Next Monday, July 28, the Salem City Council will continue with a public hearing about Howard Hall, a historic landmark that is the last building remaining from the now-closed School for the Blind.
The Historic Landmarks Commission voted unanimously to preserve the building, denying Salem Hospital's request to tear it down so the hospital could have a parking lot with 87 more spaces than is required by code.
Members of the blind community aren't at all persuaded by Salem Hospital's offer to put a playground for physically challenged children where Howard Hall is now.
They know this is just a ruse to distract from the fact that (1) Salem Hospital tore down an adaptive playground before in a previous expansion that did away with Bush Elementary School, (2) there is plenty of room on the property for both an adaptive playground and Howard Hall if the hospital gives up some of its unnecessary parking spaces, and (3) the meaning of Howard Hall to the blind community is much greater than the token commemorative plaques and such Salem Hospital is offering after the historic building is torn down.
I realize that most people in Salem don't know or care much about Howard Hall. But the importance of the City Council's review of the Historic Landmarks Commission decision extends beyond what happens to this single structure.
In written testimony I submitted to the City of Salem yesterday, I talked about how what is happening in 2014 with Howard Hall bears a lot of disturbing resemblance to a debacle of a decision in 2013 to allow U.S. Bank to remove five beautiful, large, healthy trees in the downtown historic district for no good reason.
Download Howard Hall testimony 7-25-14 (PDF file)
Here's an excerpt:
There are disturbing parallels between a horribly outrageous decision to cut down the U.S. Bank trees, and how the City may be on the verge of an equally outrageous decision to overturn the Historic Landmarks Commission ruling that saves Howard Hall.
In each case a big-moneyed, powerful corporation wanted to do away with a cherished bit of Salem. U.S. Bank was desperate to cut down five gorgeous trees in the Historic District; Salem Hospital is eager to take a wrecking ball to historic Howard Hall.
In each case ordinary citizens were strongly opposed to what the large corporations wanted. Not a single person, other than U.S. Bank staff, thought the five Japanese Zelkovas should be removed. And it sure seems that many more people are in favor of saving Howard Hall than of demolishing it.
In each case a City citizen committee strongly recommended that the Salem landmark be preserved. The Shade Tree Advisory Committee looked at all the facts and said “prune the trees, don’t cut them down.” The Historic Landmarks Commission made findings of fact and conclusions of law that led to a decision: Howard Hall should be saved and repurposed.
In each case political machinations came into play. Public Works Director Peter Fernandez was all set to order that the trees be pruned, not cut down, until he was contacted by U.S. Bank president Ryan Allbritton — who reminded him of a backroom deal they’d made years before to have the trees removed, before an application to do this was even submitted by the bank as required by law.
With Howard Hall, the City Council didn’t wait for Salem Hospital to file an appeal; the council decided to review the Historic Landmarks Commission decision all on its own — an unseemly action for a supposedly neutral quasi-judicial body.
So Monday's City Council meeting is a chance for City officials to do things right this time. Honor facts and the law. Don't give in to lobbying from special interests.
Sure, Salem Hospital is the biggest employer in town. I'm sure plenty of pressure is being put on the Mayor and city councilors from Salem's Power Structure, our version of the 1%.
Just remember, City officals, that your duty is to serve the entire public, not a powerful subset of it.
I have plenty of experience with elected officials ignoring facts and the law so they could play political games. So do dozens of my neighbors, for my wife and I led a five-year fight against a subdivison in rural south Salem that threatened our ground and surface water (wells and a spring that feeds a community lake).
Just as with Howard Hall, elected officials (in this case, the Marion County Board of Commissioners) got voluminous testimony from neighbors and other affected people that strongly argued against approving the subdivision.
Yet we ended up on the losing end of several 2-1 votes when Commissioners Sam Brentano and Patti Milne would say, "I just feel like the developers should be able to do what they want with their property."
Feel? Are you freaking kidding me?, we and our neighbors would think, sitting in the hearing room after spending hours and hours testifying, explaining why facts and the law required disapproval of a subdivision being built on high value farmland.
Conservatives and liberals alike -- we were angry when we saw elected officials shirking their duty to be fair, open-minded, and impartial in this quasi-judicial land use proceeding. We eventually won when the case ended up in Marion County Circuit Court.
So I say again: Salem City Council, don't give in to special interests or your own personal political preferences. You must have very good reasons to overturn the carefully considered decision of the Historic Landmarks Commission to preserve Howard Hall.
Feeling Salem Hospital should be able to do what it wants with the building isn't good enough reason to overturn that decision. Not even close. If you go that route, your unjustified approval will be overturned by the Land Use Board of Appeals. For sure.
Which won't look good. Or be good. This will be another sign that folks at City Hall have stopped serving the general public and have become a tool of special interests.
For another blogger's take on Howard Hall, check out today's Salem Breakfast on Bikes excellent post, "City Council, July 28 -- To Demolish Howard Hall?" Brilliant analysis of what's going on here.
[Update: that You might also like thingie at the bottom of this post suggested a 2009 post that, oh man!, I sure did like: "Sam Adams 'Gay?" video offends some (not me)."
My post features a wildly funny You Tube video where Portland commissioner at that time Randy Leonard sets out to prove that Portland Mayor at that time, Sam Adams, is not gay. I loved watching it again.
If anyone needs evidence that Portland is way cooler than Salem, here it is. I can't imagine any Salem city councilor or Mayor making a video like this. Sadly.]