Opinion

A sticky situation in Peabody

ITEM PHOTO BY OWEN O’ROURKE
The Peabody/Lynn Elks Lodge on Oak Street in Peabody may be torn down to make room for an 80-unit apartment development.

A proposed 80-apartment development on Oak Street, at first glance, looks like a great opportunity for the city and for the Peabody/Lynn Elks Lodge.

The Lodge wants to sell land to a developer and make The Residences at O’Shea Field a reality. The city wants affordable housing and the developer appears intent on meeting that objective.

Everything about the proposal may look good from afar. But a closer look suggests city officials and the Residences’ developer could find themselves wading into a proverbial tar pit. Municipal department heads representing at least three different departments have raised concerns about the Oak Street site.

One concern involves potential flooding and it isn’t a concern to be taken lightly. Anyone who lives in Peabody or drives through it frequently knows how part of the city disappears underwater during a heavy rainstorm.

A second concern focuses on a lack of sufficient park and recreation space near the proposed development site. Compared to potential flooding, open space is probably a lesser concern if the developer can provide recreation amenities for tenants.

But other more serious concerns stand between the proposal and its approval by Peabody officials. School officials warn the Residences could increase overcrowding in local public schools with families moving into the apartment complex looking for schools to send their children.

This worry underscores a common tradeoff city and town officials are forced to weigh when they review big development projects. Large residential complexes bring tax dollars and jobs into communities. But the new development’s residents often include families who need classrooms for their kids.

Revere wrestled with this problem before signing off on the sprawling Overlook development project’s construction on Salem Street. Educators in that city warned North Revere lacked the classroom space to handle the education demands potentially posed by a big development.

But Peabody officials are not going to be able to simply point to the Residences’ plans and use school overcrowding as an excuse to shelve them.

The developer’s attorney said the Oak Street site has been “identified by the city itself as affordable housing.” That statement put Mayor Ted Bettencourt in a semi-defensive posture, forcing him to acknowledge the Oak Street site is included in the city 2013 affordable housing plan.

But Bettencourt, who is intent on having Peabody’s resurgence be a keystone in his legacy, noted in a letter to state officials that the proposed development’s size is much larger than the type of development the city envisions on Oak Street.

No city wants to be perceived as a tough place for developers to do business. No community in Massachusetts wants to be accused of being two-faced when it comes to affordable housing. The Residences proposal is in an early enough discussion stage to allow city officials and the developer to open discussions on a compromise. But one false step could send the city sinking into an expensive legal quagmire

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