SALEM — “I don’t know the future. I just don’t think Salem is in the future of F.W. Webb.”
Less than 24 hours removed from news that F.W. Webb — a large plumbing wholesaler in the city — was ending its expansion plans on Bridge Street, Chief Operating Officer Robert Mucciarone had difficulty verbalizing what might be next for his company’s property in Salem.
“We listened to the city, listened to the neighbors, and they didn’t want us to dig on the Universal property, so we changed our whole project,” Mucciarone said, referring to the former manufacturing site next door to F.W. Webb at 293 Bridge St. “Rather than build a whole new building on Universal, we decided to reconvene and try to do something that answered all the neighbors’ concerns.
“When I say neighbors, I mean 12 people,” Mucciarone continued. “The rest of the city was in our corner.”
But in the end, after years of presentations, charged debate and then well beyond a year of slow-moving court appeals, F.W. Webb has thrown in the towel with its expansion plans. The company first bid on the city-owned property in 2015.
“I had multiple lawsuits going on. I was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we could’ve ultimately won this thing,” Mucciarone said. “I’m done playing the game that the city allows these mavericks to play. I’m not playing it anymore.”
F.W. Webb initially pitched a project that would buy the neighboring “Universal Steel” 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 parking, a plan that city officials frequently said wasn’t long-term.
But the company faced immediate backlash from neighbors in the Federal Street neighborhood, which includes River Street and other portions of the McIntire Historic District. A scaled-back version of the project eventually won local support and landed several permits — all of which were appealed by neighbors and stalled in court.
One of those appeals went to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, which issued a superseding order of conditions that was in favor of the F.W. Webb project, according to Mucciarone. That decision was also appealed.
But with another round of permits anticipated for a secondary part of the project, and another round of appeals possible, the company decided instead to cede the fight.
Mucciarone declined to detail what the future may hold for F.W. Webb’s Salem location, saying the company “may stay there, may renovate (the building) internally, or we may move. I don’t know.”
Local attorney John Carr — who led the neighbors in their opposition — celebrated the news from F.W. Webb this week.
Mucciarone, meanwhile, directed most of his anger about the outcome at Carr.
“Mr. Carr has a hobby of being an attorney to stop these projects. That’s his hobby, and he gets the last word,” he said. “We had a whole city in favor of this project. We had a whole city in favor of the various versions of this project, yet this guy has controlled these three parcels — and the city has allowed it.”
As the fierce debate surrounding F.W. Webb’s proposals moved forward in 2016, residents around the city voiced concern and anger about the opposition the company was facing.
Then again, those residents weren’t living next to the proposed expansion. The Federal Street neighborhood did, and its residents had the power of appeal.
The project would have prevailed in time, according to Mucciarone, but it would’ve likely cost the company legal fees in the seven figures.
“There was a part of me that wanted to take it to the end, because ultimately we could’ve won,” he said. “But I’ve learned that you don’t get emotional in business.”
Carr disputed Mucciarone’s characterization of him, initially outlining his own credentials and background. Then, he stopped.
“I’d hate to dignify Mr. Mucciarone’s intemperate and personal attacks on me, but apparently he didn’t learn much in his civics class in high school,” Carr said. “It’s obviously untrue that everyone in the city was in support of this project. He need only look at the unusually long list of plaintiffs in our various lawsuits to know that isn’t true.”
Speaking Tuesday night, Carr characterized the dispute and neighborhood’s victory as “a case of David versus Goliath.”
“We were against the mayor, against the ZBA, against the Planning Board. We were against Salem Partnership,” Carr had said. “It’s like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — the little guys won. Why? Because they had the right on their side.”
The mayor, meanwhile, outlined a future vision for the Universal Steel site that could still lead to further issues with the neighbors.
In an email to the City Council Tuesday night, Driscoll insisted that the parking lot was never planned to be a permanent fixture.
“A temporary parking lot was constructed on the site to service commuters during the construction of the MBTA garage,” she 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,” she 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, meanwhile, argues there is no alternative for the site. This is in large part due to the former scrap metal and recycling plant that, over time, contaminated and polluted the property.
“It’s hard to imagine that more than $5 million in remediation had been spent for only a temporary solution,” Carr said, referring to a limited site cleanup that occurred several years ago.
With polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, just 5 feet under the surface, Carr said, it wouldn’t seem “practical or safe to develop the site beyond the parking lot, which has been the neighborhood’s position all along.”