Are the skybridges good or bad for downtown? That's a simplistic question. Like most things in life, the answer is, "They're both good and bad."
But streetscaping Salem's Historic District -- making the streets and sidewalks much more pedestrian and cyclist-friendly -- that's pretty much an All Good in my opinion.
The Salem Breakfast on Bikes blog has an interesting post, "Skybridges as Pedestrian Displacement Systems: Shelter, but anti-Sidewalk."
But another ingredient in the lack of foot traffic is the way the skybridges here suck people, energy, and life off of the street-level sidewalks and reinforce the blank walls and boxy forms of Liberty Plaza, Penny's, and the Mall - especially the blank brick of the mall walls.
The contrast with the more vital street activity at Liberty and Court is strong.
I believe our skybridges harm downtown vitality, and that we should consider getting rid of them - or at least spending more energy and resources designing our streets and sidewalks to compensate for their siphoning action.
Reading the post reminded me that I had photos from a February 21 visit to the Salem Center mall where I got there and back via skybridges.
(Rather weirdly, I was stopped by a security guard while standing on a skybridge. She asked what I was doing. I told her I had a blog and was taking photos because I wanted to show what downtown Salem was like on a Sunday afternoon. She told me not to do this, as this was private property and taking photos was a security risk. Hopefully this blog post will reassure Salem Center that the old gray-haired white guy with an iPhone 6s wasn't an agent of ISIL or a domestic terrorist.)
After I walked around Salem Center and the skybridges, I snapped this shot from the sidewalk outside of JCPenney. Look, the sky is partly blue! It isn't raining! But very few people are out and about. Outside, at least.
A view from the skybridge between JCPenney and Salem Center gives the same impression. On a nice February Sunday afternoon, downtown appears to be pretty much deserted.
It had been quite a while since I'd last set foot inside Salem Center. I've got nothing against the mall. There just isn't anything that draws me there. My main downtown hangout is the Court Street area: Venti's, Great Harvest, Pacific Martial Arts, Beanery, Starbucks, Governor's Cup, Book Bin, etc.
So I was sort of surprised to see so many people inside Salem Center, when there were so few people visible on the sidewalks. Like the Breakfast on Bikes post says, the skybridges must be a big part of the reason.
Yes, the skybridges offer a climate-controlled way to get between parking garages and some major downtown shopping buildings. They offer an elevated view of downtown, including this blossoming tree.
But they do detract from street-level vitality. And that's a big drawback. People are attracted to people. We enjoy seeing our fellow humans. Public spaces are way more vibrant and interesting when the public is using them.
I got to thinking about Bridgeport Village in Tualatin. This is a pleasant, successful shopping center that skillfully mimics an "oldstyle" downtown. Everybody walks outside, on streets and sidewalks. Parking is relegated to the outskirts, so cars don't dominate the shopping experience.
When it rains, you get wet walking around. When it is sunny, you may get hot. Yet for me, and obviously many others, this adds to the Bridgeport Village vibe. It is way more fun to be outside with other people, than stuck in a sterile indoor mall.
Well, here in Salem we have what the Bridgeport Village designers replicated: a Historic District with charming shops and buildings. So why don't we make downtown more pedestrian-friendly and get more people out on the streets/sidewalks?
I was pleased to see a mention in the Breakfast on Bikes post about a project that would get downtown Salem further along in this regard.
The Downtown Advisory Board met yesterday, and in the minutes for the February 11th meeting are notes that they are allocating $1.2 million in urban renewal funds to a "downtown streetscape" project. A subcommittee of four DAB members has been working to define a scope of work to give to a consultant for the project.
The dollar amount is too small to fund removal of the skybridges, but maybe folks can think about this more and more.
The plan looks good, though not ideal. Unless I'm missing something, I don't see bike lanes in the diagram. And the parallel parking next to the median seems problematic. Why not use that space for a dedicated bike lane(s) separated from traffic?
Sure, this is just one downtown block. But it could serve as a model for future streetscaping.
About $30 million in urban renewal funds will be available soon for this purpose, unless the Mayor and City Council fritter it away on an over-priced police facility that will do next-to-nothing to revitalize downtown.