Salem Historic Homes
Winner: City of Salem; supporting partner: Pennrose Properties, Inc.
To the City of Salem for reclaiming a neighborhood from abandonment and creating a vibrant and eco-friendly residential community.
In 2000, Salem City Council invited representatives from Pennrose Properties to visit its small town of 5,857 people to take a look at potential development opportunities. The City leadership was engaged and actively pursuing developers with experience in historic preservation to help restore their shopping district and surrounding neighborhoods. After a tour of the Carpenter Street neighborhood, directly adjacent to the Main Street, Pennrose Properties was convinced it had a found viable project, one that stood to have a major impact on the entire community.
This development potential for the neighborhood and Salem City was not obvious, however. For such a small community – 2.65 square miles – there were large obstacles to overcome. Average residential values (inflation adjusted) had been on the decline for more than 15 years and the City ranked 10th lowest in the state in terms of per-capita income. The project area was commonly perceived as troubled, with vacancy levels approaching 50 percent, abandoned and burnt out homes, high crime activity, and substantial illegal dumping within the neighborhood. Most of the properties in the area were poorly maintained rental properties owned by absentee landlords. As a result, the neighborhood had become unlivable to many within the community, and unmanageable to both the property owners and the City itself, which was rapidly becoming a major property holder as well.
Soon after the site visit, the City designated the Carpenter Street neighborhood as a redevelopment area and began work on a plan that would form the vision for the neighborhood. The redevelopment plan called for historic rehabilitation and new construction of rental housing, the latter to occur on the vacant dumping grounds and in place of burned-out structures within the area. The new construction would also enable the creation of handicap accessible homes, which were practically non-existent given the typical age of the structures within the neighborhood.
With Pennrose Properties on board as the official redeveloper for the project, “Salem Historic Homes” was on its way. Given that the project was, at its core, a major historic rehabilitation effort, Pennrose Properties made it a priority to nominate the Carpenter Street neighborhood for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. They identified the various historic structures within the district, many of which were built in the period of 1890 to 1920 and consisted of saltbox structures. The nomination was a success. The project qualified for Historic Tax Credits and as such the rehabilitation of the existing buildings has been performed to the standards of the National Park Service and the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office. Wherever possible, original building materials have been preserved and recycled.
The improvements needed in the neighborhood did not begin and end with the renovation of the housing stock. The City soon recognized that as the Salem Historic Homes project advanced, its aged sewer and water infrastructure would need a simultaneous upgrade in order to keep up with the increase in demand. To that end, the City sought and received grant and loan funds from the US Department of Agriculture via the Rural Cities program, and combined that with funding from the NJ Department of Transportation and the NJ Department of Community Affairs’ Small Cities grant program. The result was (and will be the) restoration of water and sewer systems and a complete streetscape facelift, including new curbs, sidewalks and street resurfacing.
The historic homes and the new in-fill construction are all designed and constructed in accordance with the USEPA’s Energy Star Program. Each home contains an amenity menu not currently available elsewhere in the City of Salem including central air, off-street parking, and the like. Existing homes saw substantial structural reconstruction.
The NJ Department of Community Affairs’ Green Homes office was also consulted and each phase of construction features sustainable design features that will enhance the lives of the structures, lessen energy usage and promote an affordable living alternative. Some of the sustainable features include: interior storm windows, cement-based plank siding, recycled content flooring, and a job-site recycling program.
In all, the Salem Historic Homes project will produce 104 new apartment units. The first phase of the program is already complete, and the occupancy rate exceeds 80 percent. The neighborhood vacancy is expected to stabilize further (down from 50 to 10 percent) by mid -2004 when project’s second phase will be at full occupancy. The project has already had a ripple effect on real estate sales in adjacent neighborhoods – properties that once took more than a year to sell are now selling in two weeks. Vacancy rates on Main Street dropped more than 50 percent and there is also a new senior housing development in the works.
This project exemplifies what can happen when a community recognizes its most valuable resources – community and history – and leverages the strength of each to restore and build. It is evidence that it is possible to maintain high design standards even in places with fewer economic resources to a successful end.