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Salem cineplex plan seeks new life amid cleanup work

SALEM — CW Theaters is cleaning up asbestos in the soil of its Highland Avenue site, with efforts underway to modify and re-present a fresh version of its entertainment complex proposal early next year.

Workers wearing hazmat suits were seen Monday on the site, the former home of Highland Gardens, a landscaping business at 355-373 Highland Ave. Ed Coletta, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the work is part of a monthslong plan by CW Theaters to remove contamination on the property. 

Initially, the cleanup involved about 30 cubic yards of asbestos-contaminated soil, Coletta said, but more contaminated material has been found on the property that will require the company’s current “non-traditional work plan” with the DEP to be adjusted. The site was also recently stripped clean of structures, after it was found that homeless were living in the empty buildings.

Jim Deal, a spokesman with CW Theaters, said illegal dumping had also taken place on the property, and the company “had to have some of that stuff removed.”

The work precedes a revamped plan for the project, although Deal declined to provide details. The previous proposal included a 10-screen movie theater with paired dine-in restaurant, arcade, laser tag and more.

That proposal, despite receiving support from the city, saw heated opposition from neighbors, many of whom were concerned with how the project would affect traffic on Highland Avenue. The road, a cut-through between Marblehead and Swampscott roads, already sees backups daily.

Many have also viewed the project, which was proposed almost three years ago, as a nonstarter. Ward 3 City Councilor Steve Lovely, during his unsuccessful run for re-election this fall, even vowed to “keep it from rising from the grave” if he received a second term.

Instead, the project is “actually moving along,” Deal said. 

“We’re still hopeful it can happen in the near future,” Deal said of the project. “We have made some changes to make the theater a little more luxurious, which I think helps the traffic situation.”

The announcement, he said, will come sometime “in the new year.”

The cleanup going on right now is a necessary step to that end, according to Coletta. While asbestos is more typically an issue in old buildings and structures being demolished, it can be found in soil where it was mishandled.

“In order to move forward,” he said, “as far as construction at the site is concerned, they have to deal with the contamination.”

This served as a sort of verification of rumors for Tim Flynn, Ward 4 city councilor-elect. Flynn has been active since winning in the Nov. 7 election to stay abreast of ward issues and pass information on to his soon-to-be constituents. CW Theaters has been a big part of that, he said.

“I’ve been going by every day,” Flynn said of the CW Theaters site. “I always stop.”

Flynn said he remains opposed to the project, highlighting concerns he has over traffic from the project, the addition of a traffic light on the already besieged state roadway and more. But he said he hopes to bring the company together with neighbors to talk details soon, he said.

That comes after several other projects across the city have done the same — meeting with neighbors and tweaking plans to make them more appealing before submitting them formally.

For CW Theaters, Flynn said he hopes that more details come out soon.

“I want the neighbors to be informed about what’s going on there,” Flynn said. “If the owner does want to proceed with the project, he’s going to want to talk to people right away — immediately.”

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or Follow him on Facebook at or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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