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Salem copes with downsized MBTA garage proposal

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2011

State Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey has pledged that a new Salem MBTA garage will be built.

Call it form over function, or style versus substance.

No matter the language, that’s the dilemma facing a long-delayed MBTA garage in Salem that just got a vote of confidence from state officials, albeit in a downsized way.

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Once proposed to be as large as 800 to 900 parking spaces, the garage could now be limited to 500 spaces. With the T facing a $161 million deficit, the project that once was penciled in for as much as $45 million is now only being allotted $31 million.

So, at the behest of Salem officials, architects for the garage that will be part of a larger renovation of the Salem commuter rail station are drawing up less ornate designs ahead of a Feb. 16 community meeting. The design team from Boston-based Fennick McCredie Architecture will present different options to the public at next month’s hearing at the Carlton School.

“Does that mean we want more parking spaces and less fancy designs on the outside of the garage? Those are some of the decisions we are asking the design team to weigh so we can come to a consensus,’’ said state Representative John Keenan, a Salem Democrat, during a telephone interview last week. “I have some thoughts, but we want to hear from the public as well.’’

Throughout all the starts and stops the garage has suffered, many Salem residents have emphasized the need to make the structure aesthetically appealing.

“I ask you to take this conceptual design and the $45 million and build a beautiful garage,’’ one commuter wrote in a 2009 MBTA document containing public comment on the garage. “Build a garage that is big enough so that it will serve us for years to come, and one that all of us will be proud to have in this historic city.’’

Keenan said he “respects the historic nature of Downtown Salem, but at the same time we can’t expect the entire facade is going to be brick. We’re going to have to be creative.’’

Certain amenities, however, are nonnegotiable for Keenan. Given the fact that the station sits on the North River and is often called the coldest in the MBTA’s system, a heated waiting area is a must, he said.

“It has to be ample enough for a number of folks there to use it,’’ he said. “I think the architect suggested a way to be able to do that and not increase the cost too much.’’

Aside from being proposed during the MBTA’s recent budget woes, the project was also further fiscally hampered by the recent discovery of an old roundhouse and turntable structure buried at the site. And the possibly contaminated soil conditions require deep pile foundations that will also drive up the project’s cost, according to T spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

“As the design develops and the costs are more clearly defined, the project team will add as many parking spaces to the project as possible,’’ he wrote in an e-mail.

About 340 cars can currently park at the station. And if the garage is only 500 spaces, the roughly 100 garage spots that were supposed to be designated for employees of the new J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center would be lost. Keenan said the city is looking into partnerships with private developers to build garages on vacant parcels in the area.

“We’re not out of options,’’ he said. “There are other ways to address the issue.’’

The MBTA garage is projected to be put out to bid sometime this year or next. Secretary of Transportation Richard A. Davey pledged his support for the garage on Dec. 11 at the North Shore Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the Danversport Yacht Club.

“We certainly had some setbacks on the Salem garage,’’ said Davey, who in his talk noted that the state only recently cut a ribbon on a T project that was started during the Romney administration. Turning to Salem mayor Kim Driscoll, he said, “Mayor, you have my commitment that we will get this thing done. And it won’t be [when Mitt] Romney’s son . . . is governor 20 years from now. We will get it done sooner rather than later.’’

Pesaturo said it’s important to note that the garage is only one component of the $31 million Salem Station project. The plan also include raising the height of the train platforms, a pedestrian connection bridge from Bridge Street, and signal work at the Bridge Street intersection.

“To maintain the primary elements of the project’s scope, the parking garage is where costs need to be reduced in order to cover the costs of all of the project’s other elements (and to address the structural costs related to the soil conditions),’’ Pesaturo wrote in the e-mail.

Keenan said it would be unfair to squabble with the T for more money for the garage, given the fact that the MBTA is facing major fare hikes and service cuts.

“We should be appreciative the T is investing $30 million into Salem,’’ Keenan said. “I can’t in good conscience say we should invest more money into the project.’’

Justin A. Rice can be reached at jrice.globe@gmail.com.
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