Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Salem Tomorrow 1984 had a very Different Vision for the Riverfront!

The Salem Tomorrow 1984 Plan has been fascinating to review. It's a product of the times, something very autoist. One way to read it is about parking for cars and skybridges for people on foot to keep them out of the way. That's not the only way to read it, of course, and maybe you will see a different set of themes. But it is interesting that there's not much attention to the roads themselves or to other kinds of public space. It operates with a solid baseline assumption that people travel and arrive by car and that accommodating this is paramount.*

Hotel tower, Convention Center, Parking Garage
Court Street axis, Riverfront Park (detail)
The biggest concept in it, as I read it, was for the Riverfront, and while we did redevelop the Riverfront, we did so in a way 100% opposite of the plan's vision.

We went for a park.

Salem Tomorrow 1984 went for concrete.

The Riverfront area would have been totally redeveloped as a Convention Center, hotel, and Performing Arts Center.

Riverfront 2000 vision: Salem Tomorrow 1984
(click to enlarge; comments in red added)
Just like with attempt for an oversized Police Station, from here this looks like a classic example of Salem wanting to overbuild. It would have followed the mid-century urban renewal template of demolition and clearing, large urban forms on a campus with superblocks, and non-auto connectivity in skybridges and paths layered over as a secondary consideration after the big forms and provisions for cars were taken care of.

Not that this is all wrong.

I happen to wish that Riverfront Park had some riverside dining and shopping beyond what is offered by the Willamette Queen. I wish Riverfront Park did have a little more development in it. Not nearly as much in the picture here, but a bit more than we currently have. The Carousel by itself is not enough. There's too much ornamental emptiness in Riverfront Park as it is today, and we still haven't created adequate connections across the Front Street bypass.

But superblock and skybridge construction isn't the answer, either.

Our alleys are great, but it is not the "big box" ones that are thriving
On the other hand, the study was right about our alley system downtown!

The City did act formally on the alleys not long after this report came out.

Salem downtown alley improvements from the mid-80s
But we still haven't fully leveraged that investment.

And it may be that the private investment by brewers and cider-makers, and more targeted urban renewal support for them, is more effective than landscape art applied to the surfaces and to the spandrels between buildings.

It is small business entries off the alley and not public art or parking garages that really enliven the alleys.

That is, in order to make them useful and attractive parts of circulation, the alleys don't merely need decoration, they also need commercial activity.

Roth & McGilchrist has nearly a quarter-block footprint
after renovation - via CD Redding
The two scales here, one of superblock construction and the other of decorative treatments for our alleys, offer a kind of "Goldilocks" story: too big and too small. A similar problem potentially lurks behind the Urban Renewal Agency's tendency to aggregate lots downtown into half block units. I worry these will be too big and coarse. A quarter block parcel really feels like a good unit for Salem redevelopment. That is, after all, about the scale of the McGilchrist and Roth renovation, and - notwithstanding the change at Gayle's market - that looks like a solid success. This size also corresponds to several of the vacant surface parking lots. A quarter-block unit feels "just right."

As we think about the State Hospital parcel, we will want to find that sweet spot between low-density dullness that it seems some of the neighbors want and over-built superblock uniformity that some developers might want. Even if individual developments there wouldn't be in quarter blocks, it may be that this is a good analytical unit and proportion for thinking about space and building in Salem.

* There's a tiny note on bikeways, but these are a small recreational path system. Maybe we'll return to that in another note. There's a few more things too in the plan that might be worth comment.


Susann Kaltwasser said...

The reason why we ended up with a Riverfront Park instead of a hotel and convention center is because citizen activists put a referendum on the ballot in the 90s to stop it. I recall working on that campaign. We owe the park to Jim and Loraine Pullman and about 10 super active people. The other thing was that the area is super contaminated. Turns out that you can't build anything that requires digging down. That is one of the reasons why you do not and will not see any large buildings in that area. The worst contamination is under the parking area. That is why it is so far from the Carouse and the ampitheaterl. Even to get the bridge to Minto Brown in they had to deal with some contamination.

The public spoke and I am so proud of what activists accomplished rather than let the moneyed people and the politicians decided.

Even though I respected some of the people who worked on Salem Tomorrow, it was another time and hopefully now we are more progressive on such things as cars and what makes a downtown great.

I agree that the alleys are a missed opportunity.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

Forgot to mention that I wish that Salem would allow the food carts to operate in Riverfront Park. And maybe why not allow them to be in some of the alleys?

Anonymous said...

There are a couple of items I found interesting with the document, such as how long projects have been around. In particular the Minto-Brown Island ped/bike bridge (2016) and the transit mall on the Senator block (2000?). Did these exist in planning documents before Salem Tomorrow?

Also, consider since 1984 that five major buildings have been built in downtown: Park Center South (Salem Laundry space?), Grand Hotel to replace a hotel, SAMTD/MC office building + transit mall, 295 Church (replacing a parking lot) and the condos on Front St Bypass. At least one building has been replaced by a blank space (Commercial@State) [and the Cinebarre building?].

There are blank spaces in the 1984 drawing that still exist today (and that don't have any publicly known plans for redevelopment in the near future). Will they still be here in another 32 years?

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

@ Anon - The persistence of blanks (typically as surface parking lots) is impressive, as you say, and not in a good way. And though you don't draw attention to this explicitly, it seems very underpowered for Salem that so few new buildings have been erected downtown in the time, well over a generation.

@ Susann - Thanks for the background on activism on the Park. (For any not familiar with it, here's a before/after photo of the contaminated area.)

Comparing the Salem Tomorrow 1984 plan with the Riverfront/Downtown Core Area Master Plan of 1996, there's a striking shift to streetscape and movement, and much less attention on buildings and redevelopment. That might merit a post of its own, especially as lots of that plan remains unbuilt, but it seems it also remains more usable and still relevant today.

Susann, you worked on that plan - do you remember anything about the shift in emphasis?