By Jess Bidgood
Mar. 31, 2011
SAUGUS, Mass. — When many people in Massachusetts think of Saugus, they think of a place to go through. The mid-size town, nestled between urban outgrowths like Lynn and Revere and decidedly suburban Melrose and Wakefield, is plonked right on Route 1. It's practically unavoidable if you’re headed fairly north of Boston.
For decades, the town has able to traded on a steady stream of Route 1 traffic, says Town Manager Andrew Bisignani.
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“The far majority of our development has been retail. We have a shopping mall in town, we have numerous strip malls, we have over 130 eating establishments,” Bisignani said.
This forest of commerce has powered Saugus' economy -- and filled its coffers. Thirty-three percent of the town's tax levy comes from commercial properties, which is much higher than most of the state’s towns. That’s helped Saugus offer the residents of its mostly-single-family homes full-service at one of the state’s lower tax rates.
But as the town faces down a $1.5 million budget gap for this year, some Saugonians say there could be more to their town's economy than Route 1 retail.
Town Meeting member and lifelong Saugus resident Peter Manoogian is driving a straight, reed-lined highway called Route 107. He stops at a spot many outsiders don't know about: Saugus' riverfront.
“This is lobstermans landing, this is a yacht club here,” Manoogian said.
Functioning lobster boats line the river's edge, moored next to a beautiful dock and a small boat house. But one lot over, there’s a dilapidated, empty restaurant for sale.
“There’s vacant parcel next to it, that you can see. Across the street, that red a-frame roof, that’s vacant. There’s a junkyard over there, that’s the incinerator, used cars there, used cars here. This is the entrance to the community,” Manoogian said.
Manoogian is not the only Saugonian who might like to see this area transformed into a buzzing waterfront, with shops and restaurants, like you’d find in Newburyport.
But here’s the thing about Saugus. The town hasn’t significantly updated its zoning bylaws since the 1970s. And those bylaws go back even further, to the end of the 19th century, when you had to set aside riverfront property for industrial buildings, like mills.
“Some retail use, manufacturing, light manufacturing, the very things that the state has lost jobs on are pretty much the only things that are allowed for under the zoning by-laws,” Manoogian said.
It worries Steve Nelson, another Saugus lifer who I spoke to at the town’s Hammersmith Diner – the place you go if you want to talk politics in town.
“We’re not going forward with the economy, or the way the town is shaped, staying status quo,” Nelson said. “We’re kind of like, putting ourselves back.”
Janet Leuci has been working for ten years to bring affordable housing to Saugus. Among other initiatives, she’s interested in converting the town’s Central Mills – currently occupied by some light factory operations – to combined apartments, stores and art studios.
She’s constantly navigating zoning – and says that what’s missing in Saugus is a vision for town planning.
“I think a comprehensive plan is necessary for the future of the town. I think that we’ll continue with haphazard zoning, haphazard projects that aren’t connected, that really don’t benefit the town,” Leuci said.
Saugus doesn’t have a full-time community planner. And the last time planning legislation was taken up, in the mid 1990s, it was decided any plans would be non-binding: A guide, not a plan.
And although Saugus’ retail sector has grown without such a plan, businesspeople who make their living off retail want to have a comprehensive discussion about zoning and development, too.
Take Cory Berkowitch, who has owned Sachem Signworks since the late 1980s. Most businesses interested in coming to Saugus have to go to him first -- since they can't open without signs.
Berkowitch said, in his view, there are a number of old rules that need to change.
“No balloons, no banners ouside your store, no flags, um, no a-frames, no awnings,” Berkowitch said. “It kind of hurts my business, cause I have to tell people when they come into town that they can’t have a lot of things.”
Berkowitch says he’s seen a number of businesses turn away from Saugus when they learn those rules.
Town Manager Bisignani said signage rules do need to be looked at – and agrees the town could benefit from a more centralized approach to town planning. He said there just aren't any resources to do that now.
“When the economy improves, and we do have some additional revenues, then we probably will go forward and bring in an org to formulate some sort of a central, long-term plan for the town. But as it stands now, we’re more focused on just maintaining our level of services and standard of living in the town,” Bisignani said.
But Selectman Scott Crabtree thinks now might be the right time to push for a plan. Saugus’s crime rate has dropped in the last few years, and its schools became something of a success story when they improved from a state-designated Level 3 school to a Level 2.
“We’re at a crossroads here. I think that we’ve really made some progression,” Crabtree said. “There’s been a change in the sense of understanding that investing money towards different ideas like the town planner, parks and playgrounds, or the schools, uh, is actually something that pays dividends.”
Crabtree is holding a forum to showcase these investments, and he hopes the town may come to see that investing in a community plan can pay dividends for them, too.
Manoogian has big ideas about what the right plan could bring to Saugus.
“The question that many ask, that I ask, is, what if. What if we had a different zoning bylaw or master plan with the incentives to attract less intensive uses that would yield more tax revenue,” Manoogian said. “If Google’s looking for a place to go, or Genzyme, why do they go to Cambridge? Why wouldn’t they want to bring those jobs here?”
“It’s not my decision to make, it’s a community conversation,” Manoogian continued. “One that we haven’t had in quite some time.”
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