I'm sharing an email message that Carole Smith, a downtown business owner and resident, sent to me recently. She isn't happy with how the City of Salem streetscape project is being conducted, to put it mildly.
Well, neither am I, as I wrote about in "Downtown Salem Streetscape project will ignore streets."
The whole emphasis is on sidewalks. As shown above, "alleys and roads not part of [project] scope." So they really should have called this a Sidewalkscape project, which is much more limited than a true Streetscape plan -- such as the one proposed for Salem several years ago.
This is disappointing.
Someone I talked with at the open house put it nicely: "City of Salem staff like to decide on their own what the scope of a project should be, then tell citizens that nothing outside of the bounds of what has already been decided can be talked about."
That someone wasn't Carole Smith, by the way. But the quote above echoes what Smith says below.
I asked Carole if it'd be OK with her to share the message. Sure, she said.
I was glad to hear that, because she was one of the originators of a downtown streetscape planning project that generated a lot of enthusiasm. I made an Adobe Spark web page describing this effort that has gotten over 8,500 views -- which shows that many people in Salem are interested in streetscaping the downtown area.
Unfortunately, the bold vision of the initial streetscape project has fallen by the wayside, as you'll read in Carole Smith's critique of the current effort. I admire how frankly Smith lays out her concerns. You may disagree with her, but for sure you will know where she stands.
Well, its been 30 hours since the last meeting of the Streetscape Work Group. We met yesterday to tour the downtown with the new consultants to talk about what ideas we have for streetscape.
Lets start at the beginning:
At the first meeting of the Streetscape Work Group we were told the following about Streetscape.
1. These streets are off-limits: Liberty, Commercial, Front, High, Center, Marion, Trade, Ferry. That only leaves State, Court and Chemeketa Streets.
2. We will build this project in phases that might take 15 years to complete.
At the second meeting we were told:
1. Riverfront Park is NOT part of our program.
2. Alleyways are NOT part of our program.
3. Any new sidewalks in the past 10 years are off limits.
4. All bulbed-out sidewalk corners are off limits.
5. Connecting Riverfront Park to the Willamette University campus and the Capitol building via streetscaping is not happening.
Yesterday I found out the City did not include any reduction of any traffic lanes downtown.
When I asked the consultants about it, they responded with “Well, maybe you should do this project first, then later, when you change the Traffic Study you can take away lanes of traffic and fix the rest of the the plan." WHAT? We don’t want to do this project twice. That doubles the cost and doubles the interference with downtown businesses.
So everything the citizens wanted to do downtown is dead. The City staff decreased the project to the point they are only “redecorating” downtown, not changing how it is used as a strategy to entice new businesses into our community. This is like “redecorating” a slum in hopes no one notices it is a slum.
The retail rental rates downtown are the lowest in all of Salem. That means only weak businesses locate here because they cannot afford market rate rents that are changed everywhere else in Salem. We have all the money we need to do a major project and change how Salem uses its downtown and how it functions as an economic driver in our community.
The streetscape project the citizens have visualized over the past five years included reducing lanes of traffic, possibly removing traffic signals (and installing stop signs), and connecting Riverfront Park, the downtown, State Capitol, and Willamette University to encourage more foot traffic downtown for our businesses.
In the past, a former manager of Salem Center told me the hardest problem to overcome when chain stores visit Salem to decide whether they want to open a store in Salem Center is the negative condition of our downtown. The chain store representatives love the neighborhoods, the schools, and the community, but they baik at the condition of downtown and the number of vacant spaces there. Our downtown is dirtier and more vacant than ever today.
Will the streetscape project the city is envisioning help downtown? Probably, for awhile. But we are missing the bigger opportunity to really make our downtown reflect who we are as a unique community. We could be on the cover of magazines and be a Mecca for other cities wanting to do what we did. Now we will just have a mediocre downtown again.
And, 15 years to complete the project?
We know from past experiences that when we phase projects in downtown they never get past the first or second year. In the streetscape we did in the early 1990’s we did one project, then the next year we hired consultants to design “stage 2” but it was never constructed. That was the end. Once the City Council changes and priorities change, streetscape will fall by the wayside and never be completed.
So who made the decisions to exclude so many items from citizen discussion?
Why are we allowing city staff who don’t live here or pay any property tax here to dictate to our citizens what they can dream about for our downtown? Why can’t we make our downtown unique by making it reflect us? The City of Salem only wants to copy what other cities have done. That will not make us unique. When we have the ideas and money to be great, why should the citizens settle for mediocre just because City staff have no imagination or courage?
During the Streetscape Work Group meetings we were not allowed to talk among ourselves, and even when we emailed each other outside the meetings we were required to "cc" City staff. We were not privy to any communications between City staff, but they could spy on our discussions outside the meetings. This is supposed to be a democracy, not a dictatorship. If one group has to share their communications, why aren’t all communications shared?
How did the City staff get so much power? Where are the City councilors? Why are they allowing staff to limit our dreaming and the expenditure of our funds?
Our accountant told me, “All the assets and funds the city has are OWNED by the citizens, held in trust through the City of Salem, for the CITIZENS' BENEFIT." To understand how we want to “benefit” the City staff need to hear from us on what WE want. If that is true, what right do the city staff have to tell us what we can and cannot talk about? It is our money, so we should be allowed to talk about anything we want.
Yesterday one of the consultants asked me what the City could do to get my support.
Without thinking I replied, “Respect, the city could show us respect." That would change everything. Respect not to force a non-functioning downtown assocation down our throats, respect to listen to what we want for streetscape, respect to listen to us and work WITH us, all of us, not just the “young people” downtown.
Every time I attend a City of Salem meeting I feel like we are told what we will get, instead of being asked what we want. That is a huge difference. It is our money, this is our city, why can’t we get what WE want?
I don’t understand.
If the City would sit back and let the citizens design this project, Salem would benefit by building a unique streetscape that would give us national attention and could show other communities how to design a similar streetscape that reflects them, the way our streetscape reflects us, our culture, our unique history, and how we want to guide our future.
Who wouldn’t want that?
Who doesn’t want to be successful and attract positive attention and accolades? Why do we strive for and feel comfortable with mediocrity? We have great people here with great ideas for free. Yet we continually hire people and staff from Portland to come tell us what we can have, supported by City staff with no vision, voted on by a City Council that doesn’t understand.
It is a sad state of affairs. Is it too late to change this trajectory? What if people stood up in the upcoming Streetscape meetings and said they support what we want? Would it mean anything? Is it too late?