The title of this post captures a core theme of the conversation I had yesterday with John Southgate, a Portland consultant highly knowledgeable about downtown revitalization.
Along with Public Affairs Counsel staff, Southgate did most of the writing and research for the Salem 2025 report that I blogged about recently. I've since learned, by the way, that Salem businessman Larry Tokarski commissioned the Salem 2025 study, a fact not mentioned in the report.
Why can't Salem get its act together?
The Salem 2025 report points to the same question in various ways. Here's some quotes:
-- ...it is clear that Salem is under-performing. This concerns anyone who cares about the health of Salem for one simple reason: A strong Downtown is a necessary ingredient, and driver, of a healthy city and region.
-- Even in the case of a strong decisive Mayor who can garner the votes – too often decisions have been ad hoc, and not clearly based on an over-arching vision.
-- In light of the ad hoc nature of decision making, there is a serious risk that when the Convention Center bonds are paid off (2018), the City will fritter away its resources rather than being strategic in how it uses this debt capacity.
-- Instead, it is the people making the decisions, and the absence of a coherent and strategic vision that Salem needs. Bottom line: The problem is leadership and vision.
I reached out to Southgate because I thought the Salem 2025 report was right-on in many regards. So I was curious to speak with him to get some additional insights into how he saw downtown Salem.
We talked while Southgate was getting an oil change for his car. His cell phone reception broke up a few times. Hopefully I didn't miss any gems of wisdom from a guy who has both walked the walk, and talked the talk, when it comes to improving urban areas.
Here's a bio of sorts from a 2013 Portland Tribune story:
Downtown revitalization program Main Street Oregon City hired John Southgate as interim director to lead the nonprofit during its search for a full-time director to replace founding director Lloyd Purdy.
Purdy began a new job as the economic development manager for the city of Tigard on Aug. 5.
Southgate is a native Oregonian, and has spent decades in the Portland region, with a strong focus on urban revitalization. He worked with the Portland Bureau of Planning, the Portland Development Commission, and the cities of Gresham and Hillsboro. He was the project manager for the Interstate Corridor and Lents Town Center urban-renewal areas; he also oversaw the formation of the Downtown Hillsboro Urban Renewal Area.
And he has managed several noteworthy public-private redevelopment projects in Portland and Hillsboro, including the Venetian Theater and the Fourth/Main project (under construction in Hillsboro’s downtown) which is the first mixed-use infill development in Hillsboro.
“I have a passion for downtown revitalization and the Main Street program; it’s a great model for bringing historic downtowns back to life,” Southgate said.
John (I'll start using his first name, given how friendly and informal he was during our conversation) echoed themes in the Salem 2025 report: The potential of downtown is real. Most people in Salem, maybe 85%, want downtown to be walkable with cool shops, restaurants, brewpubs, and such.
That's the good news. And it isn't new news for those who are familiar with Salem.
I moved here in 1977. So for 39 years I've been feeling like downtown is on the brink of becoming a cool, people-friendly, vibrant place. But there's never been a sustained productive effort to get the Historic District and surrounding area over the hump of good, but not great.
Salem lacks a compelling vision.
A public-private partnership is needed to vitalize downtown.
The City of Salem needs to lead.
Downtown should have two way, two lane streets.
John spoke about how Mayor Neil Goldschmidt turned Portland around in the 1970s. By the time Goldschmidt left office, a consensus vision for downtown had taken hold that couldn't be overturned by succeeding politicians.
The Salem 2025 report talks about this:
A brief diversion to Portland is instructive. Downtown Portland in the 1960s was struggling. Lloyd Center opened in 1960, Washington Square was in the wings. Downtown was losing its “market share”, and the City looked shabby. There were some new office towers, but whole sections of downtown were underperforming.
In response to this challenge, the City’s decision makers – elected officials, the banks, the department stores, key property owners – came together to craft a plan – the 1972 Downtown Plan. That plan became the template for what ensued. It incorporated some very bold moves – the closure of an urban expressway (Harbor Drive) to be replaced by Waterfront Park; diversion of funds for the Mt. Hood Freeway to the region’s first light rail line; Pioneer Square; the Government Center; the high density office spine along a new Transit Mall; the list goes on and on.
Reading this, I couldn't help but think of parallels to Salem today.
Our current leaders at City Hall have approved a large suburban shopping development on Kuebler Boulevard near I-5 (shades of Washington Square). They are going ahead with plans for a billion dollar freeway'ish Third Bridge (shades of the Mt. Hood Freeway). Virtually all of them stood by as the Chamber of Commerce worked to defeat improvements to Salem's mass transit bus system, which currently lacks evening and weekend service.
This isn't smart. Not according to every expert in downtown revitalization I'm aware of. For example, "The Smart Growth Manual" says:
Smart growth directs both public infrastructure funding and private development where they will have the greatest economic, environmental, and social benefit. This approach requires a clear prioritization of growth alternatives, from smartest to "dumbest," as follows:
(1) Urban revitalization
(2) Urban infill
(3) Urban extension
(4) Suburban retrofit
(5) Suburban extension
(6) New neighborhoods on existing infrastructure
(7) New neighborhoods requiring new infrastructure
(8) New neighborhoods in environmentally sensitive areas
Here's another passage from The Smart Growth Manual:
One-way streets ease traffic flow at the expense of pedestrian safety and comfort. ...One-way streets along commuting routes can also damage retail activity by providing merchants with either morning or evening trade, but not both. Finally, they limit the effectiveness of the street network, increase travel distances with around-the-block maneuvers, and can make navigation frustrating... Cities with multilane one-way systems should consider reverting to two-way travel, as it tends to help revitalize struggling areas.
Like, downtown Salem. Which suffers from major streets in the Historic District being one-way and three lanes -- a major obstacle to revitalization.
The Salem 2025 report, as noted above, points out that around $30 million of downtown urban renewal funds are going to be available soon, after bonds for the Conference Center are paid off. These could be used for some visionary Smart Growth projects.
Unfortunately, there are signs Mayor Anna Peterson and the Salem City Council (who serve as the Urban Renewal Board) might use up to $20 million of these funds for a dumb idea -- helping to pay for a new overpriced $80 million police facility just north of downtown.
(Note: all references to "dumb" in this blog post emanate from me, not John Southgate. He didn't talk about Salem politics at all, just how to make downtown better no matter who is running City Hall.)
I'll end by sharing a video I found when I was looking for information on what John did prior to his current consulting work. When he was Hillsboro's Economic Development Director, a Hillsboro 2020 Vision plan was set in motion.
Since, it has evolved into a Hillsboro 2035 Community Plan. I watched a video about it and got all inspired. Why can't Salem do something like this? Heck, something exactly like this.
For me, the video pretty much answered the question, "Why can't Salem get its act together?"
Answer: because nobody in this town -- no public leader, no private leader -- has stepped forward to engage all of Salem's citizens, ALL of them, in a broad-based community-wide effort to come up with a long-range vision of what people want this town to become.
Hopefully the May 2016 election for Mayor and four City Council seats will stimulate some fresh thinking and energy about how to vitalize downtown. Here's how Hillsboro is looking ahead.