Downtown Salem would be much more attractive to out-of-town visitors and locals alike if Commercial and Liberty streets lost some lanes.
(Other streets too, but my focus here is on Commercial and Liberty.)
Fortunately, there's a decent chance this could happen. Yesterday a City of Salem Streetscape Committee chaired by Urban Development Director Kristin Retherford had its first meeting. Carole Smith, a committee member, shared notes with me about what happened.
Smith and other Streetscape proponents came up with some initial concepts several years ago. You can check them out on a Downtown Salem Streetscape web page I made (which has gotten about 4,700 views, showing the interest in this subject).
Below is a sketch of how Liberty could look as it enters downtown.
Much more inviting, right?
This is a sketch of how Commercial (on the left) and Liberty (on the right) could be transformed. Keep in mind this was just an initial concept. Streetscaping downtown could happen in a multitude of different ways. But a key goal is to make Salem's Historic District much more people and cyclist friendly.
Which means, less autocentric.
I took the photo above from the corner of Court and Liberty as I wandering around downtown during the First Wednesday event yesterday. Notice the vast expanse of Liberty's four lanes (top left) with very few cars occupying the street.
I often drive into downtown from the south via Liberty, and less often, but frequently, into downtown from the north via Commercial. I can't remember ever seeing these freeway'ish streets running through the Historic District filled with cars once I got past Ferry or Union streets.
Yes, traffic on Liberty and Commercial gets congested at certain times as it nears downtown. But many, if not most, of these vehicles are trying to get around downtown, not into it. This is why Liberty and Commercial are comparatively empty once traffic turns off onto the Front Street Bypass or the Marion Street bridge.
Front Street was built to route traffic around downtown. The photo above was taken in 1978.
This screenshot of a page from the Front Street Bypass Environmental Impact Statement has criteria #1 for determining the design of the bypass: "The project must satisfy the objective of diverting traffic away from Liberty and Commercial Streets in the downtown."
Well, Front Street does a pretty good job of this. I use it whenever I'm heading west or north of downtown, because this is faster than going through the Historic District.
So I'm perplexed by Carole Smith's report that at the first meeting of the Streetscape Committee members were told by City officials that certain streets were off-limits for narrowing:
I can understand why Front, Trade, Ferry, Center, and Marion streets couldn't lose lanes. They are used by people trying to get around or out of downtown. But why can't Liberty and Commercial streets lose some lanes in the Historic District? This question needs some serious discussion at the Streetscape Committee's next meetings.
Economic activity in the downtown area (or anywhere else) doesn't occur when people are moving around in their cars or trucks. It happens when people stop to buy something. Which is preceded by people walking around.
The current First Wednesday organizers were smart to close off part of Chemeketa Street.
Food trucks and other purveyors drew people to a block that otherwise would have been devoted to moving traffic. Streets should serve the needs of people, not vehicles. This should be freaking obvious, but too often city planners either ignore or forget that basic truth.
Parking spaces -- indeed, the entire street -- can be used temporarily as a people place rather than as a vehicle place. Streetscaping downtown would follow a similar philosophy: make the Historic District a people magnet rather than a place drivers pass through to get somewhere else.
Walking around on the initial First Wednesday event of 2017, I was struck by the pleasing amount of vitality in some of the alleys. City planners and Streetscape Committee, pay attention to this.
No, or very few, moving vehicles in the alleys. No public parking in the alleys. Yet people were having a good time and supporting downtown businesses.
Salem needs to lose some downtown lanes so it can gain more downtown vibrancy.
Painted lines on an unnecessarily wide and mostly empty street provide zero economic benefit to the Historic District. Streetscaping downtown would be a city-changer, especially if Liberty and Commercial streets become more people-friendly and attractive.