A condo boom forces Salisbury to grow up

SALISBURY — On a brisk October weekday, the only deals going down on Broadway are at Christy’s, a small pizza stand. At 1 p.m., the lunchtime crowd consists of two construction workers who have made the trip from Dracut, 30 miles away, just for a slice. Jerry and Bob have been coming to Salisbury their whole lives, but one of them gives a tough assessment of the town: “It was hopping 30 years ago. Now it’s dead.”

ot entirely. Certainly, it’s hard to find much sign of life on Broadway, since little else is open around here during the late fall or the winter. On the two-block stretch nearest the beach there is a ghostly row of vacant arcades and fried-food stands, and the beachfront itself is lined with old concrete buildings. One sports a faded painting of a palm tree, a vestige of past summers when it served as a bar and music club.

But just across the Merrimack River, in Newburyport, one can see a sign of what is to come. There, tourists are undaunted by the change of seasons. Fleece-clad mothers with babies in strollers check out boutiques, coffee shops, and bistros.

Not all Salisbury residents want to emulate their wealthier neighbor across the water. But the contrast between the decline of Salisbury past (a resort town that draws vacationers of all types) and the potential of Salisbury future (an upscale seaside community) has people here on edge.

Salisbury town planner Lisa Pearson is keeping an eye on the rise in property values in a locality that is still subject to seasonal swings between summertime prosperity and off-season squalor. The average home price in Salisbury has skyrocketed by $100,000 in the past year, to well above a quarter-million dollars, she notes.

Salisbury’s condo boom is changing what used to be a summer destination.

“Once the [MBTA commuter] train went in to Newburyport, property values rose,” says Pearson. “You can’t afford anything in the area if you are somebody that grew up here.” Besides commuters to Boston, Pearson says there has been an influx of buyers from nearby communities, such as Methuen, Lawrence, and Lowell, who have traditionally spent part of their summers in Salisbury and now want to live by the beach year-round.

“The south end of the beach is going from primarily a cottage-type atmosphere to condos and year-round rentals,” she says. “You’ll actually see six or seven new construction developments going on right now.”

he condominium boom represents a major change for a community long known as a seasonal destination. During the summer months, Salisbury’s population explodes from 8,000 people to 30,000.

The rising real estate market has meant millions of dollars for developers and some local residents, but it has also caused a lot of angst, says Pearson. Some locals want to take advantage of rising values, but they also want to keep a “slice” of old-time Salisbury, a family-oriented entertainment center that once attracted performers like Frank Sinatra – and a place to live for a working-class population now at risk of being priced out of the town.

An October 25 town meeting was supposed to provide some sense of direction, but it didn’t work out that way. Residents debated a zoning proposal meant to revitalize the beachfront and also set ground rules for development. The committee of residents and town officials that drafted the plan in May wanted, to quote from an informational packet handed out to voters, “to preserve a commercial center with offerings that would attract both local residents and visitors.”

“We were motivated to act quickly both to try to help preserve the center and to create a new environment,” says Jerry Klima, a town selectman who headed the zoning review of the beachfront. “[But] business demand is low, so anyone buying those properties would almost certainly redevelop them as condos.”

The committee’s solution was to rezone the area, dividing it into a larger commercial area and an outlying area reserved for multi-family properties. The commercial area would have been zoned for mixed use, meaning that buildings could house both residential and commercial space. The proposal would have also raised the height limit for buildings in the beachfront district, from 35 feet to 55 feet. That way, developers could squeeze in the same amount of residential space as they could under existing law, while also providing room for ground-floor businesses. But the plan also required developers who took advantage of the rezoning to either build affordable housing units (on the beachfront or elsewhere in town) or contribute thousands of dollars per new condo into a low-income housing fund. The plan was supposed to harness the real estate boom while simultaneously adding to what the state regards as Salisbury’s anemic affordable-housing stock.

The zoning review committee held several meetings between May and October to get input from residents. Heading into the fall town meeting, Klima says, things looked good for the plan. But a few days before the vote, anonymous fliers started appearing around town, with the headline, YOUR PROPERTY RIGHTS ARE UNDER ATTACK.

At the meeting, a boisterous group of opponents, many of them beachfront residents, brought the fliers to life in emotional fashion. The plan was soundly rejected, 280 to 147.

Klima says he was caught off guard.

“We’d had a total of 13 public meetings and many other meetings with beach owners and potential developers,” he recalls. “And we knew that some people were opposed, but a couple of the primary owners had testified in favor of the proposal in front of the planning board just a few weeks before town meeting. We were very surprised by the intensity of the attack on the proposal.”

Beachfront resident Debbie Dastoli was one of those who spoke out against the plan at the October town meeting. She says the proposal and the review process was an “injustice,” complaining that the committee, which she said did not include any actual beachfront residents, failed to hold its meetings at convenient times and ultimately ignored the sentiments of people who would be most affected by the plan.

Dastoli says that the plan would not have directly affected her own property but would have put some of her neighbors’ homes in the new commercial area, where they might have lost their ocean views, their access to the beach, and, ultimately, a good chunk of their property values. “The people in this new commercial overlay district live in little homes with little yards,” she says. “They don’t want to be a part of the commercial area. I wouldn’t want a 55-foot building next to me.”

‘I don’t want another Newburyport. I [still] want to see a fried-dough place.’

What she wants, in part, is old Salisbury. “I don’t want to see another Newburyport,” says Dastoli. “I [still] want to see pizza places and arcades and a fried-dough place.”

hat Salisbury town manager Neil Harrington wants is a different vision for the beachfront. “We certainly need to promote the area as a three-season destination, as opposed to a one-season destination,” says Harrington. That means more sit-down restaurants instead of sidewalk food stands, plus some retail businesses.

Harrington is still trying to get a grasp on what is happening in Salisbury himself. A native of Salem and former mayor ofthat city, Harrington first enjoyed Salisbury as most outsiders do: as a teenager, hitting the beach in the summertime. But the town’s atmosphere was not so fun when he took over a year and a half ago.

“We had had a bad relationship with the state Department of Revenue,” he says. “We were a year behind on our audits. Just before I came, there were some significant cuts that needed to be made in the budget, including cutting the police department in half, eliminating curbside trash pickup, and closing Town Hall two days a week.”

Harrington says he worked hard to get the town back on solid financial footing. He managed to settle labor contracts, complete a town audit, and reorganize the town finance department. He is still trying to restore the police department from 12 to 24 officers and bring back curbside garbage pickup, but he says the town just does not have the money.

Now Harrington says that Salisbury is facing “the ultimate transition,” going from a vacation spot to a year-round community. Rezoning plan or not, he says, the town is changing fast: “We’re either going to shape it in the sense of reating the right kind of zoning environment, which we hope [allows] a reasonable amount of growth, or else we’ll get steamrollered.”

And not just on the beachfront. Large condo developments are being built on both sides of Beach Road, which leads east from Town Hall toward the ocean, creating a stark contrast to the single-family homes that otherwise dot the relatively underdeveloped landscape.

One reason for the condo explosion is Chapter 40-B, a state law that supersedes local zoning laws in order to increase affordable housing. Under 40-B, if less than 10 percent of the housing stock in a city or town is deemed “affordable,” developers may build as many units as they want – as long as 20 to 25 percent of them are priced as affordable. Under state guidelines, affordable works out to about $190,000 for a single-family unit in Salisbury, but with new condos going for $350,000 to $500,000, new construction was hardly going to take the town past that threshold. Meanwhile, Salisbury’s traditional forms of low-income housing, including mobile homes, seasonal motels, and winter rentals, don’t count, even though a quarter of the local population makes less than $25,000 a year – putting the state-approved “affordable” housing well out of reach.

“It’s a travesty when a town such as Salisbury, which has one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the state, has to live with a state law that says we have something between 4 [percent] and 5 percent affordable,” says Harrington. “That’s ludicrous.”

“The reality is, people are getting paid minimum wage and there’s a high cost of housing,” says Deb Smith, executive director of Pettengill House, a nonprofit agency that helps Salisbury residents who are struggling to pay for housing and food. “A great number of our clients live in off-season motels, non-insulated cabins, and winter rentals that are as [expensive] as a mortgage per week. But they can’t come up with the security deposit, first and last month’s rent [for an apartment].”

Smith says that the high cost of housing is not only affecting the underemployed, but also the families of local schoolteachers and policemen, who, even with salaries around the town’s median income of $49,000, cannot afford to buy a home. She says many longtime residents are being forced to move into nearby cities like Haverhill, or across the state border into New Hampshire.

Harrington says that, based on what he heard from Dastoli and other opponents at the town meeting, the rezoning plan he thinks will help bring Salisbury’s past in line with its current reality was simply not explained well enough.

“You can argue that there were a significant amount of public meetings,” he says, “but if people felt that they weren’t included, that’s the reality of the situation. That’s what they felt. We’re not sure whether people were opposed because they don’t want anything to change, or because they weren’t sure what the impact would be on them.”

ack at the beachfront, local business owner Tim Mulcahy steps into his office just off Broadway, a small room caught between the old (a punch-card time clock) and the new (condominium blueprints). On the walls are faded photographs of the old beachfront, depicting a white roller coaster, a nightclub with an ornate marquee that reads “Ocean Echo,” and a street packed with people and Model T Fords.

Mulcahy’s roots here run deep. His forebears were partners in Salisbury Associates, the group of local residents that developed the beachfront more than a century ago. His ancestors ran the famous Frolics Ballroom music venue, and his grandfather invented the “dodgem” car (the precursor to bumper cars), which debuted in Salisbury Beach in 1920 and remained a leading attraction here until the ride was demolished in 1975. Since he was 12, Mulcahy has worked for his family’s beachfront businesses – including Pirate’s Park, which became the last old-fashioned amusement area on the Essex County coast after high-rise condos took over Revere Beach in the early 1990s.

Pirate’s Park is a ‘dinosaur,’ killed off by air-conditioned theaters and malls.

Now Mulcahy calls Pirate’s Park a “dinosaur,” and he’s dismantling the place ride by ride to make way for new condos. He says amusement areas like this have lost out to air-conditioned movie theaters and shopping malls – not to mention easy air travel to behemoth attractions such as Disney World. Instead of fighting change, Mulcahy says, he has decided to embrace development.

“You do want to do something that’s good for the town, but people have to do what they got to do,” he says. “We’re in one of the best home building booms in this century, and this is what people want. They want to be near the beach.”

Mulcahy argues that the changes can benefit all local residents, not just the ones with the means to buy and build, and that’s why he supported the rezoning proposal. He wants to redevelop his property to include both commercial space and affordable housing.

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“I’ve lived here my whole life, my family’s lived here their whole life,” Mulcahy says. “I don’t want to do a project that, when all is said and done, is going to be a burden on the town. I’d like to do something really nice. I’d like to do something that 10, 20 years from now people will say, ‘Wow, the beach is great, it’s so beautiful, the amenities are nice, the people are nice, it’s a great tax base. The town did really well.’”

Members of the zoning review committee hope that more residents, even if they don’t have a direct stake in development, will come around to Mulcahy’s view. They will spend the next few months talking to voters before proposing a new rezoning plan at town meeting in May.

Jesse Hardman is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to National Public Radio. He lives in Somerville.