Tuesday, January 14, 2014

No Ornamental Emptiness at the State Hospital! NEN-SENSA on North Campus Tonight

Tonight the NEN-SESNA neighborhood plan looks at the North Campus of the State Hospital.

McKenzie Hall (pictured), Yaquina, Santiam, and Eola Halls
are low-priority for preservation at the State Hospital
There seems to be some significant interest in keeping the lawn along D Street as a park or ball fields or something.

I hope that's not code for a pretty, low-density campus, thereby keeping out meaningful density and activity across the whole project. I hope it means park + streetcar-scaled development, not park + single-family residences and a small strip mall.

Salem loves Ornamental Emptiness

To swerve a moment, in a nutshell, that code is an important part of what I don't understand about the attachment to the low-density campus that is our Civic Center:

Empty!  No people.  We should probably want less
 of this, not more of it.
And is it really that beautiful? (SCV post)
Fans of Peace Plaza, Mirror Pond, and the Civic Center generally, seem to think that adding more furniture and lipstick will activate the place.

But there's rarely meaningful numbers of people in the space.  I think there is an objective case that the inactivity makes these failed public spaces. They are ornamental emptinesses, and people seem to want more of this.  Salemites, in fact, seem to love ornamental and ornamented emptiness!
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 the plaza.
So hopefully it's not too snarky to ask - but where are those lovely splashes of color now?  Not there!  I would argue that the concrete landscaping is not inherently beautiful. I disagree that the flowers alone make the space beautiful and I really wonder how many people think these are "beautiful plazas." Some clamoring for their preservation as-is do not seem to have walked in these spaces much. (And if they do walk them much, it would be helpful for advocates to make a case for leaving the spaces as-is rather than assuming this as a given, as a first principle and prior commitment.)

More fundamentally, the problem is on-site and adjacent land-use. The problem is buildings and transportation.  The problem is a whole pattern of things and people, patterns in space and in time, not just the deployment of benches and flowers. It's not lipstick and furniture.

Before I Die Wall at Riverfront Park, January 2013
Image: Before I Die Salem
Even putting a big art installation in Riverfront Park didn't consistently liven it up last winter. The barriers of railroad and urban highway, and the lack of immediately adjacent retail and residences, are strong hindrances.

The Scupture "Garden":  Mostly Empty Concrete on the Parkway
A piano couldn't liven up the public art in a "sculpture garden" along a different stretch of urban highway in summer.

In many ways the lipstick and furniture approach echoes our approach to downtown:  Better sidewalk sweeping and more planters! 

So much of our public space is just ornamental emptiness, though.

Good Places need More than Ornament

Most of our Ornamental Emptinesses meet few of these criteria.
Place Making diagram from Project for Public Spaces
People like the idea of ornament, like the fact that it will be there potentially for their enjoyment, but don't give sufficient thought to how people will actually come to be there to enjoy them.  Things and furniture alone don't make for a good space.  Transportation and adjacencies are key!

The Capitol Mall Fountain in summer
Admittedly it's a change in season here, but even our Capitol Mall fountain is active sometimes! (Though still barren in winter.)  Even better, note the buildings ringing Jamison Square:

Shouldn't we want Mirror Pond to be more like this?
Whether with wading or without - lots of people!
Portland's Jamison Square
Both are set flush with the street and have a relation to the street and adjacent buildings - unlike Mirror Pond and Peace Plaza, which are recessed, not visible from the street, and set on very busy major arterials.

Mirror Pond from Liberty, 5pm on a weekday - and moles nutria!
(update:  A commenter says "nutria," a correspondent says "no nutria," and here's a photo of one close to the offending holes - what do you think?  It's important!)
The State Hospital Redevelopment must Avoid Ornamental Emptiness!

Back to our real topic, the State Hospital Redevelopment project...

Streetcar-scaled and walkable retail
doesn't have to mean convenience stores
The one possible defect in the Leland study might be that it doesn't give sufficient thought to a walkable neighborhood and what kinds of things should be in walking, not just driving, distance.

Half of Belluschi's Breitenbush Hall - A shallow strip, super wide.
A psychiatric prison, its windows are locked, and need to be replaced.
Additionally, while there seems to be a broad consensus that the Dome Building needs to be saved via adaptive reuse, and the other generic buildings like McKenzie (at top) could go either way with preservation or demolition at the discretion of a developer, Pietro Belluschi's Breitenbush Hall occupies a difficult center: Far more distinguished than the other buildings, but conceived as an exceedingly narrow building for an equally narrow purpose, it will likely be difficult refashion in adaptive reuse. Success on it will call for the highest creativity.

Dome Building in December, 1913
Note that it has the south wing only
And success will call for a departure from the way we set things in place - on a larger scale, think of the Kroc Center - without considering how people get there and how and why they move through there. Ornamental Emptiness doesn't work.

Looking Forward, the NEN-SESNA plan, meets Tuesday, January 14th at 6:30pm in Court Street Christian Church (1699 Court St NE).

(For all posts on the North Campus of the State Hospital See here.  For more on Belluschi see here.)


Curt said...

Great post! I totally agree with the "ornamental emptiness" description.

Maybe not directly related but relevant. Corvallis and Portland rank 1 and 2 in the country in productivity growth.


We might never establish a causal link between planning and productivity but the evidence continues to show that urbanism pays (and sprawl decays).

Looks like someone is "liking" their own posts.


Susann Kaltwasser said...

The neighbors near the State Hospital have used that area along D Street as a park for years. i see ball games, dog walkers, and kids playing in the open spaces all the time! I think that a 5 acre park is not an unreasonable suggestion. There is this rule in the City Parks Master Plan that says that there should be a neighborhood Park every 1/2 mile. So, this area is an excellent choice. As far as I know the nearest park is at Hoover School.

As to the 'ornamental emptiness' concept, I wonder what criteria you use for 'use.' We have a lot of open spaces and parks that get just a few users a day. Should we scrap them too?

SCV did suggest livening the spaces around the Civic Center with food carts or activities. Putting up a parking lot is not exactly my idea of a better use. Not saying we can't make improvements, but there is something to be said to just having a quiet place to sit.

Once upon a time there were two restaurants in the Civic Center. Wonder what happened.....

I'l like to hear some suggestions for uses beyond tearing them down to put up a parking lot or a large building.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Every park should have a corner market or deli thing across the street! Ice cream, popsicles, soda, snacks! But our zoning typically will not permit this. The answer isn't fewer parks, but more small-scale commerce adjacent to the parks.

How about a brewpub next to the Carousel or the Union St. RR Bridge?

We shouldn't scrap our parks and underused "ornamental emptinesses" - well, except for maybe the colossal blunder known as the Kroc Center.

But we need strategically to deploy nearby a greater concentration of complementary activities and uses. (For notes on similar issues with park edges see here.)

How many people have you seen actually use the "quiet place to sit" at the Civic Center? I think the use is more theoretical than actual. Depending on how long this debate goes, maybe this summer there will be an opportunity to perform some field counts/observation of how people actually use those spaces.

I wish Geoffrey would cite studies or examples of the ways other cities have dealt with emergency vehicle storage when expecting earthquake. I am coming around to the idea that storing emergency vehicles in a new parking garage that could pancake is a dumb idea. If there's a body of experience or a consensus on "best practices" it would be good to know.

But the vehicles could be stored on the SWAT lot and we could still have a new building and reconfigured public space on the Civic Center.

I bet the restaurants left or failed because people didn't visit them. I don't think it is likely that the restaurants were doing well and then decided to leave. I see the loss of restaurants as evidence that the Civic Center is a deeply flawed ensemble of spaces that fails to attract people.

Food carts are totally a worthwhile experiment. I did see the post at Hinessight and elsewhere commented positively on it. I think they could work during weekdays on the lunch hour. I have real doubts that they would do much on weekends or in the evening. You have to have some amount of traffic that is incidental (more buildings are helpful for this!) and not destination traffic for special events/programming.

I also think that making Peace Plaza, Mirror Pond, and nearby plaza spaces smaller would also help to concentrate activity and make the areas more lively. I think adding more ornament isn't going to do that much.

(As for "uses" see this note on Jane Jacobs - we all crib our ideas on this from her!)

Laurie Dougherty said...

Holly Whyte on the Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

A lot of the summary at that link overlaps with what you are saying - and the Project for Public Spaces is sort of a direct descendent of Whyte's. I love his insights about sitting in parks and plazas: that people will sit on anything that offers a desirable location and that people want location choices - shade or sun, close to other people or not. One of his great ideas was to put moveable chairs in public spaces instead of fixed seating so that people could move to a more desirable spot, find privacy or form conversation groups. A couple of successful examples (that I've been to) are in New York City: Bryant Park which Whyte helped rehabilitate in the 1970s; and the blocks of Broadway in Times Square which Mayor Bloomberg closed to motor vehicle traffic and installed planters, tables and chairs and through lanes for bikes.

I like that Salem has a Peace Plaza and that it is related to the root meaning of the word Salem. It's true that Peace Plaza doesn't attract a lot of people day to day, and in that sense is not a successful public space as such, but there is a community here for whom peacemaking is a vital concern and for whom Peace Plaza is very meaningful. I would seek them out and see what they have to say.

If the Boise site redevelopment had managed to proceed, the spaces around the Civic Center would be accessible and perhaps useful to more people. Which brings me to the first reaction I had when reading this post: public spaces are used by people who need public spaces. People want ball fields because they don't have one in the back yard. But people who don't have back yards at all, who live in densely developed multi-unit housing, need public spaces for a variety of activities. This is the flip side of Olmsted's vision that city dwellers need places to experience fresh air and the beauty of nature (although Olmsted parks are designed down to the last tree) and places to recreate and congregate.

Conversely, it seems to me that urban public spaces need nearby density to be successful - not only adjacency but also density. I thought it was so bizarre that one of the concerns raised about the Boise site redevelopment plan was that those apartment dwellers might use Riverfront Park as a back yard - grilling, hanging out, having friends over and what not. Well duh.

(Are you sure those are mole holes in the photo of Mirror Pond? I saw a nutria there once.)

Curt said...

As I understand it, the Civic Center site was originally planned to accommodate demand for new services and growth. Preserving it like a park has never been the long term plan.

One thing we are not lacking down here is quiet places to sit. This area has at least a half dozen underutilized spaces very similar to Mirror Pond. The Pringle greenway has plenty of them. What I want, and what I think other young families want, are more lively and active pubic spaces. I'm fortunate to live near one at Bush Park, but more often than not, we travel to Portland or Corvallis when we crave the company of others.

Moving council chambers and daylighting the atrium looks like a big improvement to me. Food carts sound great but by shipping the jobs off to a remote site you are also reducing the pool of customers that would make the Civic Center an economically viable location.

As SBOB has pointed out before, which is consistent with Speck's "pick your winners" recommendation, is that the Civic Center is never likely to be very active because the middle of the one way couplet is functionally like the center median of a freeway. The entire corridor is engineered to move the greatest volume of traffic possible at the greatest speed possible and until there is the political will in this city to change those priorities it will never be great public space. Incremental changes are all we can hope for.

Couplet also is very problematic for using the SWAT lot too. It only has good access to southbound Commercial. The access to the North (which includes the West) and the East are lousy. The middle of the couplet makes much more sense.

The parking structure holds up Council Chambers, which holds up the roof of the atrium. If the parking structure is going to pancake, the whole thing is coming down like a house of cards. If it isn't seismically fortified (which would also make it useable), it needs to be removed. That is a big issue that SCV has been dodging.

Brian Hines said...

Public spaces are a vital component of a "happy city." That is one of the central themes in the book I've been reading by the same name, which melds research into happiness with principles of urban design.

It's true, as this post and other comments on it have noted, that what happens in the public space is even more important.

But pleasant experiences in a public space require, obviously, a public space. This is why I and others are wary of depleting/reducing the Civic Center's public spaces -- notably the Peace Plaza and Mirror Pond.

No debate: these public spaces need to be vitalized and made more attractive to visitors. Because of their location, they likely will never become a true "town square."

Yet since Salem doesn't have a downtown public square as many other cities do, Peace Plaza and Mirror Pond are most of what we have to deal with, public square-wise, for the moment.

So let's think of ways to make them as vibrant as possible.

It is difficult to see how reducing their sizes and eliminating green space/trees so a new City Council chambers and Police Facility with expensive underground parking can be built brings us closer to that goal -- preserving these public spaces and making them a more attractive place for people to gather.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Center Median! That's a really good way of conceptualizing the way it's stuck between Commercial and Liberty.

Also: I walk and bike through the Civic Center, and I keep forgetting there's already a substantial parking garage there that will need to be reinforced no matter what! So as Curt points out, you either have a reinforced garage there, and expanding it is no big deal; or you have to take the whole damn thing out, and that would add A LOT of cost to the SCV SWAG. It would be helpful for SCV to address this in greater detail, as well. Framing up the project as if the "expensive underground parking" happens ONLY if the Police Station is built at the Civic Center is a somewhat misleading way of framing it. Even with a Police Station on Portland Road or elsewhere, there's still a substantial amount of underground parking that requires seismic reinforcement, especially if Council Chambers is not moved. There's a parking problem that is in some sense constant.

As for "town squares," Peace Plaza and Mirror Pond are not used as a public square - Mirror Pond not at all, Peace Plaza very rarely. Elsewhere, Brian, you have said, "I don't recall ever visiting Mirror Pond, though I drive by it often. It is barely visible from Commercial and Liberty streets." One of the most baffling parts of the debate has been the way that protecting Peace Plaza and Mirror Pond is article of faith, a first principle and prior commitment, rather than a conclusion reached after analysis or argument. Why are people so attached to something they rarely use?

I'd say that Riverfront Park and the Capitol Mall operate much more as "town squares" than Peace Plaza or Mirror Pond.

To Curt's point, we have to "pick our winners" and investing more in other spaces is probably going to yield a higher return. We should not be afraid to make selected public spaces smaller, put more stuff in them and near them, and focus on quality over quantity. Between Willamette/the Hospital and the Civic Center, along the Mill Race, Shelton Ditch, and Pringle Creek there's tons of underutilized greenway and public space. There's also the Pringle Community Hall for weddings and meetings.

We have an excess of low-quality public spaces, and we should not be afraid of "depleting" that supply a bit if the total effect is an improvement in quality. We should pursue concentration, not diffusion. By repeatedly growing and aggregating ornamental emptinesses, we just create a string of hollow, dull spaces. It's a form of sprawl in many ways.

It's a basic pruning! For improved vitality, Mirror Pond and Peace Plaza need pruning! I totally think a pruning metaphor works here for improving Mirror Pond and Peace Plaza by making them smaller.

(Maybe the north strip of the Transit Mall on Chemeketa should be invested in as part of the bond? That's a place where there is a consistent number of people and a place that has been pretty barren. That would make a better "town square," I think.)

(And: Laurie, see the earlier posts on Peace Plaza. The widow of someone involved in their creation said that the first choice site was near Deepwood! And she agreed that a Riverfront Park location would be a better choice today than the Civic Center one. I think there's a good case to be made for relocating Peace Plaza.)

Susann Kaltwasser said...

Several things to comment on...

I recently asked someone why they find the Peace Plaza uncomfortable and they said partly because they have children that come to the library and want to use the space to run off some energy, but too often the City has parked its trucks on the west end and that scares her. Not sure why the City uses this area for public utility trucks, but it is an unsafe practice, in my opinion.

Someone suggested that a more covered area at the entrance of the building would help too. As you pointed out a while back, we used to have that and when the remodel took place, they took it away.

Yet another person said, the Library could advertise the space better so that people knew it existed. Now it is all too easy to go to the Library and never see that there is a great place to sit.

I can't do anything about the Oregon weather and I think that explains why we do not see a lot of users this time of the year, but come spring and summer, I see lots of people there. Of course of late the City refuses to clean and fix the fountain. I learned that someone has offered to cover the cost of repairs twice now and the City refuses to accept the offer. Wonder why!

Second issue is the parking garage. True SCV has not talked too much about this, but we are going to at the Community Meeting on JAn 28th at the Grand Theater. If you read the technical papers on the city website you will see that the cost to upgrade the existing parking garage is about $2 million. To reenforce it like the police want costs about $13 million. And as was admitted by the Police Chief at a recent meeting, this new parking structure would not be enough spaces for the police officers personal cars. They would still have to park off site. What's that all about?

Surface parking costs about $2000 a space. These spaces cost $50,000 each. And if they decide to build under the Peace Plaza or the Police Station they could be as much as $65,000 each.

You might also want to check out the geological report that is on the City website. The experts point out that constructing on the Mirror Pond site is going to be difficult and expensive. It is largely fill. They will need to take extra measures to shore up Commercial Street and to drive pilings down to bedrock. No one has done a seismic study of the area to know what will be needed to make sure that building will not slide into the creek in an earthquake.

Some of the issues are hard to talk about in great detail, because the City still has not done the basic studies needed to know what problems will arise.

However, one of our professionals did talk to engineers about removing the roof on the Atrium. Not going to be an easy task. There are super huge beams in the ceiling that are tied into the main building. Removing them would require very large cranes, vacating the entire building for the extended time needed to remove them and still they do not know if the structural integrity of the building would be compromised.

Perhaps just reinforcing them is a better way to go, or leaving them in place without the glass. Again, hard to know because the City has not done their homework yet.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

Regarding the Mirror Pond there are some great suggestions that people are coming up with to liven up the area. First, it was suggested that we need a 'Friends of Mirror Pond" group that will help to maintain and host activities. I did not know until recently that there is a huge group of model power boat enthusiasts who are looking for places to sail their boats. They would love to have a place close in to use. Now they have to go to Stats Lake in Keizer or even out of town. Not sure the area is big enough for the major rallies they host, but worth looking into.

I learned that one successful restaurant that used to be in the Library moved because it got too popular for the space. They had to move to a bigger place. Nice!

But I think that part of the issue is that the City controls who can use those spaces and they just have not promoted it. Did you know for example that in theory you can rent the Atrium and the Peace Plaza for a small fee?

The restaurant that used to be just off the atrium was used constantly by staff and people who came to meetings at City Hall when it was there. It wasn't fancy, but it was pretty convenient! Not sure why it is no longer used. Staff has to walk a long ways to get a lunch...or worse, get in their cars.

I see a lack of creative thinking and a preference for status quo with our City leadership. There is ample volunteers and entrepenureal energy that is being wasted...along with out money!

Susann Kaltwasser said...

In closing, I want to say that I appreciate your comments on the State Hospital redevelopment. I sure hope that in this process there is more work with the neighbors and the people who are likely to use the space than there was with the Civic Center plans. People who live there are the ones that have the most valuable insights. Too often the Entities think that they know best. But if you do not like a space, even if it is close by, you are not likely to use it.

Thanks for raising these issues up.

Curt said...

Susann is right. I live here and don't use these spaces, even though they are close by. Yes, the NESCA neighbors probably deserve deference and to get what they want.

But just speaking as a Salemite who is desperate for any lively urban space to take refuge from the soul crushing strippy, stroadiness of Salem--the NESCA recommendations are a huge disappointment. They are "highly supportive" of retaining "institutional uses" but "could possibly support a vibrant mix of housing". Park space on D is actually on of the better recommendations. Sounds pretty meh to me.

Oh well. There's always McMinnville.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

updated with tweet on nutria at Mirror Pond!