Ah, there I am, on the front page of yesterday's Eugene Register Guard, pondering the future of Salem's riverfront, wondering whether the re-development of a Boise Cascade industrial area into a mixed-use zone will succeed in revitalizing a part of Salem that could add so much to downtown living, working, and playing.
OK, not true.
Actually I was wondering whether the newspaper's photographer was going to make me look like an old geezer/derelict (albeit in waterproof REI gear) hanging out at a fence overlooking Minto Brown Island Park, pondering the pros and cons of taking my pack and tarp into some bushes by the railroad tracks.
Which is pretty much how I ended up looking. Fine with me. I am who I am, just as Salem is who it is. In each case, for both better and worse.
The story by Diane Dietz, "Riverfront letdown: Salem's ambitious mixed-use development project fizzles," tells the tale of how the dream of a really cool riverfront area with condos, restaurants, grocery store, paths, and other enticing amenities has shrunken to the reality of rental apartments and a medical rehabilitation facility.
Download Riverfront letdown | Local News | The Register-Guard | Eugene, Oregon
My quotes in the story relate to what could have been, but almost certainly won't be.
Brian Hines, a Salem resident and blogger, imagined a gracious scene, as in Paris or, at least, San Antonio, with a waterfront strung with walking paths and bejeweled with restaurants.
“You could go down and walk around at night and be connected to downtown,” Hines said. “You could sit down in a nice restaurant and watch the lights.
“Developers come in with their little boards and make it all look wonderful.”
...A half-razed Boise Cascade building continues to “uglify” the prominent corner south of downtown Salem, Hines said.
...“Now, they’re going to have a fence that blocks off people from the development,” Hines said. “You’re rolling along on your roller blades or your stroller, and you want to go through the development. You can’t. There’s going to be locked gates, even gates for the paths. ...
“It’s going to be a shadow of what was promised back in 2009.”
Then there are depressing quotes from the lead developer, Jason Tokarski.
No restaurants will offer a riverside meal.
“That’s one concept that we have thoroughly vetted and that we simply cannot get interest in from either local (restaurants) or national franchises,” said Jason Tokarski, who is overseeing the development now for his family’s Mountain West Investment Corp.
...Consequently, the Tokarskis are chastened. They’re reluctant to show watercolor renderings of development plans.
“I want to be careful that we are not showing something that gets everyone excited,” Tokarski said. “Over the years, it has been difficult to reframe the project in the public’s eyes and to help the city staff and the community understand what would really work on the site — given the economic challenges that persist.
“Salem is not a high-rent market, whether it’s commercial or retail or apartments. It’s not Portland, and neither is Eugene.”
This is what drives me nuts about Salem, a town that has continually disappointed me during the 36 years I've happily lived here (yeah, I'm like a psychologically-split battered denizen; I keep getting beaten up by the city I've shacked-up with, and choose to return for more).
Salem is a city that doesn't believe in itself.
Now, cities aren't conscious beings, so what I really mean is that too many people in Salem don't believe in themselves. They long for a more vibrant town, both culturally and economically, yet are all too willing to accept dashed dreams when their longings are tossed in the trash can of half-assed development.
I readily admit that I'm not a real estate developer.
My wife and I were investors in Salem's Sustainable Fairview, another mixed-use development that has failed to live up to expectations, but owning a few shares in a LLC is a lot different from going way out on a financial limb, like the Tokarski's are doing.
So I'm sympathetic to the attitude, "the market does the deciding." This theme runs through the first story in the Register Guard's two-part, two-city riverfront analysis: "Eugene looks to denser development by floating River City: Eugene explores mixed-use development on the Willamette."
The dream of the Riverfront Master Plan crafted by as many as 1,000 Eugene residents over a two-year period is beautiful, but translating it into reality could be difficult.
The Lane County economy is improving, but developers and banks remain wary. What they see as feasible on the 27 acres of riverfront recently mothballed by the Eugene Water & Electric Board may end up nothing like the public’s vision.
The master plan vision, illustrated in watercolors, shows multistory condominiums over a lively retail district with shops, a restaurant row, a boardwalk and a riverfront “people” area.
...Yet for any development to succeed, there has to be demand, said Ward Beck, commercial real estate broker with Windermere Real Estate of Lane County. For the project to pencil out, landlords have to get sufficient rents.
Beck’s mantra: “If the math doesn’t work, there will be nothing built.”
Beck predicts a 70 percent likelihood that the riverfront plan will sit on a shelf, and only a 30 percent chance that some kind of construction will happen.
“The chances are virtually zero that what ends up being developed will look a lot like the plan,” he said, adding, “It’s beautiful, and it would be nice.”
Yes, it sure would be nice.
To have the Salem and Eugene riverfronts be places that draw people in, elicit "oohs" and "ahs," serve as a locus for both money-making and pleasure-making activities, instill a sense of pride in citizens who now tell visitors I'll show you downtown, but there really isn't much to see or do there.
I've talked to quite a few people about what they'd like to see at Salem's riverfront. Universally, they are bullish on the success of a restaurant, or nightspot, that overlooks the water and has an appealing atmosphere.
So I wonder how intensely Jason Tokarski sought a restaurateur who'd be willing to take a gamble on a riverfront location. This just seems to me a classic example of "build it, and they will come." Salem residents are hungry for something different to assuage their hunger and thirst.
I love to use the example of Apple when criticizing the tentativeness of Salem real estate developers.
Apple makes gobs of money. And Apple doesn't really give a shit about what the "market" wants. Apple makes a market. Apple produces a product that people had no idea they needed, but when they see it, they say to themselves "I have to buy it."
Like I said, I can understand why developers build stuff that they're confident will sell in today's real estate market. However, I also am confident that if a creative, gutsy, ballsy developer threw caution to the wind and built a really out there mixed use development (which would be par for the course in Portland), it would succeed.
Sadly, it looks like we'll never know whether the initial vision of Salem's Boise Cascade redevelopment could have become a successful reality. Salem awaits a developer who dreams big and refuses to wake up.
(My previous posts about Salem's riverfront are here, here, here, here, here, and here.)