We hear the public gets the government they deserve. We disagree. Our slice of heaven deserves intelligent planning, sensible spending and public architecture of which we can be proud.
We’ve been denied that, big time, in Courthouse Square. 15 years ago we had a beautiful active historic city block in the center of downtown Salem. Crammed with the kind of buildings you see in vintage photographs that people point to and say, “Why don’t they build like that anymore?”
A theater from vaudeville days, signatures from long-dead performers scrawled right there on the wall. The notable Senator Hotel, where important Oregonians laid their heads. A significant piece of yesteryear: Oregon’s very first liquor store, a speakeasy during Prohibition.
Irreplaceable stuff. Ask any old-timer. Ask anyone vaguely interested in our history, our heritage.
It turns out that Marion County owned certain buildings on this charming block, and its policy for years was to neglect them. To leave old paint to blister, to let bad wiring hang. To lock the door on rubble when tenants moved out and throw away the key.
Then they argue their buildings were in disrepair and should be torn down. The people said, “We trust you.”
So the county proceeded to push out thriving businesses on this well-positioned location. They condemned other buildings that were in the way. They brought in the wrecking ball.
Gone! Was the historic Senator hotel. Gone forever! The vaudeville theatre. Gone entirely! Oregon’s historical speakeasy. All in the name of the civic good.
A hole was dug. But darn it, a lapse in forethought came to light: Marion County couldn’t afford to build there.
Our showcase “Courthouse Square” stayed a fenced-in hole. For years. Smack dab in the middle of Oregon’s state capital, and a recipient of national and international visitors. A blight no one could be proud of.
To the rescue, smart county people figured out how to scale the project back. They figured out how to build on the cheap.
And it turned out to be hideous. In 2000, an ugly brick rectangle came to squat on the block: a monstrosity of a complex complete with fake bridges poking out. Bridges to Nowhere lacking any amount of loveliness and style.
And never sound. Architectural problems as early as 2002.
Thanks a lot.
Ten years later, $20 million still owed on the $34 million project, the eyesore is actually condemned for cracking, buckling, lots of scary stuff.
Built wrong. Not usable. Oops.
Move out, everyone! You’ve got 60 days!
Except that – in a recession, with downtown office space in need of leasing on every hand – the county moved its employees out of downtown.
No more throngs of county employees to support downtown shopping, eateries, nightlife.
That was two years ago. Experts say Courthouse Square will take between $16 and $53 million to fix. Marion County has vacated the area. And they still don’t’ know what they’re going to do with that there majestic block.
We all deserve better.
If you’d like to express your gratitude to the Marion County powers-that-be for Courthouse Square, or participate in the discussion of this or any other story, please leave us a comment.