Willows pier: Demo now, replace later

·3 min read

Jun. 10—SALEM — City officials are speeding up their plans to replace the Salem Willows pier.

This year's capital improvement plan from Mayor Kim Driscoll outlines $11.6 million in projects that will require $9.8 million in borrowing. Of that amount, $900,000 is earmarked for replacement of the park's historic pier, which has been closed since 2019 due to extensive storm damage.

The actual replacement project won't start until at least next year, but Harbormaster Bill McHugh said the pier's condition is too great a safety risk to leave the structure standing.

"We're worried about the existing pier being an attractive nuisance and a hazard to navigation," McHugh said. "Especially on hot days, you don't want kids going out there jumping off of it."

A popular spot often used for fishing, the pier was initially built as a steamer wharf before a top-to-bottom renovation in the 1970s.

After the pier was damaged during storms in 2018, the city spent $65,000 to repair it, with plans for a full replacement in the years ahead. But storms in the fall of 2019 caused more damage, prompting the city to close the pier.

McHugh said the pier's current state poses two safety issues. Looking beyond the dangers of children trespassing onto it to jump into the water below, McHugh said there's a fear of timbers falling off the pier and drifting into Salem Harbor, where they can cause "catastrophic" damage to unsuspecting boats.

"About a week and a half ago, myself and the deputy harbormaster found a drifting deadhead, a drifting piece of the pier," McHugh said.

That deadhead — a roughly 30-foot-long piece of timber originally on the underside of the pier to support it — was still partially attached at the time, according to McHugh. But the timbers lack just enough buoyancy that if they manage to drift away, they'll do it just below the water's surface and be tough to spot before punching a hole in a traveling boat's hull.

The $900,000 spending from the city represents a 25% match to activate funding from the state for the rest of the project, Mayor Kim Driscoll said.

"The Willows pier is something we've repaired a number of times," Driscoll said. "It's just at the point where it's outlived its lifespan, so we've been coordinating with state officials on a state grant program to build out a new pier. This grant funding will be our match for that requirement."

That said, the price tag on the pier still hasn't been locked in.

There are material discussions underway, and one unresolved question on the height of the pier, McHugh explained. Build too low, and storms could damage it again. Build it too high, and you can't safely catch fish and throw them back.

"The problem is the pier is roughly at plus-10 right now," McHugh said, explaining that its height is 10 feet above sea level. "If you want to plan for a height above sea level that would maybe cover all anticipated sea-level rise and storm surges in the next few decades, then it'd likely be unproductive as a fishing pier."

The new pier will take the shape of a T, McHugh said. Most of it is 12 feet wide, versus the current pier's 22-foot width, but it will end by branching out to the left and right, finishing with a final width of 60 feet.

Demolition would happen later this summer, and work on the replacement pier could start next year, though McHugh said it's unclear if construction would finish in 2022 or 2023.

"Things are starting to really come together now," McHugh said. "The state finished Deer Island. We're next in the queue, and they have to build up their revenues to start the next project."

To respond to this story or suggest another, contact Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.