Thursday, December 29, 2011

West Salem's Bone Property and Colorado Drive Extension at Planning Commission

At the Planning Commission next Tuesday, in addition to the Bike Plan, there will be a hearing on what is, I think, the first application of the Neighborhood Center Mixed Use Zoning. A street will need to be reclassified to accept a busier level of traffic, and some neighbors are not happy.

Chapman Corners, the Straub Property and Condemnation for Schools

The corner of Doaks Ferry and Orchard Heights is pretty old and old-timers will remember it still as Chapman Corners - a name remembered in Chapman Elementary School.

It's on the edge of development in West Salem, and there has been lots of conversation around how best to build here.

One of the parcels holds an historic home, whose core building precedes statehood, that is still held in the family of former Governor Bob Straub.

The school district wanted the land for schools, but in part because of the Great Recession and housing bubble, the property's value declined and the family and district were unable to find an agreeable price. The district subsequently initiated condemnation around the house (the house remains) and built two schools.

School siting can be complicated, but already the decision for suburban land on the edges of development is making it more likely parents will drive their kids to school and deprive them of the benefits of active transportation - walking, biking, skateboarding, and the like.

The West Salem Plan

Concurrently, the West Salem Neighborhood Plan calls for additional density and commercial center development along Orchard Heights (yellow and purple on map), and appropriate development here might yield the kinds of walkable neighborhoods West Salem essentially lacks.

The map is somewhat out of date. Already with the schools and other development, the exact parcels marked here won't be developed precisely as the map suggests - but the larger concept is clear: More density at Chapman Corners.

The Bone Property

Not actually in purple, but one of the first parcels to be in play, is the Bone property.

The Bone estate is on the northwest corner, and it will go before the Planning Commission on Tuesday. The Commission will look at two questions: Should the City rezone the property for higher density? And should the City build a new collector street to serve the property?


The zoning question appears to have community support. The City has enacted a new zoning designation, the Neighborhood Center Mixed-Use (NCMU) Zone, which it hopes to apply to this parcel.

The key values the code seeks to instantiate are:
Sense of place
Pedestrian orientation
Compact urban form
Neighborhood vitality
Innovative design
Transit accessibility
Connectivity with surrounding neighborhoods
Accommodation of the automobile
Disagreement on a New Collector Street

But not everything is copacetic.

Part of the project involves a new collector street. Colorado Drive would be extended through the property as a higher-traffic collector street and Landaggard would remain as a quieter local street, with connections to Colorado.

According to a recent piece in the Statesman, the neighborhood association opposes the plan:
West Salem Neighborhood Association co-chairman Don Homuth said the association does not favor the change.

"The WSNA will vigorously oppose running the collector street through the newly-passed NCMU development to be considered for the northwest corner of Doaks Ferry and Orchard Heights, a.k.a. the Bone Property," Homuth said in an email. "We worked very long and hard on the NCMU designation, and throughout the discussion, it was always intended to place a particular emphasis on pedestrian friendly, with cars being allowed into it for parking or convenience, but never — not even tangentially — did we envision that someone would suggest running a 'collector street' through it."
It's hard to know how to analyze this. One the one hand, Chapman Corners is still on the edge of a low-density and hilly development. Even in ideal circumstances, with a higher density development, it is not clear how actually walkable in practice it will be. Sometimes this looks like a planning exercise better on paper than in reality, and it may not be the best place in Salem to pilot the NCMU zone.

On the other hand, when we visit the early 20th century streetcar commercial districts in Portland, like those on Mississippi, Alberta, Hawthorne, Belmont, Division, 28th, and so on, which in important ways at least partially model important aspects of the neighborhood centers, it seems pretty clear they are all served by collector streets. This shouldn't surprise us: The reason they are commercially viable is because they serve multiple uses and are busy across multiple hours. People are constantly going in and out of the core commercial areas.

According to the current drafts of SRC 532.005 and 532.010, NCMU zone is
A district...located within one-eighth of a mile of a major intersection, as measured from the center of the intersection to the point in the district that is nearest to the intersection....Major intersection means the intersection of two streets, one of which is designated in the Salem Area Transportation System Plan as a major arterial or minor arterial, and the other designated as a major arterial, minor arterial, or collector.
I believe a "major intersection" has always been part of the zoning, and it unclear where the communication breakdown occurred with the neighborhood association.

It is likely that a higher density commercial center at this location in West Salem will perish without provision for significant volumes of auto traffic and the people they bring. There simply will not be enough close-in neighbors walking and biking to support business. Presumably, if the district were already walkable, more schoolkids would be walking and biking to the new schools. With time, as a center prospers, more people may walk and bike, but at first, the district will remain auto-dependent, and long-term success requires acknowledging this in the nearer-term.

What to do here is not necessarily clear. The City and community generally has an great interest in making development under the NCMU zone a success. Perhaps West Salem residents with a better understanding of the zoning and history, or others who have followed the NCMU zoning more closely, can comment and clarify. It's likely there are other factors not included in the SJ piece. Much depends on an actual site plan: Maybe the intersection of Doaks Ferry and Orchard Heights is enough, and Colorado would be a superfluous addition - though it's hard to see Doaks Ferry and Orchard Heights with parking here.

In any event, this is a new direction in Salem planning, and it deserves substantive conversation and debate with a view towards making a pilot project a success.

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