Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On New Development and the Bank, Downtown Partnership Focuses on Foot Traffic

Thursday night the Historic Landmarks Commission will deliberate and make a final decision on the question of the bank drive-through for the proposed Columbia Bank on the empty lot at State and Commercial.

There's somegood news: transportation is top of mind! While it's a little disappointing that the drive-through and auto-centrism hasn't got more attention, it's great to see the interest in walking.

And in a stance that is difficult to imagine Go Downtown Salem taking, the new Downtown Economic Improvement District adminstrators, the Salem Downtown Partnership, are leading that interest in walking!

Last month's hearing elicited quite a bit of new testimony, and while the drive-through has received some attention, the bulk of the comment seems to be concerned with the disposition of the parking lot and the way it will break up the storefront and sidewalk streetscape.

When you look across the street to the north side of State Street, there's an unbroken line of mostly two story brick storefronts.

The current plan uses only half of the lot, and proposes a parking lot on the west half and facing State Street. The Salem Downtown Partnership has argued that the bank building should be sited in such a way that the south side of State Street as well as around the corner on Commercial will present a new unbroken line of storefronts.
Salem's downtown, especially its Historic District, relies upon proper site plans to ensure storefronts are not set back from the sidewalk, and are continuous, from building to building. Continuous storefronts along the sidewalk enhance the flow of pedestrians along the sidewalk. Open space between storefronts acts as a barrier to pedestrian flow, and damages the viability of neighboring retail storefronts.

Columbia Bank's siting of its parking lot acts as a barrier to pedestrian flow on State Street, and creates a dead zone on Commercial Street....

We encourage Columbia Bank to rethink its site plan so infill may occur continuously along both Commercial and State Streets.
It's good to see the awareness of dead zones! You can see the retail "hole" formed by the parking lot on the left here:

Writing separately from the Partnership, affiliated private downtown residents and business owners have suggested that the bank might be able to acquire the other vacant lot, and remove the parking lot behind additional storefronts.

There are lots of moving parts in the comment and opposition, but there seems to be a consensus that the surface parking lot should not abut the sidewalk. Fewer seem concerned with the drive-through, interestingly, though some have suggested it is not necessary, as many downtown banks are closing theirs.

34 downtown business people have signed a petition opposing the current plan, including most of the principals in the cluster of merchants on State Street: Margaret Furlong, Normandy Guitars, and Cascade Baking. Reed Opera House and the Livesley Tower owner Roger Yost also signed. There's a broad range of concerned citizens.

The owners of the narrow lot between Scott's and the Bank site have also filed a lengthy set of objections, but I'm not sure I really understand them. Their difficulties look less like a principled stand on a walkable downtown and appropriate development styles than an ad hoc attempt to get the bank to buy their property, since they were originally not able to come to terms on a price. And some of the objections are simply procedural. Still, they articulate some of the same concerns about sidewalk storefronts and walkable development.

The developer will likely file their rebuttal today, and the Historic Landmarks Commission will deliberate Thursday night at 5:30pm. The Hearings Officer will separately decide on the Conditional Use permit and let the City know by mail. (The confusing nature of the separate Conditional Use and Landmarks Commission hearings is one of the procedural issues, by the way.)

Hopefully the formal decisions and other negotiations can lead not to killing the project but to a project that is both bigger with more sidewalk storefronts and more walkable. That would be a solid step in the right direction.

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