Saturday, December 14, 2013

Virtues of Downtown Mid-rise: Salem Needs more Height!

There was an LTE yesterday in favor of high-rise development in Salem. The writer says, "Salem might [fare] better to build up instead of building out. High-rise buildings could hold businesses, apartments, restaurants, etc."

Not sure about high-rise here, and one of the facebook commenters on the letter points out that even new mid-rise hasn't always done well.  But I think there's a case for well-designed mid-rise, and I think the unleased mid-rises were not well designed for Salem.

Since it seems more and more like the redevelopment of the McMahan's corner at State and Commercial will happen in the near term, it's not just a theoretical question.

McMahan's site in context:  Mostly two-story buildings
Criticism of the proposed Police Station at the Civic Center has made height there an issue, fretting about a "canyon" on Commercial with the Boise development, and it seems likely that any proposed height at State and Commercial would also be criticised. Salemites are wary of height.

But for perspective, here's real height and a real canyon!

A real canyon:  Manhattanhenge - MSNBC
We should not be afraid of height!  As the letter-writer said, Salem needs more height.  Of course New York height and Salem height operate on completely different scales; indeed, Portland height and Salem height operate on different scales.  Context is very important.  But limiting development to low-rise massing of one or two stories only isn't going to help us very much or create something very interesting and lively.

Specifically, for downtown and at State and Commercial we should want to put a little more height at this corner.

Early AAA map:  Salem in 1917
See that little circle at the intersection of State and Commercial?  That was the center of the city!  And even though we've screwed things up badly with our auto-oriented roads, with the urban highways and multi-lane arterials, this is still a really important intersection in the city.  Even in the historic district, it is fitting that buildings there might be a little bigger than buildings elsewhere.  It should be more of a focal point.

So is there good mid-rise height in Salem?

As an example, I want to suggest that the "canyon" created by Waterplace on Liberty and along Pringle Creek is actually a very satisfying relation of the natural and the manmade.

Waterplace, CB|Two, in summer
Salmon Run, Pringle Creek, Waterplace - with snow!
I can't find the right angle for photographing it, but the height of Waterplace is very nearly the height of the tree canopy, and with the north-facing facade broken up by a zig-zag, to me it is far from monolithic. Instead it creates a pleasing extension of the creek bank. It's a favorite vista while walking along the path and underpass below Liberty - even though Waterplace shades the creek path,  I like this addition of the manmade.

Exactly at State and Commercial, the Pioneer Trust building is also, it seems to me, a pleasing height.

Pioneer Trust Bank
Height might also have helped on the Boise project.  More height could mean a smaller total footprint and an easier deployment of buildings on the transition between park and downtown.  The Urban Land Institute report suggested four stories, but the final proposal was only for three stories.  Maybe five or six would have got us views, a better disposition of parking and access, and made a consensus possible.

Even though it was abandoned, height on a proposed half-block project at High and Chemeketa, the site of Old City Hall and the Belluschi Bank, looked like it would have been a helpful thing, and may again come into play.

Abandoned concept for Old City Hall site: High & Chemeketa
(A mixed-use project like this seems like it should be be more in the conversation mix for a new Police Station.  Does anyone know of successful police-residential hybrids?  Or do people just hate living above the cops?)

On the other hand, the Trumpian comb-over and blocky fortifications on The Meridian do create a brooding and heavy presence over the sidewalk. It is perhaps significant that after years of being vacant, the recessed, "daylight basement" level on Mission has finally leased, but it is with a financial services business rather than retail or food or something more oriented towards foot traffic.  It will be stodgy rather than lively. (There's an interesting piece in the Oregonian about developers limiting ground-floor retail in new neighborhoods.)

The Meridian
As a whole, in fact, The Meridian really doesn't work very well as architecture. Design, and not merely height, is the key ingredient here, and in this configuration The Meridian's height doesn't work.

The Rivers
And the Rivers hasn't worked, either - though that may be a product of interior finishes and pricing rather than the aesthetics of design - it's pretty much just a box with balconies, after all. It probably doesn't help that it's on an urban highway. But with the right pricing, you'd think those views would sell.

For people to say that height doesn't work in Salem points to genuine issues - but doesn't prove that height cannot ever work. Better design won't satisfy all people, but it can solve a number of problems and create a reasonable compromise. 

Salem doesn't need right now the higher-rise scale of the Livesley tower, but we could do with some additional mid-rise architecture of style and grace!


Curt said...

I sure appreciated that letter. My response was similar (high rise? I'd settle for mid-rise!). Somewhere someone made the case that for a street to be walkable, the buildings should be at least as tall as the street is wide from curb to curb. That is why I think in downtown Salem our buildings are not high enough to balance the extreme width of the street. Portland has some big streets downtown too but the height of the buildings make their streets more inviting to walk.

Speck made a good defense of DC's height restrictions. He points out that you can get a lot of density out of five story buildings without going to Manhattan style high rises.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

That's a great point about ratios! There's a good bit of talk out there about 1:1 and 3:2 street enclosure (building height:street width) ratios.

You can really see how it works at the intersection of State and High. The Bligh/Pacific Building (La Capitale) of two stories and the Hubbard Building of four stories both look undersized, even puny, relative to the street; only the Masonic Building of 6 stories is really proportioned right. It may look strange at first because it is on an island with parking lots on both sides of it, but a full block of five and six story buildings would look splendid and frame the broad street right! (Those downtown streets have 99 feet of right-of-way!)

The Guardian building, which burned in 1947, was scaled like the Masonic Building. It was on the southwest corner of Liberty and State, where the bank is today. We used to have more midrise height, but the carburbian move out to the edges meant those buildings were replaced by parking lots or lower-rise commercial buildings. We were de-densified, too.

Kaid Benfield has a good discussion of the DC situation and points out that Paris is a tremendous city of the midrise.

(Also, and perhaps I should have included this in the original, here's a link to an image of the Griswold block, the predecessor to the furniture building on what is now the gravel corner lot at State and Commercial. The building was three stories. I love the way the windows are grouped into 3-4-3. The Schreder Berg grocery signage is pretty great, too. The building was torn down, and maybe it was a fleabag hotel, but there's a lot to like in the modest detailing and sidewalk level merchants circa 1940.)