I'm writing this blog post in my favorite downtown Salem coffee house, the Beanery.
The atmosphere both inside and outside is pleasant, but in no way electric, energetic, exciting, enthusiastic, or any other "e" word I can think of to describe what downtown Salem could be, yet isn't.
That's Salem, the little engine that could, but hasn't.
On May 4, 1000 Friends of Oregon brought together a bunch of people to discuss what's right and wrong with downtown Salem. An overview of the meeting is interesting reading. I heartily agree with:
But local residents and businesspeople have a lot of reasonable complaints: downtown streets are wide, the lanes are many, and the traffic is aggressive by design. As long as the connective tissue between the historic blocks, the bookend public amenities, and the larger urban renewal area remains oriented to the automobile, Salem’s historic district and larger downtown will inevitably languish and suffer the fate of our shortsighted post-war transportation decisions.
...In Salem we heard talk of building a new Willamette River Crossing, saw the new Salem Conference Center, and learned about a recent push to allow drive-thru banks downtown. While it’s good for planners, citizens, and policy-makers to weigh decisions like these, what downtown Salem needs most is something much more obvious: a walkable and calm street network that compliments the textured historic buildings of its historic district.
After all, their builders didn't design them to be used and loved from the window of a Prius, but used and loved by shoppers, residents, and tenants (and their wallets). Slowing and narrowing the rivers of traffic lanes will connect the islands of great buildings that today sit there, waiting for the inevitable day when they realize their full potential once again.
There's so much potential in downtown Salem. The historic buildings, trees, quaint alleys, diversity of small businesses, and proximity to the riverfront bode well for a downtown that's a lot more alive than the current semi-slumbering city center.
Compared to other vital downtowns I've visited, Salem -- as noted above -- is overly dominated by wide, busy, car-filled thoroughfares, such as Liberty and Commercial Streets. Getting from one side of a street to the other side is more difficult than it should be if Salem wants a downtown where people enjoy wandering around to various businesses and attractions.
I realize that Salem and Sisters, Oregon are very different cities in lots of ways. Size, street layout, atmosphere, etc. etc. Still, Salem could learn from how Sisters is improving its already pedestrian-friendly two-lane main street through downtown.
When visitors and residents feel that a town wants them to walk around and stay a while, as contrasted with feeling like a second-class citizen to cars, businesses in the area will benefit.
Of course, there have to be good reasons for people to venture to downtown Salem. My three word advice is Strange It Up!, a concept which somebody told me was brought up at the 1000 Friends meeting about downtown Salem.
Brian, thanks for the blog. So I attended this event downtown this afternoon put on by 1000 friends: http://www.friends.org/node/1423 Attendees included: City councillor Chuck Bennett, [former] mayor Mike Swaim, along with Carole Smith and Eric Kittleson of the Salem Downtown Partnership. Eric actually said we need to "strange it up"!
So I thought you would appreciate that.
Absolutely. Made my day. Now, all we in Salem do is make strange it up more than words.