Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Streetscape Concept Starting Point, but not Finished

Over at SCV they're talking up the "streetscape" project from a few years ago. (Part 1, part 2, part 3.)

Unfortunately it has what look like some holes, and while elements from it might be incorporated into a winning proposal for reconfiguring our downtown streets, if it is considered at all a "final" concept, it still could benefit from some refinement.

There's no Family-Friendly Biking Yet

Billed as something that would "make downtown both more attractive, and also more pedestrian/cyclist friendly," it might offer some improvement for people who already feel confident biking in downtown traffic, but it doesn't quite represent improvements for family-friendly cycling. It is a great help that auto traffic lanes would be in some cases reduced, of course, but there are no protected bike lanes for families or people who bike irregularly.

Court Street Concept, June 2013
In fairness, the Downtown Mobility Study's recommendations also retained the angle parking and had no bike lane for Court Street. It doesn't attain "family-friendly" either. But if we aren't going to have bike lanes and we are going to keep all the angled parking, I'd rather have two-way travel lanes than to retain the one-way directionality.

Channelizing on Liberty/Commercial
For the Liberty/Commercial couplet, the concept proposes a reallocation of auto travel lanes and a corresponding slowing of traffic. Those are positives! But the space from a travel lane will go to a new center median with a parking strip. While traffic will be slower, it's basically a shared lane configuration for bike travel and would be equivalent to sharrows. The parking configuration would make for a constrained environment: Lots of door-opening and backing up. This still would not be family-friendly biking.

On Oakland Street in SF, a Planter protects a bike lane
(via Green Lane Project)
In the five years since the Mobility Study conversations, though, more and more evidence has accumulated for the benefits of protected bike lanes on downtown streets, and we should reconsider configurations for the State/Court couplet as well as the Liberty/Commercial couplet.

The Approach to Street Furniture is Inflexible

Curvy hedgey things atop brick planters
Some of the purpose for the "garden" concept is apparently for
Slowing down pedestrians -- changing point A to point B behaviors by interrupting long city concrete blocks with gentle green curves. Enjoy a variety of extraordinary plant material.
But is too speedy walking really the problem downtown? And if it is, is the problem to solve that there's not enough barriers to deflect people or things to look at? Or is the problem that there are too many zoomy cars?

It's not always easy to discern the planter configurations in the drawings, but they look to be curved brick planters that mostly run perpendicular to the flow of walking. Since they won't be able to contribute to the carrying capacity of the sidewalk - and indeed explicitly are meant to "interrupt" - as permanent fixtures they may represent ornaments that waste the sidewalk space a little. On a smaller scale, they are a little bit of "ornamental emptiness." This piece does not actually look like something that really improves walkability. Maybe as more detail comes out there will be reason to reconsider, but I see this as something that clogs the sidewalk rather than enlivens it.

Lord & Schryver is an Awkward Touchstone for Downtown Design

"The general design of the project would follow the design principles of nationally renowned Salem landscape architects Lord & Schryver."

Overall this whole Lord & Schryver angle has seemed also a little strange. 

One of the early commissions, the large garden and grounds
for the Jarman House by the Library
(via On the Way)
Lord & Schryver started up early in the Depression, 1929 in fact, working for wealthy clients who could afford formal gardens in the early 1930s. This was not a populist art!

Moreover, the formal garden tradition had its roots in technologies and designs of 17th century fortifications - think about all the geometry of the box hedge - and with the aristocracy. Formal gardens are about war, power, and wealth. In general they are not gentle, soothing, meditative things! We might want gardens and greenery to be lovely and calm and nurturing ("Let the garden embrace you" remains the Conservancy's motto), but this particular tradition of formal garden is not primarily that, no matter how much we might try to reinterpret it today.

I know. We celebrate fancy buildings by eminent architects, and these were usually expressions of wealth or prosperity also. But the best buildings downtown are often on a second-tier, somewhat plainer ones that have proved more flexible. Our fancy City Hall was demolished. The McGilchrist and Roth buildings remain. There is a certain pragmatic plainness that we might want to consider more fully here.

Too much Parking

Finally, a real philosophical beef. The extra space from the auto travel lanes appears to be mostly allocated to auto parking.

Parking detail on Liberty/Commercial
This approach is essentially the same as the approach to building new roads and courts "induced demand." The new parking stalls will quickly fill up and people will still say "there's not enough parking." Rather than better utilizing our existing parking capacity in our parking garages that are rarely half-full, the concept proposes to clog the street with more auto parking, more door opening, more backing out.

The center median and its sidewalk will also encourage - even require - midblock crosswalks, formally striped, or informally and jaywalky. This detail would need significantly more thought.

The new parking in a center median is a move in the wrong direction, notwithstanding the allure of slower auto traffic and a reduction in travel lanes. This is not more peoplespace, but essentially remains carspace.

What about the Funding?

There is talk that because the Conference Center will soon be paid off, there could be a substantial pot of Urban Renewal Funds available to bond, up to $30 million.

As much as "street reform" is a passion here, what downtown needs even more is housing. Downtown really needs more market-rate housing, and it needs a judicious mix of affordable, subsidized housing so that downtown doesn't become just a playground for the prosperous.

I would prefer to see a comprehensive street redesign be part of the next road bond or other transportation package and to see the urban renewal dollars going more to support housing and ancillary redevelopment.

Maybe that's wrong, but housing really seems like the more urgent need for Urban Renewal dollars - and of course more people living downtown will be more customers for business, customers who are able often to walk rather than drive!

Overall a Good Starting Point

In the "streetscape" concept there is the start of some good ideas, but it needs more thorough consideration for what people on foot and on bike really need, and more consideration for how auto traffic and provisions for auto parking best fit. By providing more on-street car parking and by "interrupting" people walking on the sidewalks, it falls short of a new vision for our downtown streets. It remains a little autoist.

If the concept is a conversation starting point, then "hooray!" But if it's a final concept, then it needs more work.


Brian said...

I put up the Downtown Salem Streetscape page on behalf of Salem Community Vision. Thanks for your interest in this project, which could wonderfully vitalize the Historic District and downtown areas. Your comments helped stimulate me to make some changes to the Adobe Spark web page:

For example, I added this at the beginning:

"What follows are streetscape designs and images that emerged from an initial planning effort by Carole Smith, Eric Kittleson, Susan Kay Huston, and Alan Costic about five years ago. These were, and are, intended for illustration and discussion. They're very much open to change, so pay more attention to the overall goals of the Downtown Salem Streetscape project than to specifics shown in these early plans.

Salem Community Vision is sharing this material because renewed interest is being shown in streetscaping the Historic District and surrounding area. This would transform Salem's urban core, making it much more people-friendly. Increased economic activity would follow, including more downtown businesses, visitors, and residents."

So I'd encourage you to not miss the forest for the trees, so to speak. Focusing on design details in the early sketches and plans produced by a small team of volunteers about five years ago isn't as important as the overall streetscape goal: making downtown a magnet for people, not cars, by losing traffic lanes, adding cyclist/pedestrian-friendly amenities, and showcasing unique attributes of Salem.

A couple of other points:

(1) The use of Urban Renewal money for this project is very much in line with the goal of the downtown urban renewal district. Arguably using public funds for a broad public purpose that vitalizes the entire urban core is a better use of those funds than subsidizing private development that often would happen anyway, and has fewer large-scale benefits. A "Salem 2025" report came to a similar conclusion, saying that committing to a major bold urban renewal project is preferable to frittering away urban renewal money on many small grants. This isn't an either/or, of course, just a matter of emphasis.

(2) I and many others like the idea of making Salem-area agriculture, horticulture, gardens, and such a major theme of the Downtown Streetscape project. We live in the middle of one of the most productive growing areas in the country. It makes great sense to emphasize this in streetscape designs, which was the goal of Susan Kay Huston in the sketches and ideas she shared with me,

Again, it is always possible to quibble with specific features on what really were "brainstorming" early ideas for the project. But doing this loses sight of the overarching goals of streetscaping downtown Salem. Currently downtown is dominated by 3-4 lane one-way streets which make the area much less attractive to pedestrians and cyclists than two-way, two-lane streets would be. There has been some progress in this direction with a few blocks of State Street being converted to a two-way street, but much more needs to be done.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

I think that the intent of the Salem Community Vision document is to begin the dialog about how to make downtown Salem better. Your comments add to that vision. Thank you!

I agree with you about the need for protected bike lanes. I am not a bike user anymore, but I know that a lot of people fear riding anywhere but the sidewalks (I would never let my children or grandchildren ride on busy streets) because there is so little respect by drivers for people on bikes. I wish we could also get them on major arterials like Commercial, Lancaster and Wallace Road. Europe learned long ago that unless you give equal protection to bikes as you do to cars, people will not get out of the safety of a vehicle to ride.

I hope that you will post these comments or a link to the Facebook page.

BTW, did you know that the new downtown parking study is recommending meters? Rather than getting employees who work downtown off the streets and into the parking garages, they plan to make downtown more inhospitable to citizens by charging with meters.

I may have missed it, but do you think that Salem has enough safe bike storage? I hear all the time about bikes being stolen and wonder if people who commute have enough spaces to safely put their bikes while they are at work.

Thanks for all you wonderful analysis of important issues like this!

Let's keep the dialog going!

Anonymous said...

"BTW, did you know that the new downtown parking study is recommending meters? Rather than getting employees who work downtown off the streets and into the parking garages, they plan to make downtown more inhospitable to citizens by charging with meters."

Why would people use the garages when on-street parking is free? What is the point of on- street parking when spaces are so rarely available? How "hospitable" can downtown be when you need to circle around block after block (through a confounding one-way street grid) to find somewhere to park?

Carole Smith said...

The amount of automobile space proposed to be removed would be split equally between pedestrians and bikes. It reduces the space dedicated to autos by 30-50%. The ideas posted on the website are the jumping off point for ideas, not a finished plan. We had to start somewhere.

Yes, we have been preaching for more housing downtown for 25 years. Now, finally developers have figured out it IS profitable. It is time to start preparing for the next "renewal" project for downtown. Housing will bring more residents downtown, but it does not stimulate tourism, bring new money into Salem or attract new family wage jobs to our community. We need to begin working toward the next level for our future. This project is in the "conversation" phase now, so please share your thoughts about how you want downtown to function in our community.

This isn't merely a new project for downtown but a commitment to a new future for Salem. A future that begins with a new idea we can all work toward together.

Jumping to parking meters now will destroy a very fragile business sector. First the city needs to force employees, business owners, volunteers, and the over 200 people living downtown into the parking garages. There have always been huge fines in place to prevent them from parking on-street, but the city just gives then the $25 ticket instead of the $100-250 employee tickets. Until the city gets serious about enforcement, we should not be serious about parking meter installation - that is the cart before the horse again.

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Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

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