“A year or so ago, a bunch of people realized they were all thinking the same thing, which was how to make downtown Salem more inviting and economically robust,” says Eric Kittleson. “The group found each other and we’ve never looked back.”
Drawing on inspiration from around the world (Paris) around the state (Lake Oswego, Portland’s Pearl District,) and with Salem’s unique Lord & Schryver heritage – the group is in the final stages of focus groups and preparing for a presentation to the Salem City Council.
And they want every single interested local person to weigh in.
“This isn’t just for downtown. If it’s built right, and done big, this could be the biggest economic driver the City of Salem ever built,” says Carole Smith, a volunteer on the project.
The “Streetscape Project” has high ambitions. It adds parking spaces, trees, benches, inviting sidewalks and other pedestrian amenities to downtown. It cuts back traffic on streets that are under-capacity and creates instead a beautiful, economy-enhancing garden running from Riverfront Park to the Capitol.
Linking parks to employment areas is a goal in the City (of Salem’s) Strategic Action Plan and Streetscape, a project of the Design Committee of the Salem Downtown Partnership chaired by Jonathan Fahey, agrees. Streetscape proposes that it can both reignite downtown businesses and make Salem a destination spot.
Four people lead the work: Blake Bural and Alan Costic, architects with the Arbuckle Costic Architect firm, landscape gardener Susan Kay Huston and Smith, Partnership volunteer.
“A flourishing, interesting downtown means it will be easier for Salem Hospital to recruit top doctors and Willamette University to draw top students and professors,” says Smith. “It means we can attract companies; we won’t have investors “drive by” on the way to other communities.”
Smith sees Salem as having an advantage similar to the city of Victoria, B.C., which benefits from the Buchart Gardens, the same distance (16 miles,) as The Oregon Garden is from Salem. ”Having major landscape downtown will draw some of the 80,000 botanical tourists who visit The Oregon Garden every year,” she says. “Once here, those tourists will sleep in local hotels, eat at local restaurants, buy gas and visit other attractions – just as they do in Victoria.”
Both business-promoting effort and labor of love, streetscaps goal is to create a place that is uniquely Pacific Northwest and specifically representative of Salem. The group does NOT propose closing any street to make a pedestrian mall, as Eugene did.
The plan has two parts:
1) Arbuckle Costic designed a center median for Liberty and Commercial Streets, going North-South. Their design expands the number of downtown parking spaces and calms traffic (diverting it both to Front Street – already created to be a state highway that relieves downtown pressure, and 12th Street SE, an established by-pass.) The goal is to make a destination people drive to – not drive through.
“We want to get people out of their cars,” Kittleson says. “We want to slow traffic downtown so we can get people onto our sidewalks eating and drinking.” Traffic calming, he says, by reducing car lanes in favor of pedestrians and bikes, will make downtown safer, more engaging and hospitable.
2) Susan Kay Huston designed a Lord & Schryver-inspired plan running East-West for State, High and Court Streets. In these plans, one auto lane is omitted and an ingenious, usable garden established on the widened sidewalk. The result would link Riverfront Park all the way to Wilson Park at the Capitol, (and the parklike setting of Willamette University’s campus) with green.
“Everyone responds to beauty and nature,” Huston believes. The innovative Northwest Garden designers Elizabeth Lord and Edith Schryver lived in Salem in the early 1900s. Internationally renown, the women have a legacy of livable, low-care outdoor spaces created from indigenous plants. Huston consulted with The Lord & Schryver Conservancy, which preserves the duo’s heritage.
“We want natives because we already know they’re happy here,” Huston says. Her designs incorporate plants with inherent beauty. “Boxwood, beautiful dark red camellias that will bloom at Christmastime. I see wonderful blooms staggered throughout the year. Lord & Schryver designed when much of downtown was built, so their ideas lend themselves to our architecture.”
For Huston’s East-West streets, no traffic diversion is needed. Federal Highway recommendations say roads of less than 15,000 cars/day are good candidates for traffic calming. In the Downtown District Court Street currently carries 4,000 cars a day, and State Street only 2,000 cars/day (at the core.) Yet, currently both streets have three lanes – the same number as I-5.
Other cities put on “road diets” have seen a 20% increase in adjacent property value. “This plan makes good economic sense, not just to downtown but to taxing districts, school districts and all government. It reduces the financial burden on local citizens,” Smith says.
In recent months Costic, Bural, Huston and Smith have hosted a series of “incredibly positive” focus groups to gather input from business and property owners. “Every person who adds a suggestion gets their thoughts heard,” Huston says. “That’s what makes it so energetic.”
A recent focus group had a dynamic atmosphere. Smith started the conversation asking the dozen businesspeople, residents and property owners, “What do we want to be? What kinds of things attract you to a downtown?”
Casey Campbell, owner of Casey’s Cafe spoke up. “I want my customers to be more comfortable, to linger longer and shop longer.”
Previous groups had mentioned small plazas, children playing, bike racks. Salem resident of one year, John, said, “Currently biking is limited or obstructive. I’d like us to get a handle on that.”
Water features were mentioned, and ADA access. “What about art shows?” someone asked. “Shows where we’d invite artists to come and paint, actually demonstrate the process.” “We also need loading zones for florists and bakers,” Kittleson added.
“It would be so nice to see little vignettes with a private, leafy feeling and think, ‘this is a really neat place to come,’” someone said.
“Streetscape” funding would come from a tax already in place, not from a hike for residents. Property owners in the Urban Renewal District pay in every year; each year the District collects $4.5 million. The money can only be used within the district – only to enhance it – and would be the primary source of revenue.
Also, for several years these funds have not been spent; $6 million was carried forward from 2009-2010, 2010-2011 and 2011-2012. $6 million means a lot of possibilities, and was budgeted for projects that weren’t built. “Those projects were planned before the recession,” Smith says. “Perhaps we need to reassess how we invest those funds to better address today’s economy.”
As the focus group meeting ended, the new resident, John, remarked, “Something like this is very exciting. It takes a place I chose to move to, and enhances it in a way that is a great surprise.”
CAN-DO Neighborhood Association has been consulted and NEN Neighborhood Association will be met with soon. Outreach will extend to The Chamber Board, the State Capitol, Willamette University and the Lord & Schryver Board.
A final large focus group meeting will be held at the Grand Ballroom at 187 High Street, 4th Floor. Every Salem resident is encouraged to attend. The meeting will be on Wednesday, August 29th at 5:30 p.m.
After all the input is received, the group will present to the Salem City Council, Salem’s Public Works Department and Mayor. Since the funds are already available and the benefits so clear, Kittleson anticipates a warm reception. “When they know that everyone wants it, I’m sure it’s going to happen.”