• By Dustin Luca Staff Writer
  • Mar 1, 2019 Updated 10 hrs ago

SALEM — City councilors on Thursday narrowly rejected a plan that would allow vacant religious and city-owned buildings to be converted into housing. 

But the proposal isn’t dead yet. After the meeting, Ward 6 Councilor Beth Gerard filed a motion to reconsider, which means the proposal will again be up for a vote when the council meets again in two weeks. 

Councilors voted 7-4 on the Municipal and Religious Overlay District. The plan needed eight votes to pass. 

Council President Steve Dibble cast the final vote, and gasps echoed through the room after he said no. 

Several councilors were upset with the result. Minutes after the meeting ended, a conversation between Dibble and Ward 1 Councilor Bob McCarthy, who supported the overlay, escalated to shouting with McCarthy storming out of City Hall. 

“This is a whole new level of disgusting,” Gerard said after handing in her motion to reconsider. “This ordinance is incredibly important to preserve buildings and affordable housing stock. We needed this overlay zoning ordinance passed yesterday.”

The ordinance establishes rules for developers to work under when developing certain properties in Salem that are owned by the city or religious institutions. Developers would also have to meet certain expectations from the city, including setting aside a percentage of units as affordable.

The impetus came from two properties owned by the Archdiocese: St. James Parish, at 150 Federal St., and Immaculate Conception, at 17 Hawthorne Blvd.

The North Shore Community Development Coalition has already expressed interest in renovating both church buildings into affordable housing. Without a zoning change, however, multifamily housing would not be allowed in these districts.

While the overlay was prompted by a desire to redevelop these two sites, it did also include a number of other buildings around the city, including historic City Hall and the Fire Department headquarters. City officials, however, have said they have no intention of redeveloping those buildings or some of the others that ended up within the proposed overlay criteria.

Affordability

Earlier in the week, after hours of deliberation Tuesday night, the plan passed muster in a council committee meeting.

Some have voiced concern over the amount of affordable housing required, as well as the size and density the rules would allow.

As first proposed, the plan required 10 percent of units in any projects within the overlay to be set aside as affordable for households at or below 80 percent of the area median income. But this week, Councilor-at-large Arthur Sargent sought to raise that bar to 20 percent. Public officials — and even some councilors — argued that raising the percentage would hurt the financial viability of certain projects. They pointed to the old senior center at 5 Broad St. as an example. 

But supporters of raising the requirement said it would be a bold statement from the city on behalf of increasing affordable housing. 

Sargent’s effort ultimately failed.

Another motion from Sargent Thursday to lower the area median income level requirement from 80 to 60 percent passed 7-4, meaning affordable units would be saved for people of lower income than the standard requirement. Then, Sargent moved that the units be reserved for only Salem residents.

“We’ve had this discussion,” McCarthy said. “We can’t do it. It isn’t lawful.”

“This is totally illegal, and this is xenophobia right here,” Gerard said moments later. “It’s xenophobia. It’s disgusting. It’s illegal.”

Sargent responded, “if that be the case, then let us please stop saying we are doing this for Salem residents.”

Residents divided

Residents who spoke at the meeting seemed divided on the zoning package. Among concerns against the proposal were occasional calls to mark the properties on the city’s official zoning map.

“Without the ability to map these properties, there’s no parity with other zoning in the city where you can see clearly what zone applies to entities,” said Polly Wilbert.

Teasie Riley Goggin echoed the remarks. She highlighted past comments from city officials that the overlay covers the entire city.

“I compare it with a king-size blanket that you’d put over a baby’s crib,” Goggin said. “We know that isn’t a good idea. You suffocate the baby.”

But other residents backed the proposal.

“I hope that the compromises we came to at (Tuesday’s committee meeting) were sufficient to earn your support,” said Jen Lynch. “Please vote for first passage tonight.”

Lorelee Stewart, meanwhile, argued that past complaints saying the ordinance didn’t create enough affordable housing were bogus.

“Don’t be confused,” Stewart said. “This is actually going to do something for affordable housing.”

Eventually, it was time to vote. Sargent, Elaine Milo, Tim Flynn and Dibble all voted against the overlay, ensuring it could not get the eight votes it needed to pass the 11-member council.

Since the measure failed, it also means the issue can’t legally resurface for the rest of the calendar year.

“That means the two church properties, Immaculate Conception and St. James, which initiated this, are going to be delayed or under the threat of not happening,” Mayor Kim Driscoll said after the vote was taken. “The other immediate problem is the old senior center, which we’re currently in finalizing negotiations with a developer.”

There could be other options to save the Broad Street project that city staff hadn’t yet discovered, Driscoll said. 

“The reason we have been at this since July was because this was the most likely path to redevelop these,” she said.

Then, Gerard handed in her motion to reconsider — putting an immediate freeze on the vote and opening up the chance to reverse it on March 14.

“To be in the Boston area and deny people the right to affordable housing?” Gerard said. “This is disturbing. This is incredibly disturbing.”

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.