NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Local News

January 22, 2013

Salem seeks empty courts

Bills ask state to turn three buildings over to Redevelopment Authority

SALEM — If the Salem Redevelopment Authority was able to rescue the Salem Jail and the old police station from the wrecker’s ball, why couldn’t it take over redevelopment of the vacant and aging court buildings?

That, more or less, was the thinking behind bills filed Friday by state Rep. John Keenan and co-sponsored by newly elected state Sen. Joan Lovely.

The bills call for the state to sell the buildings to the city for $2.

Both Lovely and Keenan were around a decade ago — Keenan as city solicitor and Lovely as a city councilor — when the 1813 jail and 1913 police station were turned over to the SRA, and both want to give it a whirl one more time.

“Remember the old Salem Jail?” Keenan said. “When I was solicitor, we went to court to prevent the state from tearing it down and, ultimately, to transfer the property to the city.”

That led, in time, to the SRA’s gaining control and redeveloping the jail into condominiums and a restaurant. The old police station on Central Street, next to Red’s Sandwich Shop, also became condos.

“I want local control,” Keenan said of the court buildings. “I want to make sure it moves as quickly as possible.”

With the opening of the new J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center and plans to renovate the adjacent Salem Probate and Family Court, Keenan feels this is the right time to move on the other three buildings on or near courthouse row: Superior Court, the County Commissioners Building and District Court.

The state put out feelers to state agencies more than a year ago and got little interest, causing concern locally that these historic buildings could sit dormant for years.

There are reasons to act now, Keenan said. Once renovations begin on Probate Court, which is expected to start next year, the building would lose its furnace, which provides enough heat for the “warm mothballing” of Superior Court and the County Commissioners Building.

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