Tuesday, November 5, 2013

In the Shadow of Cars: Millrace Park at Pringle Plaza

In a note on the Civic Center the other day a commenter observed that the space in front of Gamberetti's was a favorite public square in Salem, had the "best potential," and offered "the best outdoor dining experience in Salem."

And that got me thinking.  Did you know the space has a name?

Millrace Park at Pringle Plaza
On a sunny day, shouldn't there be more people in it?
It's Millrace Park at Pringle Plaza.

I go back and forth on it.  Sometimes I find it charming and interesting, other times all the concrete and edges are just ugly and it drives me nuts. It's that 70s Brutalism thing, again.

But more than just the design of the square itself, the important thing is how it relates to nearby spaces.

And in this I think it's a failure, even though sometimes the dining is pleasant, the space occasionally works and can be charming. (Do these successful elements tip the balance for you?  It will be interesting to learn how others feel about this space.)

On balance, I think it shows why we should not uncritically laud vintage urban renewal like the whole Pringle Creek area, and why contemporary urban renewal cannot focus atomistically on a single spot.  Unless a redevelopment at the Civic Center thinks about adjacent land uses, it will just offer more of the same.

Relationships matter.

In the Shadows

In several ways the park has a shadowy existence.  But our accommodations for cars might cast the longest shadow.  The relationship that seems to trump every other one is our relationship to the car - how we move cars, and how we store them.

Rivers for Cars:  Trade and Liberty,
stitched from google streetview;
Millrace park on the right
Even though there is interpretive signage, at least part of the City apparently doesn't think it exists! The only "Mill Race Park" is the one just south of State Street between 21st and Ferry, where Mill Creek is dammed and the Mill Race originates and then parallels Ferry Street.

This space between Liberty and High isn't on the list of parks. It's in an official shadow.

Signage at the park in the afternoon shadows
But it's true, there's a sign!

The park is on the north side of the Pringle parking garage, and in a little bit of a natural bowl. It's often in the shadow cast by the garage and its cars.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Mill Race and nearby Pringle Creek here flooded, and there was a related depression in the block north along Ferry Street.  It was called "Peppermint Flat" and was the center of Salem's bawdy house trade.  So this area has a hidden legacy of moral shadow, too!

Pringle Plaza and the Mill Race area, late 19th century
Trade St on left, Commercial at bottom with pump station.
Liberty doesn't go through yet,
High street is visible near top at three-story building with rounded roof
Salem Library Historic Photos
(and a more detailed scan of a very similar image)
Of course it was also an industrial area and Trade Street was built up early on for a spur railroad.  The urban renewal plan certainly spruced it up from what it was.

The pond and falls in low water, looking north at the berm and Trade St.
Still, when the water is running low, the concrete "falls" are dry, the pond gets pretty scummy, and the concrete crusted with brown moss.  It can be really ugly.

The Interior Edges

The restaurant and other retail spaces are shoved in under the parking structure, and while the ground floor retail can be nice, I find the parking garage brooding and dominating, too powerfully set over the ground floor and park.  Rarely are the storefronts in direct sun.

I have often wondered if the retail was an afterthought to fill in the voids under the garage, and not something designed from the beginning and integral to the garage.  The storefronts have never seemed like they fit harmoniously to me. Different materials, different scale:  Kinda awkward to me.  But in the summertime and other fair weather, people do enjoy the patio dining!

The bike rack's not 50 feet from the entry!
Note different siding materials
The Exterior Edges

More importantly, the structural problem may be that the retail is pulled away too much from the sidewalk.

Nothing relates to the sidewalk.   

There is no sidewalk on Trade/OR-22, in fact.  At Liberty the path swerves into the park (see streetview above), but there aren't many interesting destinations or storefronts along the way.  The walk doesn't offer much variety or interest, and unless you've already settled on a walk, there's not much to pull a person on foot from the Fire Station to the Robert Lindsey tower - it's all institutional along here.

Trucks zoom by on Trade and if you are dining you are perhaps thankful there's a berm offering some separation. The situation on Liberty isn't much better.  High Street is really the only street with meaningful sidewalks and potential.

A berm separates highway truck traffic from the plaza
More than this, the park is not only separated, recessed from the streets and not part of the regular sidewalk grid, the edges and adjacent uses of the park are mostly voids.

Ponds, Lakes, River of Cars surround the Park with Voids

There are three parking lots - ponds and lakes of cars - one fire station, and one extension of the park. The kitty-corners are occupied by the single downtown hotel and its restaurant (and if I recall correctly, the hotel recently closed the restaurant entry at the corner and moved it to inside the main hotel entry), and an office building with a large shadowy awning. So neither of these uses count as very active, either.

And of course the rivers of cars:  Liberty is a 4-lane major arterial here; and Trade is OR-22, a 2- and 3-lane urban highway here.

No wonder the shopping center struggles at times!

Structurally this is similar to the pattern with Riverfront Park.  Both parks are fronted by OR-22 and across it aren't very lively uses - parking lots, office buildings, empty buildings.  The rivers and lakes and ponds of cars are real problems.

It may not, in fact, be possible to activate the edges of urban highways without also slowing down traffic.  Boulevards in New York City are wide, but traffic is often stopped, and the streets are lined with shops and active uses, so a person can actually walk along them.

Edges that Relate, Activate the Space

The Plaza at Broadway Commons is much more social
By comparison, the narrower streets, slower traffic, and immediately adjacent sidewalks are important ingredients in the more active plaza at Broadway Commons.The edges are open, permeable, and comfortable for walking.  The coffee shop is a business with lots of activity right there.

Once the laundry is rented out and in use, this corner could really be hopping!

When we think about public space in Salem, it is not enough to think about the interior design elements only.  It is also necessary to think about how much parking and high-speed traffic runs by it, as well as what kinds of business, residence, and foot-traffic patterns characterize the nearby buildings and land-uses.  We must think in terms of pattern and relationships, not merely about the atomic unit of "a place"in isolation.

Placemaking Diagram from Project for Public Spaces
The City has open houses scheduled for the Civic Center concept and if you go, think about how we make good places:
Salem residents are invited to attend one of four public meetings to discuss a possible Public Safety Facility and Civic Center seismic needs

The City has been aware of seismic concerns related the Civic Center complex since 2005. Building a modern police facility has been a City Council's goal since 2009. As part of the City's year-long collaboration with the University of Oregon's Sustainable Cities Initiative in 2010-11, architecture students worked with Salem Police, a City Council Subcommittee, and a local architect to determine if a new facility that would meet the Department's space needs could be located on the Civic Center Campus. The resulting concept showed that the facility could be located near Commercial Street and Mirror Pond. Visitor parking could be distributed around the site in several more visible, surface level easily accessed locations.

Early in 2013, City Council renewed their goal to move forward with addressing the public safety facility and Civic Center seismic needs at some point in the future. In June of 2013, City Council asked staff to prepare for a community discussion about these needs. The goal is to inform the community and solicit their ideas about the concept and possible timing. This outreach begins where the Sustainable Cities Initiative outreach left off in 2011 and includes findings from the assessment of whether alternative sites, such as a bare land site or site with an existing building could be retrofitted to meet Police Department needs.

Attendees will receive a presentation regarding the public safety/civic center concept followed by an opportunity to ask questions of and provide feedback to the City Manager.

Salem residents are invited to attend one of four upcoming open houses:

* November 12, 2013, 6-7:30 p.m., Council Chambers, 555 Liberty Street SE
* November 13, 2013 5:30-7 p.m., Center 50+, 2615 Portland Road NE
* November 20, 2013, 6-7:30 p.m., South Salem High School Library, 1910 Church St. SE
* January 6, 2014, 6-7:30 p.m., Roth's West Salem, 1130 Wallace Rd. NW

The November 12 meeting will be shown live on local CCTV and available for streaming at a later time.


KandN said...

Whenever I sit outside at Gamberetti's, I find myself pondering what the goal was with the park and structure. Pedestrians seem to enjoy passing through to get from one side of the block to the other, but I always end up feeling like the area is neglected by the city. Mainly because I've never seen flowers in the planters.

Curt said...

It tips the balance for me because its one of the only options that is somewhat insulated from Salem's traffic sewers. Its a nice destination for a pleasant walk. So... we make do. We just don't have many choices.

Broadway Commons is a superior design, but right now it is still a drive-to location. The main entrance is to the parking lot. There is little to no ped. activity on Broadway and doesn't have the types of businesses along it to entice pedestrians to explore beyond the coffee shop. Millrace does have consistent ped. traffic between City Hall, High St. restaurants, and downtown office buildings.

It sounds like a mostly academic debate though. The calls to preserve Peace Plaza and Mill Pond seem to be growing louder as they rattle around in the echo chamber.

Town squares and parks are successful in urban areas for two reasons. They can be destinations like Bush Park, Riverfront, or Wallace. Or they satisfy a latent demand for open space in a densely developed urban environment like the Park Blocks, Pioneer Square, or Directors Park. That is why I don't think the latter will work in a low density environment like downtown Salem. I don't think it will be any more successful than Mill Race, Wilson Park or the Marion Courthouse lawn. Salem actually has too much space and not enough people to fill it.

I also think we can focus too finely on design elements. Salem is never likely to get high level urban design from our local developers and our activists are all retirees rooted in 50's autoism. "Good enough urbanism" (Strong Towns) is our only realistic hope. Some of the best places in Portland are just gravel lots with food carts but they still outperform anywhere in Salem.

Stephanie Matlock Allen said...

I thought of dear Salem last week when I was visiting San Diego. My sister took me to visit the city's fancy new central library, and I was stunned to realize it's just a huge Brutalist structure. They're still building these things? Granted, this one is filled with massive windows, lots of light, jutting angles, and a giant metal dome on top. But it's filled to the brim with concrete slabs. There are many beautiful & impressive features, but Brutalism just doesn't do it for me. Maybe Salem's library was a model for San Diego, ha.

Here are some photos I found online: http://modernistarchitecture.blogspot.com/2013/10/a-first-look-at-san-diegos-new-central.html

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Holy smokes! That library makes me think, in this order: cage, airport.

It really makes me appreciate Thomas Hacker/THA's libraries.

But Brutalism continues to beguile people, I guess. Here's a recent interview with a ZGF architect in Portland in which she lauds the Brutalism of the Salk Institute - which in 2006 was deemed eligible for listing on the National Register. (It was designed by all-star architect Louis Kahn, so there's tons of stuff out there available by google.)

Interestingly, its courtyard gets much of the praise, and it is possible to see in Peace Plaza more than a little influence.

Thanks for stopping by, Stephanie!

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Re: Design -

From the NY Times on a new recycling plant in Brooklyn:

"Did I mention that it’s an architectural keeper? No, it doesn’t resemble a giant egret or stegosaurus skeleton, or sport flying titanium panels. And its designer didn’t cost some obscene premium. The facility is understated, well proportioned and well planned — elegant, actually, and not just for a garbage site. It is an ensemble of modernist boxes squeezing art, and even a little drama, from a relatively meager design budget. Sanitation projects are usually the ultimate NIMBY flash point. This one makes a good case for the social and economic benefits of design — and for old-fashioned industrial waterfront development as an abiding urban virtue."

Not determinative, I know, but good design solutions solve problems in addition to the obvious aesthetic ones.

Curt said...

Here is the Strong Towns post on "good enough urbanism":


I think the Saturday Market is a good example. Its just a parking lot that is temporarily transformed every weekend. It might be the pinnacle of urbanism in Salem. The Portland food cart scene is another. Eugene has lots of good examples. Eugene (at least what I have seen of it) doesn't have many well designed places but they have many places that are still magnates of activity that we just don't have around here.