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Overall warm public response to Salem MBTA garage, but questions remain

Posted by Ryan Mooney  June 27, 2012 08:15 AM

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A computer-generated view of the future Salem commuter rail station garage from the entrance on Bridge Street.

As it goes with massive, multi-million dollar construction projects, questions surrounding the future MBTA parking garage at the Salem commuter rail station - specifically the proposed indoor waiting area and aesthetic design of the whole structure - are abundant.

MBTA officials and the architect for the roughly $39 million, 715-space garage gave a public presentation of the current design - which is 30 percent complete - at the Carlton School on Tuesday night. The audience peppered officials with comments and questions on everything from pedestrian concerns and safety, to accessibility, and what the final project will mean for the future of downtown Salem.

But the overall public reception seems warm to what amounts to a complete overhaul of the current train station.

"Salem is a growing urban community, and I think we do need to embrace that," said Mary DeLai, who has lived off of Bridge Street for the past 12 years.

The new structure will replace the current 340-space lot, but the scope of the renovations encompasses more than parking. Commuters will have an indoor waiting area, an elevated track with intermittent canopies for weather protection, a footbridge from Washington Street to the platform, and bike storage.

Construction is slated to begin next spring or summer, and wrap up in the fall of 2014.

A handful of residents expressed concern with the size of the waiting area - which will be able to hold about 100 people comfortably - but the most commonly addressed issue, which was broached immediately by city councilors in attendance, is the lack of heating and air conditioning within the waiting area.

The current design incorporates a simple system of louvers and windows for temperature control.

"The waiting room needs to be air-conditioned and heated," said City Councilor Tom Furey. "I don't think that's an option. It's an injustice to commuters and to residents to not have that."

"I think a lot of people said it, which is that there needs to be some consideration for heating and cooling," DeLai said. "Particularly for heating during the winter because I think we have a long winter."

Suggestions from the audience included solar panels and only adding one amenity - either heat or air conditioning - so as to not incur too much additional cost, but MBTA officials say the solution is not as easy as some may think.

"The problem with that is in order to incorporate heating and cooling, it's not just adding equipment for the heating and cooling," said MBTA spokesman George Doherty, the project manager. "The glazing would have to be insulated glazing, the roof would have to be insulated, the floor would have to be insulated. It's not a small figure, it's a substantial amount of money.

"Typically our commuter rail stations don't have any heating or cooling spaces because people don't wait at the stations very long...the most important part, especially at this station, is to provide an enclosed area to keep the people out of the weather."

The design has changed substantially since the last public presentation on April 9, and at less than one-third complete still has a way to go. Public comments - and an additional $5 million in state funds allocated to the project earlier this month - resulted in changes such as a wider pedestrian thoroughfare from Bridge Street to the garage, additional canopies, more parking spaces, and a restoration of the historic signal tower.

Some are still not entirely pleased with the design - one resident described it as "blocky and rigid" - saying that it does not do enough to honor historic Salem architecture.

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A computer-generated view of the future parking structure from in front of Salem District Court on Washington Street.

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Jonathan McCredie, the project's architect, answers questions from residents.

Photo by Ryan Mooney

"The design process is a process," said Jonathan McCredie, of Boston-based Fennick McCredie Architecture, the architect for the project. "We've been able to have three public meetings now before even getting to a 30 percent level of the design...the design is going to continue to evolve and modify and develop based on these comments."

Organizations such as Salem State University, the Peabody Essex Museum and North Shore Medical Center - which all had representatives at the meeting - are ecstatic that the project is starting to take shape.

"On behalf of the university and its president, I want to say that we are very supportive of this project," said Dr. Stanley Cahill, executive vice president of Salem State University.

The MBTA filed an expanded environmental notification form with the state in an effort to get the required second filing waived, and will hold a public presentation on the environmental impact of the project at 10 a.m. this Thursday at the City Hall Annex.

If the project does not receive the waiver, it could be delayed for 12 to 15 months.

The next public presentation on the design is scheduled for September.

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