morning,  warm and comfortable, looking out the window at the winter wonderland, and feeling very grateful that Peabody’s power needs are NOT supplied by National Grid or one of these other gigantic power entities.

Once again, the lights are on, Peabody. And I can’t ever recall, in the 45-plus years I’ve lived in the city when I’ve awoken to a dark, cold house.  I can’t ever recall our lights going off for extended periods of time, like will be the case for some people in Southeastern Mass., who might not get power back for days following this latest super snowstorm.

Not during this storm. Not during the Blizzard of 2005, or hurricanes or other acts of nature. Not even during … drumroll please … the BLIZZARD OF ’78.

So, as we all electronically hold hands on this fine Saturday morning, let us all gaze upon Edison’s invention and say “THANK YOU” to the folks who run the Peabody Municipal Light Plant.

PLMP rocks, and it never lets us down. Why?  Because it is a government entity that is managed like a private business. Those who run the PLMP are hired for their qualifications and experience, and are not political appointees. They don’t report to city councilors or the Mayor. They are governed by an elected board of Light Commissioners, who simply oversee while allowing actual power plan professionals to run the business. It’s the ultimate example of how the private sector and the public sector cam can come together and make something work for the taxpayers.

If you live in the “sensible center” of the political spectrum, you quickly realize that too much goernment involvement usually leads to disaster, but not enough isn’t a great thing either. This is why PLMP works.

So, as you glow in the warmth this morning, be happy you live in Peabody, and as a taxpayer be proud that your city owns the PLMP.

Mayor moves quickly to defend quality of life for residents in Peabody’s Ward 5

10 Jan

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

We talk all of the time in this blog about Peabody becoming more “business friendly,” and while we still need to approach it that way in an effort to find the money we need for infrastructure and schools, there’s one credo we still need to embrace:

Quality of life for our residents should always trump our goal to be “business friendly.”

We want more business in Peabody.  It’ll mean more tax revenue,  and allow us to eventually put less of the burden on residential payers.  But we also want businesses that will hold up their end and respect the needs and the rights of the residents.

So why am I on this soap box today?

Well, it appears that Mayor Ted Bettencourt is embracing the credo. Without hesitation yesterday,  and after hearing numerous complaints from neighbors in an around Winona Street, the Mayor placed an immediate cease and desist order on Marchese Properties on a project  it is developing on Route 1 South.

Why? Well, if you’ve been by there lately, especially during a big rain storm, you’ve observed rivers of mud flowing from the project, and into the backyards of neighbors, destroying pools and other property, and making life miserable for people who take pride in their properties and pay their taxes on time.

But don’t just take my word for it.  Watch this video from one of that neighborhood’s residents to see what grief this has caused homeowners. Watch this video, and then put yourself in the shoes of this homeowner.

There are a lot of reasons for the problem, but as a resident myself of Ward 5, I can tell you that the previous administration didn’t do enough to alleviate the problems here for theses affected neighbors.

Developer Richard Marchese has agreed to stop the work for now, which includes a commercial building and a small housing development. He’ll come before the Planning Board on Feb. 7 to determine if he is in violation of his permit.

Bettencourt ordered the cease and desist during an emergency meeting of the Planning Board. After meeting with residents, and having the building inspector go to the area to confirm what he was seeing in photos and videos, the mayor shut it down.

This mayor definitely gets it. The rights of the residents needs to always come first.

Tune in tonight to first ‘You Make The Call’ show of 2013

9 Jan

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

You Make The Call co-host Dick Jarvis returns tonight for our first live show of 2013

Happy returns
You Make The Call co-host Dick Jarvis returns tonight for our first live show of 2013

Join us tonight, 8-9 p.m.,  on  Channel 99  as we welcome legendary co-host Dick Jarvis for our first live “You Make The Call” show of 2013.

There’s a lot to talk about tonight, including the special election for State Rep.  Dick and I will also discuss our impressions of Monday night’s State of the City address by Mayor Bettencourt.

Please tune in, and give us a call! Or send us a question through our Facebook page.