Walking around over the holiday, and talking with folks, it was clear that something we just don't talk about enough when we talk about making downtown more lively and healthy is the extent to which the harm is self-inflicted.
For we've girdled downtown.
Downtown used to be a residential neighborhood itself, and connected to close-in residential neighborhoods. The people who lived nearby were customers for business.
No more! As institutions - important Salem institutions - have expanded, they have removed homes and replaced them with larger buildings and superblocks. Since there are fewer nearby customers, businesses must chase after driving customers who live much farther away.
The bark that would nourish the trunk and core is gone, cut away.
In nearly every direction, downtown is separated from residential districts by many barriers. With the growth on the west side and the difficulties crossing Wallace, Edgewater, the river, Front, Liberty, Commercial, west Salem is psychically far from downtown. The Mission cluster-frack, Pringle Parkway, Pringle Creek Urban Renewal Area, Bush Park, Salem Hospital, and Willamette University form barriers on the south side. The Capitol Mall, 12th Street, and the railroad form barriers on the east side.
The barriers aren't always stops. In fact, in many instances the barriers are constituted by single-use buildings. Pringle Creek Urban Renewal zone has SAIF and the City of Salem; the Capitol Mall has State government. Both areas empty at 5pm and on weekends. At 7pm or on Saturday, there's nothing to lure you to the districts, and there are no residents in them. So it's not surprising people don't walk or bike to them or through them to downtown. The superblocks even make driving less attractive.
If you want to know why there aren't enough people in downtown....maybe planners and politicians should give more though to the barriers we ourselves have created.
There are plenty of other issues, of course. The problems don't reduce to a single master narrative of one variable.
But land-use and zoning are implicated in the problems downtown faces, and it's hard to say that conversations around downtown vitality give enough attention to this part of the problem.