Tag Archives: Peabody Square

Peabody’s dead zone downtown takes another hit, beat goes on

31 May

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

At this point, why not just build a slot machine parlor, a petting zoo, or … even a roller coaster?

Or, in an effort to fit with the rest of the surroundings in Peabody Square, why not attract another barber shop, nail salon or liquor store to the now up-for-auction O’Shea Building at the corner of Main and Foster?

Get a haircut on the first floor, a manicure on the second, and then treat yourself to some tasty Mad Dog 20/20 on the rotting third floor of the historic building. You can share your tasty beverage with the urban “campers,” who have taken over the square, which these days looks like one of those Arizona ghost towns at night, minus the tumble weeds of course.

Ghost-Town_Sample

Peabody Square on a Saturday night?

Might as well, since our civic leaders, especially His Honor the Mayor, Ted Bettencourt, have no other clue, have no real plan for revitalizing our downtown. They have no idea on how to grow our commercial tax base, and take the pressure off residential ratepayers, who have endured 14 straight years of tax increases.

And, another increase is coming in December, so Merry Christmas, Peabody!

What’s the fastest way to scrape the Teflon off Teflon Ted? Well, just keep raising taxes on seniors on fixed incomes, who are by far our largest voter base. The “Oh, what a nice young man,” he’s heard for years from the blue hair set could soon be replaced with an “up yours, sonny!”

The latest disaster downtown?

Well, the Salem News reported today that plans to convert the O’Shea Building into a boutique hotel (or, if you prefer, more “much-needed” apartments) have ended because of financial difficulties of yet another dubious local “developer.”

In the words of the boys in “Animal House” after wrecking the Caddy Flounder borrowed from his brother …

“You screwed up … you trusted us!”

Of course,  the other question here is how are we going to get back the $200K the city gave this character by way of a business loan?

The O’Shea Building disaster could be a poster child for the failed efforts to revitalize the downtown area under Bettencourt, a happenstance for which the Mayor only has himself to blame. After all, there remains no strategic plan for redevelopment, only starts and stops, failed hunches, and deals with developers, who would turn the downtown into a Syrian refugee camp … if they thought that’s how they could make the most dough.

What happened with the O’Shea Building is what happens all the time in Peabody. The Mayor and several city councilors get duped after some fly-by-night developer makes goo goo eyes at them, and maybe even a few very legal campaign contributions.

In this case, this pipe dream of a project had trouble written all over it from the start as the developer first talked about a hotel with a restaurant before morphing the project (as the all seem to) into apartments instead of a hotel.

In case you haven’t noticed, the only real development downtown the past 20 years has been shoe-box apartments, many of which have turned into Section 8 Housing. Not sure those poor people have the discretionary “cake” to buy lattes at the fantasy cafes, sample small plates at the fictitious bistros, or shop at the imaginary boutiques that now line Main Street.

But don’t blame the developers, who have about as many scruples as most members of Congress. They’re just trying to make a buck.

Blame the continued blight downtown on the city council and the 9-to-5er who currently occupies the corner office at city hall.

The fact is, despite being in office for almost six years, His Honor still had NO plan for revitalizing downtown. He has surrounded himself with yes men who have no clue, and has no interest in finding talented people who know how to improve things the way they have — in dramatic fashion — in places such as Newburyport, Salem, or even Danvers. Instead of hiring true experience and talent for important community development positions, Bettencourt chooses instead to rely on the “friends and family plan” for filling those very critical jobs.

Oh sure, they’ve moved that poor monument a few times, and made Main Street so much safer for pedestrians. It’s only too bad that there aren’t enough pedestrians to enjoy not being hit by a car, since there’s very few who come downtown for anything. I mean, I like Brodie’s too, but how many chicken fingers can one person eat!?

While Salem, Beverly and Danvers are bustling on a Fridays or Saturdays, there’s plenty of available parking in Peabody Square. Of course, that parking has a one-hour time limit, which makes about as much sense as the Mayor’s imaginary revitalization plan.

“I think there’s real value to that (O’Shea) building,” Bettencourt told the Salem News, the Mayor no doubt very optimistic about my roller coaster suggestion. “It has some charm, it’s in a great location … I probably have had a dozen developers in the last few years inquiring (about it).”

But no takers, and now a listing by JJ Manning Auctioneers states the auction will be held today, 11 a.m. at 9 Main St. According to the Salem News, the terms of sale include a 10 percent deposit with $50,000 down, and the rest within three days.

I hear that wannabe liquor store owners are already camping out so they can be first in line.

More housing downtown doesn’t equal a sensible plan for revitalization

1 Aug

Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

If you saw the local Beverly-based “newspaper” with Salem at the front of its name this morning, you might have thought that Peabody Square is now a trendy place to live,just like South Beach in Miami, or in one of those million dollar lofts above some shop on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

SquareThere is was, a huge spread, complete with room-by-room photos of new postage-stamp-sized apartments at 11 Main Street. But there are granite countertops, so who am I to talk?

There are also panoramic views of Peabody Square out the windows , where you can watch the sunset over lovely beauty shops, liquor stores, and vacant store fronts. I’m sure this will cause young professionals to flock in a frenzy to rent these new digs.

First off, congrats to developer Norman Lee for talking the local bugle into a huge kiss-ass spread on what are essentially 11 small apartments that might be occupied by middle to lower-middle class residents who are looking for affordable housing. Then again, as someone who previously worked for small, struggling newspapers, my guess here is that this article  was one of those “bought-and-paid-for” services. The newspaper in question, after all, is on death’s door, so why not disguise paid content as real news once in a while?

But I digress.

The reason for my rant this morning is that, what you see at 11 Main Street is right now Peabody’s idea of how we should re-vitalize the downtown. Let’s jump at every chance to allow willing developers to turn old, dilapidated spaces into small one-bedroom apartments. Yeah, right, that’ll bring people with money to spend into the downtown.

We’ve seen this before with those ugly apartments on Walnut Street, and seen other greedy, slip-shot developers come and go before the city council requesting special permits to build “lavish” apartments. As a way to re-develop downtown, this strategy has failed miserably while adding to the city’s stock of Section 8 housing.

I’m not saying that  Lee is “slipshod” or “greedy.” After all, he’s a businessman, and he saw an opportunity. These teeny-tiny apartments look kind of nice from the kiss-ass photos I saw, but why would “young professionals” want to live in Peabody Square right now?

I come back to this again and again in this space, but the beat goes on when it comes to Peabody not having an overall strategy to turn things around downtown. Someone in community development needs to FINALLY understand that turning prime locations in the downtown into lower income housing is NOT the way you create economic development that will have a positive impact on our tax base and our community.

We continue to have what amounts to ill-advised patch-work tactics rather than an actual, sustainable, actionable community development plan. We have a passionate mayor who I feel truly wants to get things rolling downtown in an effort to create more revenue for the city, and take some of the burden off residential payers. But then we also have a community development department that totally lacks vision.

So, we all watch as our taxes rise, and we continue to approve unsightly billboards as a way to create much-needed revenue for infrastructural  improvements, a much-needed new middle school, and to pay for a regional vocational school that is part grandiose educational facility, part scam to feed the state’s hack-o-rama.

So, congrats to Mr. Lee on his wondrous new apartments, which I hear have a trendy new address: 17 Peabody Square. After all, it’s not his fault that this is what passes in Peabody for sensible city planning.

Peabody needs ‘signs’ of economic development in the form of a master plan

15 Jul

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

This might surprise followers of this space, but I actually think that the digital billboard approved by the Peabody City Council last week on city-owned land off Route 128 near Fishery Products International is good for the taxpayers.

Square

We continue to wonder when we’ll have an overall strategic plan for re-developing Peabody’s downtown

The company erecting the 60-foot sign will pay Peabody an initial $500,000, an initial permitting fee of $25,000, and $250,000 a year. It’s significant revenue for the city, and from what I can see, it’s not a huge threat to quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods.

But with me, that’s where the love ends for Mayor Ted Bettencourt’s strategy of looking for much-needed revenue by playing a continuous game of billboard roulette.

We get it, Ted. We all realize that the city needs the money, and that we can’t continue to raise taxes on resident payers, something that has happened for the past 13 straight years.

But dude, where’s the plan for sustainable revenue?

This strategy of blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ our mind, is not a plan at all.  In most cases, it’s a blight on our landscape, and simply quick-hit, unsustainable revenue. Not only that, but I think I might have heard somewhere that there is so-called “moratorium” against more billboards?

The stark reality of our economic situation in Peabody is that, these days, there seems to be no plan, no strategy for creating real, long-lasting, sustainable revenue. Oh sure, we have some “piecemeal” little victories here and there, a promise of a hotel in downtown, a few new restaurants, and an urban redevelopment consultancy is helping us analyze why Peabody Square is a ghost town on a Saturday night.

But there’s no strategic master plan, so  it’s either blight the roadsides with billboards, or keep shifting more of the burden on us … young families struggling to pay their mortgages, and seniors fearful that higher property taxes are going to eventually force them to sell their life-long homes.

Worse than not having a plan for increasing city revenues, is that there’s no one currently in the employ of the city with the skills and knowledge to even help us come up with that strategy.

I think the Mayor is an intelligent guy, but right now he needs to do what all smart, successful chief executives do, and surround himself with advisers who understand, inside and out, the keys to successful economic and community development. Clearly, based on the poor results, and based on us not having an overall strategic plan, those competencies don’t exist within the current Community Development Department.

Instead of adding new unnecessary positions, and assistants to the assistant here and there while paying off some old political debts, the Mayor needs to put together a plan to hire a person or persons who have helped other communities remarkably expand their commercial tax bases while improving quality of life.

He needs to look around, maybe even steal some of the best and the brightest talent from communities such as Salem and Newburyport, Melrose, and even Beverly.

How did these communities turn their blighted downtowns into full-speed-ahead economic engines, while making themselves destination communities for those who enjoy dining out and shopping? That’s something we need to find, and we need to model. Now, not later.

In these places, more responsible, quality business has resulted in more commercial tax revenue into these cities’ coffers. And, unlike billboard revenue, it’s sustainable, and of benefit to quality of life.

So, while we’re counting the big bucks from this latest billboard, let’s stop this game of billboard roulette, and realize, once and for all, that our community’s vibrancy and survival requires that we enlist the best and the brightest, and FINALLY, come up with a strategic plan that will make Peabody a destination rather than a pass through.

The by-product of that will be less of a tax burden on residents, and an overall boost to everyone’s 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.

Putting tiny apartments on Main bad for downtown revitalization plans

4 Dec

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Well, here we go again.

Just when we all thought that we were taking steps in the right direction when it came to revitalizing Peabody’s downtown, our Community Development Department becomes an accomplice again in a familiar game where greedy developers to do whatever they want, wherever they want.

Developers will be before the city council tomorrow night seeking a special permit to shoe-horn 10 one-bedroom, 500-square foot apartments into an old office building at 98 Main Street. That’s great, just what we need downtown, more potential and transient Section 8 housing.

When will this all stop? When will the leaders in Community Development understand it’s not just about development?

It’s about responsible development.

I say this already knowing that Community Development has given its blessing to this ill-advised project. I say ill-advised not because there’s no parking, and not because I’m against residential development in the downtown.

It’s ill-advised because this is prime commercial space, where we should be encouraging mixed-use and the type of development that will make our downtown as vibrant as Salem’s. If we’re going to go the mixed-use route, with shops, restaurants, and other businesses on the first floor, and residential living spaces above, I’m all for that. But these residential living spaces need to be higher end, and be able to attract people who actually have disposable income to spend downtown.

I say all of this while recognizing the need for affordable housing. But our downtown will never become what we want it to be by putting these types of units right in the heart of what needs to become Peabody’s downtown Renaissance.

Call them apartments, if you want, but what’s being proposed here isn’t much grander than your average rooming house.

The city council doesn’t just need to ask serious questions tomorrow night. It needs to reject this plan for the good of the city’s revitalization efforts.

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.

Business liaison position a good idea, but it needs to have some authority to get things done

27 Nov

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt

Mayor Ted Bettencourt will tonight ask the city council to approve the creation of a new position he hopes will help make the process of doing business in Peabody easier. This position for a “business liaison” would pay from $45,500 to $58,500 a year.

The responsibility of this liaison would be to guide business people through the process of setting up and maintaining a business in Peabody when it comes to dealing with the governmental issues and red tape.

It’s a good idea, but only if this new position has some teeth. If this only about giving business owners, and perspective business owners, information on what they need to open or maintain a business in Peabody, then it could be a waste of taxpayer money.

But if the person in this position has some authority, backed by the mayor, to break down the walls that typically make it more difficult to do business in Peabody, then I definitely applaud this move.

The mayor tells the Salem News that his intent is to have Peabody be more business-friendly, and that’s definitely a worthy goal. For years now, local businesses have found the process of operating  here complex and difficult, especially when it comes to regulations and permitting. From Day 1, Bettencourt made it his goal to have city departments be more customer-friendly to business owners. He’s made progress here, and shown he is serious through a handful of firings and hirings.

He’s also established an Economic Development Council to come up with a strategy for energizing and expanding Peabody’s commercial tax base. But that committee, of which I’m a member, definitely needs to start meeting again. We haven’t had a meeting since the spring.

But all of this, I feel, continues to show that the mayor is serious about expanding our tax base to give Peabody much-needed revenue in these times when big bills are coming due on school projects and other much-needed improvements to our infrastructure.

So, the idea for this new position is a good one … just as long is it has some teeth.

Slowing down traffic in the Square meaningless without a plan for development

20 Nov

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

The plan developed was well-thought out, and construction is underway. But something really big is still missing when it comes to the reconfiguration protect on Main Street in Peabody Square.

Right now, we should be hearing voices from the heavens, not from some Iowa cornfield, but while standing down next to Civil War monument:

 “If you build it, will they come?”

In theory, slowing down the traffic through the Main Street corridor seems like a good idea. But the question remains: What exactly are we slowing people down to see? Yet another Brazilian clothing store? The WorldChurch, which now sits in the space that was once home to Brother’s Deli? How about another barber shop?

Just slowing down the traffic will not bring life, or bring businesses people want to patronize back to the downtown area.

We need a plan, and I was reminded of this again today when I read an article in the Salem News about the Beverly City Council unanimously approving a 70% tax break for the first five years, and a 30% break for the next five years for developers who build on a dilapidated stretch of Rantoul Street near the train station.

The article made me wonder when our city was going to start looking into similar incentives to bring shops and restaurants to Peabody Square once the Main Street corridor project is finished.

If you truly want to create life again in Peabody Square, you’ll need to bring back the type of commerce that makes people want to come down there in the first place. And, contrary to what I’ve heard from some city council members, it’s NOT about bringing in a major chain restaurant. The North Shore Mall already has a Cheescake Factory and a PF Changs.

Newburyport, Portsmouth, NH, and Salem, are attractive because of their waterfronts, but they also have unique shops, trendy restaurants, and accessible, affordable parking.

It’s about bringing in bistros, and bookstores, and cafes. It’s about trendy restaurants, and ethnic restaurants, and owner-operated shops. We have a decent start on that with restaurants such as Sugar Cane, and the owner of Maki Sushi has done a nice job turning a previously horrible space into a great little restaurant. But there’s so much more to do when it comes to encouraging businesses into the Square, businesses that are going to attract people from all over the North Shore, improve quality of life, and help Peabody jump start plans to expand its commercial tax base.

Right now, there are a handful of property owners who control downtown, and in recent years they’ve done whatever they can to ensure that the building space they own is occupied. In doing so, they’ve rented on a first come, first served basis.

But what if we as a city offered those property owners tax incentives, if they rented to specified types of businesses? Instead of paying the current tax rate renting to a barber shop, what if we gave them a break for renting to a bistro or café?

There most definitely is a lot to think about, but we need a plan. We need to keep in mind that simply slowing down the cars isn’t going to accomplish anything other than making Main Street safer for pedestrians.

For sure, we all care about safety, but the Main Street corridor project must be about economic growth and revitalization too.

So, “if we build it, will they come?” Unless we come up with a plan for economic growth incentives, the answer is … “no.”

This post brought to you by “You Make the Call,” Peabody’s longest-running cable show on the issues of the day.