BY TOM DALTON
---- — 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.
During Probate Court renovations, the state might need to spend as much as $500,000 to build a temporary heating system for those other two buildings, according to Keenan.
“My goal is to put these (buildings) out to bid and get them on the rolls quick enough that we wouldn’t have to do that,” Keenan said.
This may be a good time to seek proposals. The MBTA is set to start construction this spring or early summer on a $37 million upgrade to the commuter rail station, a project that includes a new garage with nearly 700 spaces.
The prospect of added parking could attract developers, Keenan said.
He also mentioned that redevelopment could provide an opportunity for Salem State University to establish a presence downtown. The college was the only state entity to show some interest in the court buildings.
“I’m not speaking on behalf of Salem State University,” he said. “I’m just saying I would love to see Salem State University ... downtown.”
Officials who have looked at the buildings agree that they present both opportunities and challenges, financial and structural. The oldest of the three structures was built before the Civil War.
Keenan said it may be necessary to raze the District Court because of the difficulty and cost of converting it to another use.
Even so, a top city official spoke positively of the prospect of the SRA taking over those properties.
“The SRA has a really strong track record,” City Planner Lynn Duncan said.
In the case of the Salem Jail, the city tried twice unsuccessfully to develop the property before turning it over to the SRA, which was seen as a more flexible agency with more options. The agency can, for example, target the kind of development it wants.
“They’ve got the expertise,” Lovely said of the five-member board. “They’re all professionals in either architecture and development or those types of professional backgrounds.
“They’re a great group, and I’d love to see them be able to take the buildings and get them transformed and reused.”
Keenan said he has run this proposal past the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, which oversees state property and handled the $106 million construction of the new courthouse. The bill, he stressed, is not a slight on the agency, which he said has been a “great partner” in Salem.
“But we have a vehicle with the SRA,” Keenan said, “that’s intended to do these types of projects, so why wouldn’t we take advantage of that?”