F.W. Webb axes expansion plans

  • August 15, 2018
F.W. Webb axes expansion plans
File PhotoThe Universal Steel parking lot, built next to F.W. Webb’s building on Bridge Street. The company just terminated plans to build a major expansion on the Salem property.

SALEM — F.W. Webb is killing its plans to expand business operations on Bridge Street, backing away from a years-long legal dispute with neighbors who challenged the widely approved project in court.

In an email sent to City Councilors Tuesday night, Mayor Kim Driscoll wrote that Webb recently indicated “that they were not likely to move forward with the project and requested the return of the deposit they had paid toward the sale of the Universal Steel lot.”

Webb has been working since early 2016 to expand its operations at 293 Bridge St. It initially pitched a project that would buy the neighboring parking lot at 297-305 Bridge St. and build a two-story retail showroom there. The site has been used in recent years as public pay-and-display parking, a plan that officials frequently said weren’t long-term.

But Webb faced immediate backlash from neighbors in the Federal Street neighborhood, which includes River Street and other portions of the McIntire Historic District.

The project was eventually scaled back to become a smaller expansion on the opposite side of the property, thus maintaining the parking lot for outside storage and parking.

At that point, city leaders moved forward with selling the parking lot to Webb for just under $500,000. The company also owns the Alpha Auto site – on the opposite side of the parking lot – and even proposed a new building there that city officials viewed as an improvement for the site and area.

But as that proposal gained momentum, the main expansion plans were mired down in court.

“The City Council approved this project. The Planning Board approved this project. The Zoning Board of Appeals approved this project,” Driscoll told The Salem News. “Unfortunately, every permit was appealed, including the City Council’s rezoning of the site, which was approved by nine of 11 councilors.”

Federal Street neighbors were led by local attorney John Carr. When contacted late Tuesday night, Carr initially began to detail plans neighbors had on the ongoing zoning discussion for an F.W. Webb showroom on the Alpha Auto site.

After learning that the company was no longer pursuing its expansion and backing away from buying the parking lot, Carr said “we’re delighted.”

“I hope that the city would continue to have the ownership of the Universal lot and derive the income from that lot,” Carr said. “That’s really what should have happened way back when.”

What happens next is largely unknown. Throughout debate on the expansion, there was a looming concern that Webb would leave Salem if it didn’t land the project. Many viewed the approvals the company eventually got as keeping the business in the Witch City.

Driscoll said the company hasn’t indicated it plans to leave Salem at this juncture, but “they’re certainly reviewing their options.”

Further, the parking lot wasn’t historically planned to be a permanent fixture, which Driscoll reminded councilors of Tuesday night.

“A temporary parking lot was constructed on the site to service commuters during the construction of the MBTA garage,” Driscoll wrote. “Upon completion of the parking garage, it was our hope that this property would be redeveloped and put back on the tax rolls.

“We’ll need to regroup,” Driscoll continued, “to identify potential re-use options in light of the fact that the proposed F.W. Webb project will not be moving forward.”

Carr, however, insisted the parking lot become permanent.

“I hope that means the Universal lot will remain in the ownership of the city, that the city will continue to derive revenue from it and get to use the parking,” he said, “as they should.”

Either way, Carr said, Webb’s backing away from the expansion project “is really a case of David versus Goliath.”

“I’m so thrilled and proud of my fellow neighbors within FSNA,” Carr said. “We were against the mayor, against the ZBA, against the Planning Board. We were against Salem Partnership. It’s like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — the little guys won. Why? Because they had the right on their side.”

New Webb proposal met by stiff opposition

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