Tonight I watched another shameful performance by the Mayor and City Council of Salem (Oregon), who voted unanimously to approve the destruction of Howard Hall, a building that the Historic Landmarks Commission voted unanimously to preserve.
Interesting, to say the least.
A citizen commission made up of experts on historic preservation and the ordinance governing historic buildings such as Howard Hall considers all of the evidence, along with the law, and concludes that Salem Hospital hasn't met three of the four criteria required to destroy the building.
A political body with strong ties to the Chamber of Commerce and Salem's version of the "1%," which in the past has gone along with some horrible decisions tied to back-room dealmaking, miraculously looks at the same evidence and laws, then concludes that, hey, no problem, Salem's largest employer can do whatever it wants with an irreplaceable historic building.
Like I said in my three minutes of blunt, honest, truthful testimony at the Howard Hall hearing, the fix was in.
Download Howard Hall testimony 7-28-14
With Howard Hall, the City Council didn’t wait for Salem Hospital to file an appeal; the council decided to review the Historic Landmarks Commission decision all on its own — an unseemly action for a supposedly neutral quasi-judicial body.
Cynicism about public officials, elected and appointed, is high. I keep hearing “The fix is in; the city council is going to do whatever Salem Hospital wants.”
Well, councilors, remember that your job isn’t to please a large corporation. It is to honor facts and the law. This is what members of the Historic Landmarks Commission did. I urge you to uphold their decision to save Howard Hall.
It was a foregone conclusion that Salem Hospital was going to get its way, because the current folks who run City Hall have never seen a request from a big corporation they didn't foam at the mouth to rubberstamp.
The indefensible absurdity of the City Council decision tonight was made clear by this vignette after the vote had been taken and a brief recess was happening before the next hearing.
I'm sitting in the front row, just in back of the chairs occupied by Councilors Laura Tesler and Chuck Bennett. They're chatting with each other.
I walk up to them and ask each, "So you don't think it is possible to save Howard Hall and also have Salem Hospital build an adaptive playground elsewhere on the eight acre property, using the 87 excess parking spaces the hospital wants for a parking lot much larger than code requires?"
Tesler and Bennett ran like scared bunnies. Tesler said "No comment" over her shoulder, which made me feel like a big-time investigative blogger (thanks for that, Laura). Bennett said "You're just going to write whatever you want, Brian, so what's the point in answering?"
To his credit, Bennett did stay around for a bit more discussing of the variance Salem Hospital got for those 87 extra parking spaces, and also, I believe, to cut down a bunch of trees that otherwise wouldn't be allowed to be removed.
This was the big elephant in the room that no one on the City Council had the guts to point out, though many other people who testified did.
Namely, that it was outrageous for Salem Hospital, a health care provider, to shamelessly pit the blind community against the disabled children community. Among ordinary citizens, there was complete consensus that Salem needs more adaptive playgrounds. And a near consensus that Howard Hall should be preserved.
Now, since the Mayor is fond of calling Salem a "collaboration capital," one would think that the City Council would be interested in finding a win-win on this issue -- preserving Howard Hall and also building an adaptive playground.
This is what I wanted to ask Tesler and Bennett about: Why isn't it possible, as so many people said it was, to preserve historic Howard Hall, which has deep significance to the blind community, and also build an adaptive playground for disabled children -- either elsewhere on the eight acre property or at a nearby public park?
When they refused to address this question, I knew for sure that, yes, the fix was in for Salem Hospital.
If a public official has a good reason for voting the way they did, they're happy to answer questions about the vote. But if their vote is based on no good reason, just political expediency, people like me who want to know the basis for the decision are viewed as an annoyance.
The neighborhood association, SCAN, has appealed the variance that allows the excess number of parking spaces and tree removals. I tried to get Bennett to explain why the City Council couldn't have denied the hospital's request to demolish Howard Hall, stating that if Salem Hospital really wants an adaptive playground, it needs to use some of those excess parking spaces rather than site it on the footprint of Howard Hall.
I got no answer, even though this was a very reasonable question.
Nobody on the City Council thought of asking it, though I sure did at numerous times during the hearing. Hospital staff testified that the adaptive playground was an integral aspect of the planned rehabilitation facility, if not an essential aspect.
Well, if this is the case, why wasn't an adaptive playground planned from the start? Why did it suddenly pop up in plans for the property only after Salem Hospital withdrew its first application to the Historic Landmarks Commission when it thought the Commission was going to reject it?
(It turned out, of course, that even with the adaptive playground, the Historic Landmarks Commission rejected the hospital's request to demolish Howard Hall.)
The reason is, pretty clearly, that Salem Hospital used the adaptive playground as lobbying ammunition, not because it has a deep abiding commitment to a playground for disabled children. If the hospital did have such a commitment, it would be happy to preserve Howard Hall and use part of its unnecessarily large parking lot for an adaptive playground.
However, no city councilor, nor the Mayor, asked the obvious tough question of Salem Hospital staff: "If we decide to preserve Howard Hall, will you still build an adaptive playground elsewhere on the property, since you have said it is such a valuable, if not necessary, part of the rehabilitation center?"
If the hospital had said "Yes," this would have been the win-win solution that neighbors and the blind community had been looking for. If the hospital had said "No," this would have shown that the adaptive playground was just a bargaining tool for Salem Hospital, not a reflection of the hospital's commitment to disabled children.
Unfortunately, the fix was in. No tough questions were asked of Salem Hospital staff, just of those who wanted to preserve Howard Hall.
It made me sad, and sick in a way, to watch tonight's proceedings. Salem deserves better from its elected officials. City councilors and the Mayor did their best to pretend that they had agonized over a tough decision whether to preserve Howard Hall.
But in the end, the vote was unanimous in favor of a large corporation and against the interests of ordinary citizens. Like it almost always is in City HallLland. Shameful. But we've seen a lot of shameful actions by City officials recently.
Let the revolution continue. Until we overthrow crappy decisions at City Hall.