Are there better ways for Salem's citizens to spend $70 million than what City Hall is planning -- a brand new police department building and a massive redesign of the civic center, along with seismic upgrades?
Sure seems so.
That's what I learned by spending my Friday night at a meeting sponsored by Salem Community Vision, a new group formed by some old-timers with a lot of experience in architecture, construction, urban planning, and community involvement.
As reported previously, local architect Geoffrey James came up with the idea for the meeting. Gene Pfeifer, a Silverton resident with 45 years of design/build experience, chaired the discussion (he was instrumental in finding a way to fix Courthouse Square's structural problems).
Here's my three major takeaways from listening to some highly knowledgeable and experienced people talk about what is right and wrong with how the City of Salem is going about the planned $70 million civic center renovation.
(1) Seismic upgrades and a new police department building are needed. There was no debate about the need to earthquake-proof the Salem Library and remainder of the Civic Center. Nor about the need for a new police headquarters. So on these points the Salem Community Vision attendees and City officials are in full agreement. But...
(2) There are better ways to do this than what the City is planning. Let's break apart the price tag for the above-mentioned goals. Salem Community Vision is going to ask the City for its own cost estimates, but last night some reasonable assumptions were made.
Recently the City of Eugene, which is almost exactly the same size as Salem, built a new police department building for $17 million. This video shows how it was done, and what Eugene got for that money.
Eugene rebuilt an existing office building away from the civic center. Geoffrey James showed a slide with a number of locations around Salem where the same thing could be done here.
But in 2010-2011, when students from the University of Oregon's Sustainable Cities Initiative were asked to come up with ideas for a new police department building, they were told by the City to restrict their planning to the civic center area.
The City of Salem asked students in a University of Oregon Architecture studio course to develop a 75,000 square foot police station within the four- block Civic Center site.
So let's assume that Salem could do what Eugene did: build a spiffy functional, large, earthquake proof police department headquarters for $17 million by renovating an existing building away from the civic center.
That leaves seismic upgrades for the Library, City Hall, and parking structures.
Last night an estimate of $15 million to $25 million was made by knowledgeable experts. Using the higher figure this leaves us with a total cost of $42 million: $17 million for a new police department, $25 million for civic center seismic upgrades.
Way below the City's proposed $70 million bond measure, which probably is an under-estimate -- given the City's prior inability to forecast costs of big-ticket projects accurately. So likely there are ways to halve the cost of the City's current civic center/police department plan, while getting almost all of the benefits.
The "benefits," which to many at the meeting actually were negatives, include doing away with much of the Peace Plaza to make room for a new City Council meeting room, along with reducing the size of Mirror Pond.
Thus there was a clear consensus that the City needs to rethink its basic assumptions about this project, especially since up until now planning for the renovations and new police department has been shrouded in secrecy.
Which gets me to...
(3) The City of Salem needs to be much more open and collaborative. Over and over, including last night, I've heard long-time community volunteers/activists say "I've never encountered a Salem city government that is so closed, suspicious, and secretive."
Frustrations are extreme. And from what I've both observed from afar and personally experienced, justified.
The standard operating procedure of City Hall these days is to make a closed-door decision among top staff, elected officials, and a few handpicked insiders, then try to sell that decision to a public that wasn't previously involved in (or even informed about) the planning process.
This is a horrible way to manage any enterprise, especially a government entity.
It goes against the principles of good management that apply to public and private organizations alike (rigid top-down control went out of fashion a long time ago) and the special requirements of publically financed transparency.
Somewhere along the line officials at the City of Salem lost touch with a simple guiding principle: they are public servants. Disturbingly, I don't see anyone -- not the City Manager, not the Mayor, not City Councillors, not top management -- speaking out about how public involvement is being willfully disregarded and disrespected.
In a freshly put up Public Safety and Civic Center page, the City admits that it has only now started community outreach in an attempt to garner support for a $70 million bond measure. Problem is, the City has already spent years deciding what it wants to do with that $70 million (which, again, could end up being more like $90 million).
It's like a car salesman who says, "What sorts of options do you want on this $70,000 car that my dealership will be pleased to finance for you today?"
You reply, "Hey, how about that $40,000 car over there? That will fit our needs fine, thank you. Please don't try to sell me something I'm not interested in; it's my money at stake here, not yours."
Hopefully the City of Salem will belatedly realize that citizens are tired of being presented with already-decided policies and projects. Involve Salemians early on and often, city officials, not late and rarely. For your own self-interest, as well as the public interest.
Ignoring people until you want their approval for something isn't a good way to be successful. Either in sales, or in goverment service.