Thursday, October 17, 2013

Move Peace Plaza! It Doesn't Work - In Fact, It's Broke!

Tomorrow night, Friday the 18th, some folks are meeting at the Grand Theater at 6:30pm to talk about some of the City's recent projects. One of the notions that seems to be generating concern is the possibility that a new Police Station and associated construction at City Hall would "demolish" Peace Plaza.

While the intent behind Peace Plaza is laudable, the space rarely functions as a gathering place. With City Hall's weekday 9-5 hours on one side, the Library on the other, and two busy, busy one-way streets completing the boundaries, Peace Plaza usually shows the peace of eternal rest more often than anything else. It's dead mostly. That can't have been the intent and design!

So let's think seriously about seizing the moment offered by a City Hall renovation/expansion to relocate Peace Plaza to a more lively site.  And in whatever is left between the Library and an expanded City Hall, let's create a new and different public space that works.

One of the few scheduled events in Peace Plaza:
A Talk and Vigil for Peace in Syria, August 2012
(Notice, however, that the Peace Plaza proper in the distance
is not usable for gatherings!)
As a gathering place, it's a null.  Events are infrequently scheduled formally in the plaza. If it were a good place to gather, you'd think there would be both a greater number of events and a larger diversity of kinds of events.

As a loitering place, it's a little stubborn.  As the Library offers warmth, shelter, and bathrooms for those who don't always have them, the plaza is sometimes a place for cigarette breaks.  Sometimes this can be intimidating, especially for children, families, or solitary women.  It's not an unsafe space, but it doesn't always feel effortlessly safe.

There's not the burble of activity, eyes, and ears that make for a safe and inviting public space.  All people should be welcome - but that means more people, more different sorts of people, and more and different activities.

Is anyone there?
No visibility or intuitive connection from Liberty;
the berm closes off the space on this side
The edges are either inert or full of cars.  The street connections are poor, and fail to draw in people walking who aren't already going to the Library or City Hall. It's isolated. Commercial and Liberty are terrible for walking and biking here, and the Civic Center is low-density, single-use development on a greensward and campus. There's no reason to come here unless you're going to the Library or City Hall. Finally, the concrete and brutalist architecture is full of hard edges and hard walls, and conveys a feeling more like a fortress than friend.

Better visibility and connection from Commercial,
but adjacent uses not very active;
no shopping, no sidewalk life, only a cafe with limited hours
In too many ways it is an underutilized and mainly barren outdoor annex of City Hall and the Library.  It's a void rather than a place.

But the problems aren't just with the plaza.

Citing the example of Boston, some have argued that we should just level City Hall and build anew.
There is a strong case to be made for tearing it down. It is the ugliest major building in the city. It will not survive "the big one." It is now too small to house the city offices and the police department (though maybe not as small as some might think. Why spend 65 million (the figure you hear for the City Hall renovation and new police building) and end up having to still look at that horrible concrete heap for decades to come. Boston is considering tearing down its brutalist City Hall.
There's something to be said for that!  With increasing citizen suspicion of just about any policy change or plan the City tries to introduce, the fortress of City Hall and Council Chambers can't possibly be helping bridge relationships.  Expressed in architecture, there's nothing warm and fuzzy about City institutions.

(For more on the City Hall/Police Station project see here, and the new City project site here.)

Regardless of what you think of City Hall, the plaza fails most tests for being a good public space:

Peace Plaza meets few of these criteria
Place Making diagram from Project for Public Spaces
Maybe it's time to bring back the abandoned idea from Vision 2020 for a Town Square? That's a logical place for Peace Plaza!  Riverfront Park could also be a better site.

Sites previously considered for a Town Square
Also to be discussed at the meeting:
  • A proposal to purchase the area west of the railroad tracks and south of Eco Earth and Minto Island Bridge to add to the Park.
It will be interesting to see if this gains traction.  

The other item on the agenda, "the Pringle Creek linear park through the Boise property" and completing the greenway between Riverfront Park and Willamette University, is planned and already in the works, and it is not clear why people feel this is at risk.

This is, actually, the one secure part of the deal! Pringle Creek will be daylighted and the path completed.  The only part that is not certain is the timeline on the section of the path in the Boise parcel that will be privately developed.

Back to Peace Plaza, it's great to see citizens organizing, meeting, and discussing - but let's not be afraid of change!

Peace Plaza in the early evening
(click to enlarge)


Curt said...

At the last SCAN meeting, councilor Bednarz said (with a smirk) the Pringle Creek Path to the bridge was dead until Boise gets developed. I think "daylit" for G. James means that there would be no tall buildings like Salmon Run or Waterplace casting shadows on the path.

As for invoking Vision 2020: Some of the things I did for Carole Smith during the streetscape campaign was to dredge up the Vision 2020 docs. to stitch it into past planning efforts. Aside from a few vocal appeals for "moar parking!", it seemed to be pretty well received by Council, the Downtown Advisory Board, Willamete U. and other key players. If civic center proposals spill into the downtown URA, those connectivity goals need to be part of the discussion. We need to know how much it would cannibalize the shrinking pot of URA funds and how much it would threaten existing plans.

What is the status of the Mobility Study anyway? I could see this group successfully capturing more land for the park, which would push Mobility Study recommendations out even farther, probably not in my lifetime. Without anyone to defend it or push for its implementation, is it essentially dead?

The area that I think has the best potential in the near term is Pringle Plaza in front of Gambretti's. I think it is the best outdoor dining experience in Salem. In our parking debates Carole said that this was what they were asking for downtown--metering the garages like the Pringle Parkade (she totally ignores the 1 hour on street time limits).

My hopes for the area in the near term was for the Mt. West development to activate State St. which was going to make the Rivers more viable, which was going to give us the residential density to have a Coop either in the empty Pringle Plaza space or the empty building at Liberty and Trade. So many moving parts and so fragile.

Curt said...

The other key point that I left out in haste was that all the Vision 2020 concepts I provided for Carole were on display for a similar meeting last year, in the same room, with (I'm betting) all the same people in attendance. For contanxt, that's an important detail.

Jim Scheppke said...

I think there is a good chance that "Pringle Square" has become Tokarski's Revenge. To punish Salem he is now going to do nothing with the Boise Cascade property he owns and let it remain an eyesore for decades. His taxes on it are reportedly only about $6,000 a year -- chump change for him. If that is the case, the City needs to get it through condemnation. If that happened Riverfront Park could be expanded south on the parcel west of the tracks and the former Boise warehouse could be repurposed as our new City Hall and Police Station. The brutalist bunker that is our current City Hall could be torn down to become the new Salem Town Square. I'd bet all this could be done for less than $60 million.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

To Jim's point about the possibility of a new Town Square at the current site of City Hall - I think it's nearly impossible to make anything on the superblock bounded by Commercial, Trade, Liberty, and Leslie a really good public space. There's just too many problems and it's too isolated.

The problem isn't just the brutalist design; the adjacent development and road design also work powerfully against vitality.

No matter how pretty a design, without adjacent mixed uses, housing, retail, and more walkable streets, there will never be sufficient people to make a public square lively.

Think about Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland and its proximity to offices, shopping, some housing, and maybe most importantly, transit on all four sides. That's why a Salem site in "downtown proper" would be best.

As for URA funding, I think that "mitigation" or "relocation" for Peace Plaza ought to be folded into the bond and should not require URA funds.

Whether acquiring the west park parcel would gain enough traction that URA funds would be envisioned for the acquisition - well, as you say that's worth watching. (But incrementally adding to Riverfront Park wouldn't create a corresponding increment in downtown property values and so isn't there an argument that that wouldn't be a good use of URA funds?)

Exactly as you point out - and not just for the Coop - many moving parts, and much that is fragile.

Curt said...

Of course adding to Riverfront Park is a slam dunk for URA funds, just as it was for the Minto Bridge. But is that what we really need most downtown? Reconfiguring one way streets would have a bigger impact than adding onto the park. Riverfront is a very active place right now, which maybe has contributed some to downtown, but not that I can see.

What about improving connectivity to the Union St. bridge as proposed in the Mobility Study? Sounds like this totally blows it off the table. N3B is has had nothing to say about it. Neither has Friends Of Two Bridges (yes there are 2).

Yes you are right about Pioneer Square. But downtown Portland has density that Salem won't have in my lifetime. More than half of visitors to downtown Portland arrive by some mode other than a single occupancy vehicle. SOV's are the minority modeshare! And, of course, its the most expensive place to park in the state.

So it seems that carving out more space for a town square just de-densifies things even more. We have a nice space in front of the Courthouse already that doesn't seem to draw much activity.

And doesn't separating Peace Plaza from City Hall defeat its purpose to provide a gathering place for activists, protest, and freedom of speech?

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

The Courthouse lawn. That's an interesting question! I had to stop and think about that for a bit.

I haven't really seen it as a "place." Maybe this is wrong. That's a good question and a good space to consider. Here are some preliminary thoughts. Maybe others will have more or better ones.

Perhaps we should expect the Courthouse lawn to have more activity, but I have seen it as designed to ward off activity more than to invite it. While the original Lord & Schryver landscaping plan for the Courthouse has not been retained, there's still yet a vestigial formality in the landscaping. It's not friendly, you know? Like the Civic Center, the Courthouse is single use and only open 9-5 weekdays. There aren't many benches, there are no vendor carts, there's no public art, and there's not much variety in the landscaping. The lawn suggests that people should stay on the paths - who would picnic there? The building's design is modernist and cold - all white and rectilinear - and the paths and benches designed for break-time, not gathering. There's also the fact that there are prisoners, lawyers, and police there often. That's not an especially inviting demographic, and requires a proportionately larger number of other kinds of folks so the prisoner-lawyer-police axis doesn't predominate. Even though Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square shares the word "courthouse," by virtue of Starbuck's, other vendors, the light rail stations, seats and stairs, (etc), it has multiple uses in a way that our Courthouse lawn does not. It is also not ringed by car parking, and therefore more "open" to the sidewalks than our Courthouse, which is ringed by angle parking. Our Courthouse lawn could be more of a gathering place, but I think it would to be reconfigured significantly.

As for Peace Plaza, I have had a different reading of it. Perhaps wrongly, but I have seen it more as an homage to "Chemeketa" and "Salem," and place intended for creativity, life and community, and contemplation - not so much as a place for protest and conflict. But I suppose it has a role in that as well, though I have seen that as a secondary role rather than a primary one. Additionally, in a reconfigured City Hall, any plaza or courtyard could be a staging area for protest and politics. So I don't think that moving Peace Plaza would harm civic dissent and debate.

(Strangely, there's very little online about the history of Peace Plaza. It seems the plaza between the Library and City Hall was not know as Peace Plaza until 1989. And the term still slips between designating the whole plaza and designating the memorial wall and tree in the circular planting. When I say "move Peace Plaza" I mean move the smaller memorial to a more visible and lively location. There will still be some kind of plaza in between the Library and City hall, and it might function better if it were smaller.)

As for de-densification, the Vision 2020 sites for a Town square are all parking lot, undeveloped land, or in one case both parking lot and empty building which at one time had a demolition permit. So if a lot became a square and that activated adjacent buildings and uses, it would be a net gain. Even if it failed, it would at worst be a net zero, and not a de-densification from existing conditions. A Town Square project should use an existing surface lot or empty lot and not represent a "carving out" or demolition. I like the north side of the Transit mall or the old City Hall site for these reasons.


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

I have seen the Minto bridge as offering a significantly larger upgrade to the park than the minimal upgrade of an increment of additional acreage in the "park parcel" of the Boise project. But I feel - and we may agree on this - that the Minto Bridge has jumped the queue and that there are other projects that should have been a higher priority. The advocacy of Friends of 2 Bridges has focused on the "drive, park, unload, and recreate" model for use for the bridges and parks. F2B was never much interested in advocating for completing the Union St. RR connections, which seemed like they should have been completed before the Minto Bridge was undertaken. The commitment to this "drive and recreate" model was also visible in the Carousel brouhaha. Even if F2B never embraced bike transportation, it has been a great disappointment that they have not embraced walking transport and urban walkability more.

(2/2 - blogger said the comment was too long)

Anonymous said...

You thought you were joking about the "peace of eternal rest"...

Over at Salem Community Vision, an advocate writes:

"The Peace Plaza was created as a place to commemorate the Salem as the City of Peace, as this is what the translation of Salem. It was created by a group of people that included the United Nations Salem Chapter, the League of Women Voters and the Salem Human Rights Commission. It is maintained by a Peace Plaza Advisory Committee that is independent of the City but has an agreement. People's ashes are actually buried at the Peace Plaza too. To some this is sacred ground."

So moving interred remains would likely complicate your idea of moving peace plaza.

At the same time, like you say, it is a really poorly utilized space with lousy edge relationships.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Very interesting. You're right, if folks are buried there, that does complicate things.

A person involved in the memorial in the late 80s/90s did tweet elsewhere that the first choice was near Deepwood, and that the Library/City Hall site was a secondary choice. She averred that Riverfront Park today would be an even better choice.

Anonymous said...

Peace Plaza: Your City Smoking Zone!

From an OPB/SJ story: "Starting Aug. 22 smoking will be banned in all city-owned parks, including the Mirror Pond area at the Vern Miller Civic Center. The one exception is the Peace Plaza between the Vern civic center and the library."