Ah, City of Salem. The games you play.
From what I can tell, an all-too-familiar strategy is being played out with Pringle Square's two-fold request that will be decided at next Monday's City Council meeting:
(1) Give a 10 year property tax break to this private development.
(2) Give up part of RIverfront Park for a road to this private development.
This is added on to the absurd desire to put a Marquis nursing home on the Pringle Square property, even though City staff found that a nursing home isn't an allowed use in the South Waterfront Mixed-Use zone, and Marquis isn't entitled to get a tax break for the nursing home under the ridiculous notion that beds in a short-term rehab facility are the same as "multi-family housing."
So what do you think? Will the Mayor and City Council stand up for the public interest over private interests? Here's what I think.
They should. But they probably won't.
Being the proud possessor of a thick stack of public records request documents related to the atrocious decision by Public Works Director Peter Fernandez to allow US Bank to cut down five downtown trees for no good reason, I can confidently say that politics trumped facts and the law in that instance.
City staff and the City's own Shade Tree Advisory committee, along with every citizen who testified on the issue, said that the trees should be pruned, not cut down. At first Fernandez himself said that he would deny US Bank's tree removal application.
Then the politicking kicked in. Lobbying. End runs around open, transparent public process. Attempts to keep citizens from being able to appeal an utterly appealable bad decision.
I haven't followed the Pringle Square planning in as much detail. But I can feel the same pressure to ignore facts and the law in favor of special interest deal-making. Consider:
Yesterday an online story appeared on the Statesman Journal web site. Reporter Anna Staver wrote "Salem city staff decline to make recommendation on apartment complex at Riverfront Park."
Salem City staff have made the unusual move of avoiding a recommendation of for or against a proposed development of an apartment complex along the southern tip of Riverfront Park.
“Given that this proposal presents both opportunities for the community and possible negative impacts to the City's premier events park, staff believes that the decision to grant the access easements is ultimately a policy decision for Council,” according to the staff report. “Thus, staff's recommendation to Council is to ‘consider’ the request for access, rather than the standard recommendation to ‘accept’ or ‘deny.’”
The developers of the Residences at Riverfront Park are asking Monday night for councilors to approve a redesign of the carousel parking lot to allow a private access road and to waive the site’s property taxes for 10 years.
“A request for the permanent private use of a City of Salem park property is very rare,” according to the staff report. “While such a request would typically be presented to Council with a staff recommendation for denial, this proposal is quite unique given its location and history.”
Kudos to Staver for researching and writing the story. However, I've emailed her asking why the story hasn't appeared in print yet. After all, we're just two days away from the City Council meeting. The public should have been made aware of the newly-released staff report a long time ago.
Which says that typically City staff would recommend that Pringle Square not be allowed to permanently take over part of the public Riverfront Park. But for some reason, this request isn't typical. My suspicion: because a lot of "political" pressure has been brought to bear on the City of Salem.
In this town, as almost everywhere, money talks louder than the public interest. Those who have, like Mountain West Investment and Marquis, get even more, while taxpayers foot the bill for private profit.
The author of the staff report which takes a pass on the typical "denial" recommendation is -- no big surprise -- Peter Fernandez. So here we go again: facts and the law say one thing; a moneyed businessman with strong political connections wants another thing.
Who wins out? We'll learn Monday night at the City Council meeting.
Staver's story reveals hitherto unknown facts about the plan to allow Pringle Square to convert part of the Carousel parking lot into a private thoroughfare into the apartment complex.
The report raised four specific concerns for councilors to address with the developers Monday night.
1) The private access road would not meet city fire code standards. Passing Portland & Western Railroad line trains could block the road and delay emergency response times. Staff recommended working with the developers to expand existing sidewalks in Riverfront Park to allow emergency vehicles to drive from Union Street NE to the apartments in an emergency.
2) The federal Land & Water Conservation Fund gave Salem grant money to build Riverfront Park. That means the city would need permission from the National Park Service to modify the carousel parking lot and to widen the sidewalks for emergency vehicles. City staff believe the park service will require the developer to donate 8,900 square feet of its land for park use in exchange for the sidewalks.
3) “Access to a residential development through a park parking lot is not compatible with the Riverfront Park Master Plan,” according to the report. “The master plan will need to be amended if the city ultimately grants access.”
4) Staff raised three concerns about the complex’s impact on Riverfront Park: The maintenance facility would need to be relocated. The new driveway would complicate event organizers’ abilities to control traffic during large events because that entrance couldn’t be closed. The new parking lot configuration could raise safety concerns for children visiting the carousel.
Fernandez' staff report is dated Tuesday, August 20. I believe it was released as part of the Council meeting agenda background materials. Don't know exactly when. I looked for the agenda earlier in the week and didn't find it online at the time.
The Statesman Journal put up an online story about the staff report Friday. Comments from those who noticed the story are almost entirely against giving away part of the park to a private developer. Maybe a story wll be in the SJ print edition tomorrow. Dick Hughes' twitter feed says he is writing an editorial about this issue for the Sunday paper.
So at a Council meeting in late August, when many people are on vacation or not tuned in to civic affairs, the City of Salem plans to make a decision on a request that city staff say typically would be denied, with virtually no information or notice given in advance to the public about how Pringle Square's private road would affect much-beloved Riverfront Park.
This is no way to run a city.
Once again, the public interest seemingly is being viewed as an inconvenient road block to acceding to special interests. I suspect that City leaders expect there to be an outcry if the Carousel access is approved, just as there was when the US Bank trees were cut down for no good reason.
For Salem's City officials, an outcry is a small price to pay for giving large private businesses what they want. The Chamber of Commerce is happy. Users of Riverfront Park aren't, but who cares?
Along that line, I noted in the staff report that the contention of Pringle Square developers that more parking spaces somehow will materialize in the Carousel parking lot if part of the lot is used for a private road to the apartments is misleading.
Construction of the new driveway will also require a complete reconstruction of the existing 72-space Riverfront Park parking lot. The development proposal includes a reconfigured 78-space parking lot. The additional six spaces are created through a small land donation to the City and creation of 33 compact parking spaces, 41 standard-sized spaces, and four ADA- accessible spaces for park users.
So the Carousel parking lot would change from what I assume are 72 standard parking spaces, to 41 standard spaces and 33 compact spaces (plus 4 ADA spaces). Good luck on getting those strollers out of your minvans, moms and dads, when you have to park in a space designed for a small car.
If this bad idea is approved by the City Council and Mayor, you should send them the bill for fixing the dings and scratches on your car door when you try to squeeze out in order to enjoy Riverfront Park.
Tell the City Council how you feel about the plan to give away part of Riverfront Park to a private developer: Citycouncil@cityofsalem.net