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City Council Split Over Proposal to Convert NSCAP Site Into Apartments

North Shore Community Action Programs is moving from its home at 98 Main St. over to 119 Rear Foster St. and local developers had proposed to fully renovate the building and convert it into apartments.

North Shore Community Action Programs is moving from its home at 98 Main St. over to 119 Rear Foster St. at the end of the month. Credit: John Castelluccio
North Shore Community Action Programs is moving from its home at 98 Main St. over to 119 Rear Foster St. at the end of the month. Credit: John Castelluccio
The plans have been before the City Council for nearly a year and it finally came down to a draw Thursday night with councilors split on whether to approve 10 new apartments for the North Shore Community Action Programs' soon to be former home on Main Street.

NSCAP, the region's leading anti-poverty agency, is moving at the end of the month to a former mill building at 119 Foster St. and wants to divest itself of the property at 98 Main St.

Local developers Norman Lee and James Gebo approached NSCAP with an offer to buy the building and they signed a tentative agreement pending approval of a special permit to convert the 1800s-era structure into 10 one-bedroom apartments.

The interior of the building has fallen into disrepair and Lee and Gebo planned to spend about $1.1 million to fully renovate the interior, bring it up to current building and safety codes, install new electrical wiring, plumbing, sprinkler system -- everything -- and create units in line with affordable housing price ranges.

They also offered to re-pave and plow their neighbors' driveways and allot parking around the building to neighbors to alleviate some of the existing issues.

The problem for councilors, even though the project would put the property back on the tax rolls, was they didn't want to see another apartment building downtown. They said the vision for Main Street, which is in a Business Central zone, was storefronts with apartments or condos above.

"Without having a commercial aspect, it doesn’t fit into what I want to see downtown," said Ward 1 Councilor Barry Osborne. "I can't support 10 units; I can support mixed-use."

"If the proposal before me tonight was mixed use…I wouldn’t even be talking about this tonight," said Councilor-at-Large Dave Gravel, adding he believed the project was only supported by city planners because Peabody needs another 400 affordable units to meet the state threshold.

Osborne and Gravel spoke at length, saying the downtown has plenty of people living in it and what's needed to revitalize the area are more unique shops, activities and attractions -- not just more residents.

"It’s not that we don’t have anything down there, it’s that we’re not attracting the kind of businesses we want to attract," said Gravel.

In this case, however, the existing building will never be converted into a commercial space, according to Ward 5 Councilor Dave Gamache. He agreed with attorney Athan Vontzalides that the narrow frontage of the building combined with the lack of a street-level space made it unsuitable for a storefront.

"What we don't need downtown is another vacant building," Gamache said, and that's exactly what he feared would happen if the council rebuffed Lee and Gebo.

"I’m going to tell you right now, nobody’s going to buy that building…just take the wrecking ball to it and knock it down," said Gamache. "If I had a million bucks, I wouldn’t be investing it in that building."

Gamache, however, likewise said he'd rather see more mixed-use along Main Street and thought 10 units were too many for that site.

NSCAP Executive Director Laura MacNeil and board of directors member Susan Fletcher said there was some interest, but no other offers out there. Proceeds from the sale would also provide a financial cushion so the agency wasn't always at the mercy of federal funding or lack thereof.

They too feared that if the council didn't approve the permit, 98 Main St. would just become another vacant building downtown.  

"This seems to be very much in mind with the plan the city has for downtown to attract residents with disposable income to patronize the downtown," MacNeil said of the project.

Councilor-at-Large Anne Manning-Martin said the property would likely mirror what she calls "the haunted pigeon coop" at 79 Endicott St. She noted the city owns the property and the council has rejected multiple development proposals for the site in recent years while the building remains in disrepair.

"The city should be ashamed of that building," she said and she didn't want to see something similar happen on Main Street.  

To his credit, Lee still received high praise from councilors on most of his previous projects downtown. They regarded him as a trustworthy, quality developer with a solid reputation and said their objections had nothing to do with Lee himself.

The reason the project was delayed for several months was due to an early objection by the Knights of Columbus next door. It initially appeared the Knights' concern was over parking, which they share with NSCAP, but Tim Barry and Tom Holleran told councilors Thursday their objections had nothing to do with that.

"What we are for is people vested in the city. Someone that rents an apartment in this city is not someone vested in our city," said Barry. He argued that four or five condos with a commercial space downstairs would be a better use and yield more taxpayers.

"We’re not that grumpy old man sitting down in the grumpy old building... We do so much in the city that it kinds of hurts a little bit that we’d be portrayed as the bad guy over parking," said Holleran, referring to earlier news reports.

William and Tracey MacDonald, who live at 98 Rear Main St. also showed up Thursday to object, regarding the parking situation.

They said people were parking where they weren't supposed to, they [the MacDonalds) often can't find a spot to park when they get home from work and it's causing a public safety issue -- ambulances often can't get down the narrower lane next to the NSCAP building (on the opposite side from the KofC).

The final vote Thursday ended with councilors Bob Driscoll, Anne Manning-Martin, Arthur Athas, Jim Liacos and Gamache voting in favor of the permit while Mike Garabedian, Tom Gould, Barry Sinewitz, Gravel and Osborne voted against it. Rico Mello was absent.

Former city councilor and KofC member Bill Toomey also spoke against the project while a resident at one of Lee's other developments on Lowell Street spoke in favor of it.

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