Last Wednesday I managed to drag my retired body and mind to an astoundingly early 9 a.m. meeting of the Streetscape Committee at the Urban Development office in downtown Salem.
Carole Smith, an early and ongoing proponent of streetscaping downtown (see the web page I made about these initial efforts) is on the committee. After learning from her about the exciting plans being discussed by the group, I wanted to attend the committee's second meeting to see for myself what they were up to.
In short: great stuff.
Streetscaping the Historic District would be wonderfully transformative for downtown -- which has a lot of untapped potential. Here's how a draft statement of purpose handed out at the meeting starts out.
Download Downtown Streetscape Plan
The purpose of the Downtown Streetscape Plan is to create an environment through streetscape that is attractive, inviting, consistent, interesting, fun, colorful, low maintenance and representative of Salem's "unique" qualities. (Brands our downtown and makes you want to linger.)
Now, the Streetscape Committee isn't actually developing a plan. They're basically coming up with the scope of services that will be performed by the consulting firm chosen as the successful bidder after a RFP (request for proposals) is publicized by City officials.
Those consultants will facilitate public meetings, likely starting this fall, where citizens will be able to weigh in on how they want to see downtown streetscaped.
Normally I'd be worrying that this could be another case where a great plan for making Salem better in some fashion is developed, but then sits on a shelf and is never implemented. This seems much less likely with the Streetscape Committee's work, for these reasons.
(1) The committee is being led by Urban Development Director Kristin Retherford and CB Two architect Aaron Terpening. I was impressed with how they handled the meeting. After it was over I talked with Retherford at some length and came away feeling good about the prospects for this project.
(2) Retherford told the committee that about $30 million in Urban Renewal money is available soon. Top priorities are streetscape and downtown housing (plus maybe also "Toolbox" grants/loans; wasn't sure about this). These Urban Renewal funds need to be divvied up between various uses, but there seems enough to make a good start on streetscaping downtown.
(3) Unlike other contentious City of Salem projects -- such as the controversial Third Bridge/Salem River Crossing -- the diverse members of the Streetscape Committee seem to be pretty much in agreement. When Nick Williams of the Chamber of Commerce is agreeing with progressive activist Carole Smith, as happened at yesterday's meeting, that's a great sign.
Still, there was some spirited discussion on several topics.
One issue concerned who would be involved in selecting the consulting firm that would develop a Downtown Streetscape Plan. Several members urged Retherford to involve the committee in this. She was cautious about that prospect, citing standard procedures for evaluating RFPs.
Artistic competence was repeatedly mentioned as being an important criterion for choosing the consultants. It does seem like some citizens with artistic credentials should be able to review and comment on previous streetscape work by the firms responding to the RFP.
Another issue actually was discussed after the meeting ended.
Carole Smith and I talked with Retherford about a few subjects. I told her that I thought the Streetscape Committee was off to a good start, but was concerned about the lack of discussion of what streets would be eligible for streetscaping -- given how critical this obviously is to the success of the project.
Here's a map showing the streets that City staff currently consider to be potentially streetscapable (in green; yellow are streets with existing bike lane improvements).
Only east-west streets (Chekeketa, Court, State) are shown as "Potential Streetscape." Liberty and Commercial, major north-south streets, aren't shown as streetscapable.
I told Retherford that this needs to be reconsidered.
Liberty and Commercial are the streets that most downtown visitors use to reach the Historic District. They are the "front door," so to speak, for downtown. Their appearance provides an overall impression of what the Historic District is like, an ambience that should reflect the brand/vibe of a newly vitalized downtown.
Retherford responded with talk about the periodic review of City transportation and comprehensive plans, which won't happen for a while. Smith noted that changing the designation of Liberty and Commercial from "major arterial" to something more cyclist/pedestrian friendly would just require a City Council vote, so this could be done if the will existed.
The issue is whether Liberty and Commercial should be put on a Road Diet as part of the Downtown Streetscape Project.
A key feature of a Road Diet is that it allows reclaimed space to be allocated for other uses, such as turn lanes, bus lanes, pedestrian refuge islands, bike lanes, sidewalks, bus shelters, parking or landscaping.
...As more communities desire "complete streets" and more livable spaces, they look to agencies to find opportunities to better integrate pedestrian and bicycle facilities and transit options along their corridors. When a Road Diet is planned in conjunction with reconstruction or simple overlay projects, the safety and operational benefits are achieved essentially for the cost of restriping. A Road Diet is a low-cost solution that addresses safety concerns and benefits all road users — a win-win for quality of life.
I look forward to vigorous, open, passionate public discussion of this issue and all of the other streetscape design features.
It's encouraging that the Streetscape Committee is calling for quite a few charettes next fall where consultants and City staff will hear from Salem citizens about how they want to see streetscaping carried out in the Historic District.