Mixed-use project raises hope for Salisbury Beach comeback

INTRO TEXT Like the wooden roller coaster that once dominated its Atlantic Ocean skyline, Salisbury Beach’s economic fortunes have climbed and fallen with changing times and demographics. Once a summer magnet drawing crowds from the Merrimack Valley and beyond to its wide sand beach and a center packed with rides, games, and other entertainment, Salisbury Beach is now in a commercial funk. In recent years, condominiums have sprung up along the coast, including where the coaster and hand-carved carousel once stood, but even that growth has cooled with the housing chill. And except for a few food stands and the venerable Joe’s Playland arcade, little is left to attract even the summer crowd, let alone year-round commerce.

But the ambitious “place making” plans of a Boston–based developer with a heady resume of waterfront turnarounds are offering hope for a Salisbury Beach revival and for a level of public/private cooperation often lacking in the Commonwealth. The Thompson Design Group, whose portfolio includes such marquee projects as Faneuil Hall, Union Station in Washington, DC, New York’s South Street Seaport, and Baltimore’s Harborplace, has secured options on most of the 70 or so properties it needs for a massive redevelopment of the town’s oceanfront center.

Roller coasters are not part of the future.

Jane Thompson, principal of the firm since the death of her husband, architect Ben Thompson, in 2003, says she hopes to have a concept plan ready for Salisbury town meeting this spring that will feature a mix of residential, commercial, and entertainment uses, including a “village center” that will reflect Salisbury Beach’s location and history. “We’ve always appreciated the natural attraction of this truly extraordinary beach and understand that people have always wanted to come here,” she says. “While roller coasters are not in our repertory any more, there are exciting things we can do with the waterfront. And there must also be fun in this place.”

Thompson said her firm’s approach is the same with Salisbury Beach as with other projects, including a current one in the once similarly rundown oceanfront community of Long Branch, New Jersey. After 12 years of what she terms “intense collaboration” with local officials, that effort is now being built out. “Seasonality is what destroyed Long Branch. The challenge, which we also face in Salisbury, is to have a mix of people who actually live and, to some extent, work there in order to keep the place alive,” says Thompson. “Practically everything I’ve ever done has involved taking the worst situation in a place and getting it back to what that particular site would best yield at this point in its history.”

Except for Joe’s Playland, little is left
in Salisbury to attract summer crowds.
Photo by Meghan Moore.
She adds, “We don’t get scared off by a project being too big or too complicated. Our approach is to create the vision and concept and make every stakeholder a partner. Public/private partnership is the way the world has to work now.”

While anxious for details—like how big a footprint, how many residential units, and what kind of commercial growth and amenities are envisioned—town officials are encouraged by Thompson’s comprehensive, rather than piecemeal, approach to both land acquisition and development, says Salisbury planning board chairman Robert Straubel. “We hope to come up with a vision that incorporates what people have told us they want for the beach,” says Straubel, who also heads a committee developing a town-wide master plan that he plans to present at town meeting. “Thompson can hopefully use that vision to produce an area that people will be proud of and that can also make money for the developer.”

In 2005, Salisbury created a Beach Overlay District that changed zoning rules in the town center. The intent was partly to close the door on a casino—the talk of which had stalled other development for nearly a decade—and to attract the kind of mixed-use, large-scale development envisioned by Thompson. “We changed our business model to be much more business-friendly and much more transparent about what we expect from the development community,” says Chris Reilly, the town’s director of economic development. “Problems come when that message is not clearly conveyed or things come out of left field. We want to have a streamlined public process to give responsible, reasonable developers a level of comfort so that they can come here and know what they have to do to move their process forward.”

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Besides approval from the town, the developer will also need a bevy of state permits for its oceanfront plans. Thompson says the firm will work closely with the state on wetlands issues and “on improving life for the adjacent [state-owned] beach, including possibly sharing some infrastructure and other resources.”

Eugene Dean Jr. is among property owners who have sold land options to Thompson. For decades, the property his father bought in 1935 housed a range of amusement businesses. In recent years, Dean spent more than $1 million converting his building into a year-round bar and function room. “I did not succeed because there are not enough day-traffickers to the beach any more,” he says. “Thompson could be very positive for Salisbury Beach, which remains an undiscovered treasure.”