Last night the Salem City Council heard from lots of people concerned about the proposed Pringle Square development on the downtown riverfront.
I'm glad to see that the online Statesman Journal story about the public hearing has been modified to say:
The issue attracted a rare standing room only crowd to the council chambers. About 30 people signed up to testify at a public hearing, with roughly an equal mix of supporters and opponents of the development plan. Some of the supporters were affiliated with the developer.
The last sentence didn't appear in the print edition. Should have. Not only were "some" of the supporters affiliated with the developer, most were.
A decided majority of ordinary citizens in attendance opposed the plan to convert part of Riverfront Park into an access road to the Pringle Square apartments, and allow large fire trucks to zoom through the heavily-used park if a train blocks that road.
I watched the nearly four-hour hearing online via CCTV, paying as much attention as I could while doing other stuff on my computer. My wife couldn't believe that I spent so much of my senior citizen time on this.
Well, I figure this was a yin and yang balancing for the 2 1/2 hours of my life that went into watching the MTV Video Music Awards the night before. Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus definitely were more alluring, but I'm politically geeky enough to find hours of public testimony on a highly controversial subject entertaining.
I'm opposed to letting Mountain West Investment, the Pringle Square developers, take over part of Riverfront Park. Still, I tried to watch the City Council meeting with as open a mind as possible. A lot of interesting stuff went on last night.
I'll limit myself to ten day-after "takeaways."
(1) The Pringle Square development is in more trouble than I expected. A vote to give their apartments an unnecessary tax break squeaked through on a 5-4 vote, with Councillor Thomas providing the rather surprising deciding "yes." (Her reasons for doing so were incoherent, leading me to suspect that arm-twisting pressure was put on her by the usual gang of Chamber of Commerce suspects). And a decision on the access road was put off until September 9, at the earliest.
(2) Mountain West Investment deserves all the trouble it is getting. The heavy-handed, sanctimonious, our-way-or-the-highway attitude of Pringle Square development staff was highly irritating. Wise developers would have reached out to skeptics in the Salem community rather than pushing opponents away. Intense frontstage (ads in Statesman Journal) and backstage (power structure schmoozing) lobbying has hurt Mountain West more than it has helped. Developer bullies should expect to get push-back.
(3) Salem residents love their Riverfront Park and Carousel. l was moved by the people who spoke about the many years of volunteer work that went into making Riverfront Park and the Carousel the wonderful places they are today. These treasures have to be protected, they said. Most were in favor of re-developing the old Boise Cascade property -- just not at the expense of public amenities that the private Pringle Square developers have no right to.
(4) Alternative access routes exist. A man with, I recall, 35 years of state Department of Transportation experience spoke persuasively about how other ways to access the west side of the railroad tracks are eminently feasible. Yet for some reason Mountain West Investment is fixated on using the current Carousel parking lot. This indicates how little the Pringle Square developers have been listening to the public. They need to spend less time lobbying and more time listening.
(5) Many hurdles are in the way of granting Riverfront Park access. You can read about these hurdles in a previous blog post. For example, the National Park Service Land and Water Conservation Fund manual (federal dollars were used to create Riverfront Park) describes a mind-numbingly complex process for requesting conversion of public land to a private use. As Public Works director Peter Fernandez noted at the Council meeting, this process is more involved if the conversion is "controversial." For sure, this one is. Good luck with that, Mountain West Investment. You'll be entering a legal and public comment hornet's nest.
(6) Pringle Square developers contradicted themselves. Hard to tell whether the parade of Mountain West Investment staff and consultants had coordinated their talking points. Seemed like two key aspects of their message were contradictory: (1) We really, really need the 10 year tax break and other favors to make this development happen; (2) We really, really are convinced there is a strong demand for multi-family rental housing in the downtown area, with vacancies overall being under 3%.
Huh? Hard to understand how five City Councillors (Clem, Bednarz, Nanke, Clausen, Thomas) were persuaded to hand over hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to the developers, given the slam-dunk success Mountain West Investment is forecasting.
(7) West Salem/Front Street commuters aren't happy with the parking lot plan. Here's something strange: the City of Salem is dead set on building an unwanted, unneeded, and unpaid for Third Bridge, which supposedly would relieve traffic congestion surrounding the current two bridges. However, several people testified that the Carousel parking lot light/interesection already is a rush hour nightmare area. Adding considerably more cars going into and out of this intersection is going to make congestion there much worse.
(8) Parents aren't thrilled with changing the Carousel parking lot. As noted before, the Pringle Square developers want to use some of the Carousel parking lot for a private road to their apartments. An island in the middle of the lot will be eliminated, and most of the current normal-sized spaces will become compact spaces. One Mountain West Investment consultant found it necessary to say, "I care a lot about the safety of children." Well, I hope so. Many people who testified last night weren't reassured by the oft-repeated contention of the developers that running a private road to the apartment complex right by the Carousel parking lot won't put children at additional risk.
(9) Mayor Anna Peterson did a good job running the super-lengthy meeting. I'm often critical of Mayor Peterson for her stands on issues that I disagree with (cutting down the US Bank trees, building a Third Bridge, installing parking meters in downtown Salem). But, damn, she has way more meeting staying-power than I do. I was getting bored, cranky, and tired just sitting on a kitchen stool, watching the proceedings on a CCTV browser screen while being able to eat, drink, walk around, do other stuff, and mutter to myself about idiotic testimony. Peterson ran the five-hour meeting gracefully, courteously, and pretty much even-handedly. Kudos to her.
(10) Peterson and Jason Tokarski went at it in an interesting fashion. Near the end of the long Council meeting, after 11:15 pm, I believe, Mayor Peterson and Mountain West's Jason Tokarski got into an interchange that I didn't totally understand, yet enjoyed a lot. After Tokarski talked about the strong demand for rentals in downtown Salem, Peterson asked how many acres of the development Mountain West was offering to the City in exchange for the Carousel parking lot access. She knew the answer, I'm quite sure. "None," Tokarski said. He added that this was on the table at one point, but the Pringle Square developers decided they couldn't give up any land. I got the feeling a lot more was going on here than was being uttered verbally.
Written public comments still can be submitted about the Carousel parking lot access plan. So before September 9 tell the City Council how you feel about the plan to give away part of Riverfront Park to a private developer: Citycouncil[email protected]
Lastly... I've been wondering how Mountain West Investment plans to get equipment and supplies in to build the Pringle Square apartments. Even to build the access road from the Carousel parking lot -- how will that happen if there is no other way to get to the property? Hard to believe road building would start from the parking lot, though this might be possible.
I suspect access is possible from the south end of the property, a point quite a few people made at last night's hearing.