Saturday, November 30, 2013

Two Police Stations: Eugene's Car-Dependence and the Civic Center's Desolateness - updated

One of the problems - maybe the biggest problem - in the debate over the proposed police station and civic center is that the plan that's on the table really doesn't give you that much to get excited about.

Nearly the whole Civic Center Superblock looking west
from above Waterplace
Image: CB|Two
The City and architect team might have assembled something transformative, but even if you think the current proposal is exactly what the Police need, the rest of the changes to the Civic Center (not included the seismic retrofit around which there is consensus) are still more "meh" than "wow," incremental only.

The Eugene Side - A Flawed, Car-Dependent Site

But how is the Eugene side of the argument any better?  In fact, it's much, much worse!

The Eugene model is a discount solution that likely harbors long-term operational costs in a trade for short-term capital and bond savings.  Worse, it hinders rather than boosts "neighborhoods, livability, prosperity, and citizen involvement."

Between an interstate and a highway access road (a stroad)
the Eugene station is totally car-dependent
There's no neighborhood here that the new station is supporting, the car-dependent development is not very livable or walkable, the development takes private land off the tax rolls and reduces community prosperity, and even with a bus stop the peripheral site reduces access to police services for those who do not have a car.

Proponents of the Eugene model have already made a point about costs.  There is some sense in which the Eugene site is clearly cheaper in bonded capital costs - though the numbers for the savings have been extraordinarily difficult to pin down.  See these two exchanges, for example.  Proponents cannot settle on the amount of savings they want to claim - instead, it's more like the gassy claims in a vintage beer ad:  Tastes great! Less filling!

The other side of the argument, that the Eugene model offers significantly higher longer-term operational costs has not been addressed.  If proponents of the Eugene model think these operational costs are insignificant, they should say why and in detail. (See below for update on these operational costs.)

In any event, a police station in Salem sited on the Eugene model would probably be located between Lancaster and I-5, or perhaps near I-5 on Mission.  It's difficult to see how such a site assists "neighborhoods, livability, prosperity, and citizen involvement."

The Civic Center - The Mystery of Enthusiasm for its Desolation

At least the Eugene model has an obvious attraction in its cheapness.

What is really difficult to understand, is the odd enthusiasm for barren spaces harbored by critics of the City's proposal.  Why so much love for Peace Plaza and Mirror Pond?

The contrary point, that Peace Plaza doesn't work, has already been addressed here. Peace Plaza is a non-functioning public space and we should be happy to seize the opportunty to reconfigure it. The City's plan, in fact, on this matter is too timid, and doesn't change it enough! (There's that "meh.")

Instead of treating their perspective as self-evident, supporters of Peace Plaza as it currently is should spend some time making the case that it is so wonderful. Have they really spent much time in Peace Plaza or watching it and considering it? Critics of the City's proposal may not understand how much of an afterthought Peace Plaza really is at the moment for most people in Salem.

In fact, critics of the City's concept may like the idea of Peace Plaza more than the reality - and, crucially, the idea of Peace Plaza is portable, capable of being relocated and improved. A Civic Center upgrade could package a relocation and serious upgrade for Peace Plaza and the parts of its sculpture that are critical.  Wouldn't a Peace Plaza more central in space and in mind be something to get behind?  (Give Peace a Chance, eh?)

At 5pm on a sunny-but-cold weekday, the north plaza is totally dead.
While you don't expect people to be sitting in the cold,
you'd expect people walking in it.
The failed public space is more extensive than just Peace Plaza, though.

The plaza on the north side of City Hall is also desolate, and does not function as a good public space.  We should want to fill it with people - either as a new building or as an improved public space.  At least the City's' proposal does the former.

And what is it about Mirror Pond people like so much? It's gross!

"Mirror" Pond is scummy
It was built at a time or in a way when man-made sustainable ecosystems may not have been understood. It seems likely that pond and swale system built to current standards will have a better chance of mimicking a natural ecosystem and would not build up algae and scum. Mirror Pond is not lovely, and it would be nice to have something lovely there, and a solution requires more than just an enhanced maintenance program - it needs a redesign.

Grass and new soil building up in the spillway
Finally, Council Chambers are today rather isolated and forbidding, and even with removing trees and grass on the Liberty side, a new chambers design nearer to the sidewalk could make Council more inviting and accessible.  This is not merely a frill, but could be a substantive adjustment.

This odd grid of trees and grass could be replaced
by new Council Chambers; few use it as it is.
Proponents of the Eugene model may slight the forbidding "spirit" of the current Council Chambers - though they would be right to say that better access also requires functional bus service at night so people without cars could actually attend Council meetings.

Even for the National Night Out Party,
the Atrium and Chambers are shadowy, dark and heavy.
 And look at those massive, medieval doors to Chambers!
Really, folks want to keep this???
In the end, instead of asking - How can we make the City more lovely and lively, opposition to the City's plan seems to embrace mediocrity and proclaim pride in the status quo. The opposition proclaims, let's change as little as possible, and do things as cheaply as possible.

And, really, that's no vision.

What Critics of the City Proposal Get Right

Comments by Critics
Despite what is from here a mistaken belief in the success of Peace Plaza and Mirror Pond, critics make some excellent points:
  • Why isn't a seismic retrofit for the Library included?
  • What about using the City-owned lot to the west, the lot where all the military-grade SWAT equipment is held?
  • What about leveraging the Boise parcel?  (Though fears about a "canyon" on Commercial street seem overblown vis-a-vis the car-dependent sprawl of the Eugene model; at least a canyon could be somewhat walkable, especially if some ground-floor amenities, even retail, were included in the Police Station design.)
  • Since disaster preparedness is a large motivation for this, are we best served by a single, central police station?  How much redundancy should be built into police services?  (Of course, if we decide that multiple-site redundancy, like with fire stations, is important, then that makes the project more, rather than less, costly.) 
  • Parking.  Yeah.  Parking garages, whether underground or above-ground, are expensive.  Let's talk more about parking and temporary car storage!  In fact, let's make sure we connect this analysis to talk about our downtown parking garages and the debate over metered on-street parking downtown.  We need to talk a whole lot more about the cost of parking!
It's right that there should be more discussion, right that the City should share more of its analysis of other sites and approaches.  The Police have said they wanted a single central location, but if the Civic Center became isolated in a disaster, what then? There should be more public discussion about why a single centralized location is best.

In the end, there very well might need to be more design work.

But why do critics dig in on a discount, Walmart-style solution that is hopefully "good enough" instead of asking, "how can to do this well?"

What is it about Salem that excludes quality and doing things well?

Update, December 1st - Eugene model harbors $18 million in hidden costs

A reader digging into the City's reports shares the location of this clip!

A Eugene-style site would add $18M over a 50 year life!
In a June 3rd work session earlier this year with Council, the project team estimated that additional long-term operational costs and lost property tax revenue with a non-Civic Center site would add $18 million in today's dollars over a 50 year operating span. 

So when critics talk about a $17 million Eugene facility, we immediately should add this $18 million = $35 million.  Critics point to the $23 million "Police Wing" at the Civic Center, and a $13 million parking structure and - Wait, that $36 million!  We're totally in the same ballpark.

This is strong evidence that the Eugene model would not yield dramatic savings.

Update No. 2, Dec 1st

It turns out the project team has done due dilligence and investigated a Eugene-style solution.

Analysis of Eugene-style Police Station
adaptive reuse of vacant Safeway
Vacant Safeway on South Commercial -
same footprint!
(rotated 90 degrees clockwise, north is right)
The project team's analysis of the vacant Safeway building estimated a cost of $53.5 million, This is compared to the Civic Center's estimated cost of $60.8 million (without the 2017 escalation factor).  Both include $15 million worth of seismic work at City Hall and a new Council Chambers.

Let's call it $8 million in savings.  Nowhere close to $30 million.

Note that existing businesses on the right (north) of the Safeway would be asked to move and the buildings demolished for parking up to the Roth's lot line on the northeast corner and the tavern on the northwest corner.  The Safeway building itself would still not be big enough and require a new building on the left (south) side.  Others have noted that there aren't many vacant buildings in Salem big enough for this project.

As for that $8 million in savings, it is definitely the position here that it does not outweigh the social costs and other hard costs of:
  • A less compact and more sprawly development means a less walkable and livable development
  • More back-n-forth driving and greenhouse gas emissions
  • Other than the driving itself, there's the personnel time for driving and greater operational costs for the Police themselves
  • Disruption to existing businesses
  • The opportunity cost for private enterprise sometime to take over the Safeway site and generate internal profits, payroll, and public property taxes.
  • (Maybe you can think of more?)
I don't know, you can nitpick it in the details, but I think the big picture is clear:  The Eugene model doesn't actually deliver dramatic savings here in Salem.

At best it would deliver small savings.

Update No. 3, Dec 1st

This isn't directly relevant to the current debate, but it at least gives concrete detail to the City's investigations. Here are the locations of the other two sites analyzed:

An O'Brien Parcel

O'Brien parcel in car-dealer land at Division and Commercial
The City hopes for higher-density mixed-use development

Rose Garden Parcel

Former Rose Garden Motel on Portland Road
(See history of motel here and here for a zoning change)
So, in summary, the project team looked at:
  • The Civic Center
  • A car dealership close-in, just north of downtown
  • A vacant grocery store farther out on "middle Commercial"
  • A green field far out on Portland Road


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

updated with clip from Council work session on long-term operational costs - $18 million in costs hidden by a Eugene model

Brian Hines said...

So you are more concerned with a supposed theoretical $18 million in costs over 50 years, than with saving $30 million or so right off the bat by spending $20 million on a Eugene-style police facility rather than the $45 million Civic Center proposal?

It sure seems like saving $30 million, plus the cost of borrowing that amount, is a heck of a lot greater than $18 million -- even if that figure is halfway correct (which I doubt).

Curt said...

"It is best if you use the City estimates, like we do." -- Salem Community Vision"

So when someone observes that Salem Community Vision can't agree on its own numbers--leave it to Brian Hines to post more evidence that they can't agree on their own numbers.

The $18mil. in hidden costs is consistent with what environmental and land use groups like Strong Towns, the Sightline Institute, 1000 Friends of Oregon, and Smart Growth America have been saying about the dangers of sprawl for years. When you look at bankruptcies of other low density sprawltopias similar to Salem (San Bernardino, Stockton, Harrisburg, Birmingham, and Detroit), you can see that it has been driven by people like Salem Community Vision--always with the best of intentions.

Those hidden costs are an even bigger concern than the up front capital costs because voters won't be asked to raise taxes to pay for them. So as they accumulate, they will be competing with other services and lead to more cuts.

But Salem Community Vision is almost entirely retirees over 60. So they are just passing the pain on to their children and grand children and paving them into poverty.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

updated with the City's own estimates and analysis of a Eugene-style solution. Their conclusion: $8 million in savings, not $30 million.

It also adds other costs.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

What the heck! It's gloomy and rainy out. Updated with the other two sites the project team analyzed.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

You wrote"It's right that there should be more discussion, right that the City should share more of its analysis of other sites and approaches. The Police have said they wanted a single central location, but if the Civic Center became isolated in a disaster, what then? There should be more public discussion about why a single centralized location is best."

On this point the members of Salem Community Vision totally agree!

Maybe the "Eugene model" is not the best for Salem. It was just used as an example to show that there are other approaches to how to address the need for more safety services (including the police) in Salem than just building on the Civic Center.

I think that some SCV members agree with you about some of the other points about the Civic Center flaws. Again why we urge more community dialog.

One of the group's concerns is that voters will just reject the bond outright and Salem will be left with dangerous public buildings and long overdue facility improvements.

We are asking that the City Manager and Council go back to the drawing board and this time to include a comprehensive dialog with the community about something that we can all support.

BTW, excellent dialog here. The kind that I would hope more people would engage in. Salem needs a community vision!

Curt said...

Nice work! Those options went to council on Dec. 5, 2011:

Not a secret.

Curt said...

Wait there's more! Slides on a possible GO Bond. As Mark Wigg pointed out during the bridge debate, Salem has a debt limit of $2.42 per $1000 of assessed value. Salem doesn't have anywhere near the borrowing capacity to fund a bridge. If by some miracle a Civic Center bond measure passes, even less will be available for any bridge. Can we stop treating it like an eminent threat and recognize it for the pipe dream it is?

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

In the packet for today's North Gateway Redevelopment Advisory Board meeting is a letter from the Northgate Neightborhood Association:

"Dear Mayor and all,

Members of the Northgate Neighborhood Association voted unanimously at our November 12 meeting to ask city leaders to consider building the next police facility in the Northgate area.

Salem Police crime reports show that crime rates are consistently highest in the north Salem area.

We believe that building the proposed project within our Northgate neighborhood and within the North Gateway Urban Renewal Area will improve response time to calls for assistance as well as act as a deterrent to crime. There are numerous distressed properties along Portland Road, as well as the vacant land known as the Epping property.

We suggest that a police facility can be the anchor of a public-private development project that could include a park with basketball courts, housing and retail shops. The project can make a dramatic impact on urban blight in the area and strengthen quality of life for the many residents who live and work nearby. Youth can especially benefit from personal interaction with police in the park and on the basketball court.

Please include our request in the current planning process. Thank you.

The "Epping Prperty" = Rose Garden Motel parcel.

So this is a fine instance of where the City does itself no favors in communication. They could have shared with the N/A why that parcel doesn't work - and equally, with better communication they might have landed on a public-private mixed-use kind of development that really makes sense.

Who knows.

As Curt reminds us, the analysis of these parcels have been out in public, though without addresses or other obviously identifying information, since at least December 2011. I'm sorry I didn't dig deeper into them back then, but who knew it would become so contentious!