TO: Kristin Retherford
City of Salem Urban Development Director, and
Chair, Downtown Salem Streetscape Committee
FROM: Brian Hines
RE: Thoughts about transforming downtown Salem through a Streetscape Project
Kristin, I'm super-enthused about what your Streetscape Committee is doing. Carole Smith, one of the members, has shared her synopsis of the committee's first meeting with me.
You've got a big job ahead of you, and I'm one of many people in Salem cheering you on who both love downtown as it is, while also realizing how much better it could be through transformative streetscaping.
Because I've followed with great interest the initial streetscape efforts of Smith, Eric Kittleson, Susan Huston, Alan Costic and other people ever since I heard about their work a few years ago, I want to share some thoughts with the Streetscape Committee about how they should proceed with their own streetscape planning.
Feel free to share this message from the other members of the Committee. Or, if you like, I could bring copies to your next meeting, which I believe is 9 a.m. on Wednesday, April 19, right?
How is as important as what. How the Streetscape Committee arrives at its recommendations is as important as what the Committee decides. We've seen this dynamic play out in other City of Salem projects.
For example, the recent Strategic Planning effort was appropriately criticized for paying too much attention to the opinions of "stakeholders" selected by City staff, and not enough attention to the views of the general public. My understanding is that now more outreach efforts are being directed to the latter, which is good.
The Streetscape Committee understandably is comprised of "stakeholders," broadly speaking. This is fine, so long as citizens interested in downtown, which includes a lot of people in this downtown-loving city, have plenty of opportunity to weigh in on alternative visions of what a Streetscape Project should consist of.
(More on the vision thing below.)
So I urge you to keep in mind that how the Committee arrives at its conclusions is just as important as what the final recommendations are.
I and others have critiqued past City of Salem "outreach" efforts as being more akin to reaching out with a predetermined decision in hand and asking citizens to accept it, rather than what outreach should be: asking the Salem citizenry with an open mind, tell us what you want, what you prefer, what your ideas are.
Alternative visions should be presented for citizen discussion. As you're aware, Carole Smith and her colleagues came up with an interesting transformative streetscape concept for downtown Salem several years ago.
Soon after I became involved in Salem Community Vision, Smith, Kittleson, and Huston shared drawings, plans, and such at a SCV meeting. I was instantly entralled, as reportedly many other people were after being exposed to this initial streetscape concept.
Salem Community Vision put a Streetscape page on its web site. I made a Downtown Salem Streetscape page with Adobe Spark that has gotten over 5,000 views, which shows the widespread interest in this subject.
This concept has a lot of promise. However, it is just a start, one way to go among many.
Seemingly your Streetscape Committee isn't going to be developing detailed designs, as my understanding is that a Request for Proposals from consulting firms will be drafted by the Committee. I assume this requires figuring out the scope of the proposals.
Meaning, is the intent of the downtown streetscape project to (1) broadly transform downtown, (2) narrowly improve downtown, or (3) be somewhere in-between broadly transformative and narrowly improving?
Naturally the goals of any vision for downtown Salem -- broad or narrow -- can be achieved step-wise over time, not all at once. Still, it seems wise for the Streetscape Committee to engage citizens in a discussion of what sort of overarching vision is most appealing.
Which gets me to my final point.
All downtown streets should be candidates for streetscaping. This was my theme in a blog post I wrote a few days ago, "First Wednesday photos show need to lose lanes on Liberty and Commercial." Excerpt:
I'm perplexed by Carole Smith's report that at the first meeting of the Streetscape Committee members were told by City officials that certain streets were off-limits for narrowing:
I can understand why Front, Trade, Ferry, Center, and Marion streets couldn't lose lanes. They are used by people trying to get around or out of downtown. But why can't Liberty and Commercial streets lose some lanes in the Historic District? This question needs some serious discussion at the Streetscape Committee's next meetings.
Currently Liberty and Commercial are major contributors to the autocentric vibe of downtown.
They are freeway'ish streets, three and four lanes wide, in a Historic District that should be catering to pedestrians and cyclists (a vehicle has never, ever, bought something at a downtown business; only people do after they get out of a vehicle, if that's how they reach downtown).
Liberty and Commercial scream wordlessly, Rush through the Historic District, don't stop here; we are streets designed to get you somewhere else.
Actually, Liberty and Commercial in the downtown area aren't really streets. They are better termed "stroads," an ugly mix of a neighborhood street and a road that connects distinct places. Here's the Urban Dictionary definition:
Regarding traffic engineers, it doesn't make sense for the Streetscape Committee to pay much attention to them when it comes to streets like Liberty and Commercial that have been poorly designed by, one must assume, traffic engineers.
By and large, the people who have created and maintained a problem usually aren't the best people to take the lead in fixing the problem. They have a vested interest in what has been, as lousy as it is, rather than what can be.
I've lived in Salem for forty years, 1977-2017.
During this time I've had innumerable conversations with my fellow Salemians about how downtown is on the verge of becoming a truly vibrant, cool, people-magnet place to shop, visit, work, live, and play. I certainly recognize the improvements that have occurred, but we can't ignore the unfulfilled potential of the Historic District.
There's been lots of tinkering over the years.
What is so appealing about a Streetscape vision of the transformative variety is that this could lead to a marvelous remodeling, so to speak. Meaning, instead of merely sprucing up streets that need a major renovation to make them genuinely people-friendly, Salem can transform downtown into a shining showcase -- a model for cities around the nation.
Malls have lost their allure. Major stores are in trouble as online shopping becomes more popular. A Washington Post story says:
The shakeout among retailers has been building for years and is now arriving in full force.
The retrenchment comes as shoppers move online and begin to embrace smaller, niche merchants. As a result, many major chains find themselves victims of a problem of their own making, having elbowed their way into so many locations that the United States has more retail square footage per capita than any other nation. To use the industry vernacular, they are simply “overstored.”
"Smaller niche merchants." This is a core appeal of downtown Salem.
I think about this every time I visit hugely-popular Bridgeport Village in Tigard, which basically is a fake downtown. Highly walkable. Limited street parking, and this only on the edges of the carless shopping area. (I usually have to leave my car in the parking structure and walk the equivalent of a few blocks, which is no problem, because Bridgeport Village is so charming.)
Here in Salem we have a real downtown, not a fake one.
All we need to do is transform it into the sort of place that Bridgeport Village and other cutting-edge developments have realized is what people increasingly want: a return to walking around outside to visit appealing shops.
Imagine what Bridgeport Village would be like with speeding cars zipping through the middle of the shopping area on three- and four-lane streets.
This imaginative exercise takes us a long way toward understanding why streetscaping downtown Salem is so important if the Historic District is going to achieve its potential as a vibrant retail and residential market.
UPDATE: This comment from Not Even Wrong definitely deserves to be highlighted.
"Imagine what Bridgeport Village would be like with speeding cars zipping through the middle of the shopping area on three- and four-lane streets."
It would be Keizer Station.
So true! Keizer Station reminds me of a saying: "No one's life is ever completely wasted. They can always serve as a horrible example for others." This is the reason for being of Keizer Station, providing a great example of how a shopping center shouldn't be designed.