Sunday, September 27, 2015

City Council, September 28th - St. Boniface or St. Francis?

St. Francis is thick in the air, of course, but another Saint deserves some consideration just now. One of St. Boniface's paradigmatic acts was felling Thor's oak, and his iconography sometimes features an axe. One biographer, Willibald, writes in his Vita about the event sometime in the 700s:
Boniface...attempted to cut down, at a place called Gaesmere, a certain oak of extraordinary size called in the old tongue of the pagans the Oak of Jupiter. Taking his courage in his hands (for a great crowd of pagans stood by watching and bitterly cursing in their hearts the enemy of the gods), he cut the first notch. But when he had made a superficial cut. Suddenly, the oak's vast bulk, shaken by a mighty blast of wind from above crashed to the ground shivering its topmost branches into fragments in its fall. As if by the express will of God (for the brethren present had done nothing to cause it) the oak burst asunder into four parts, each part having a trunk of equal length. At the sight of this extraordinary spectacle the heathens who had been cursing ceased to revile and began, on the contrary, to believe and bless the Lord. Thereupon the holy bishop took counsel with the brethren, built an oratory from the timber of the oak and dedicated it to Saint Peter the Apostle.
With somewhat different sympathies perhaps, Sir James Frazier writes:
In the religion of the ancient Germans the veneration for sacred groves seems to have held the foremost place, and according to Grimm the chief of their holy trees was the oak. It appears to have been especially dedicated to the god of thunder, Donar or Thunar, the equivalent of the Norse Thor; for a sacred oak near Geismar, in Hesse, which Boniface cut down in the eighth century, went among the heathen by the name of Jupiter’s oak (robur Jovis), which in old German would be Donares eih, “the oak of Donar.” That the Teutonic thunder god Donar, Thunar, Thor was identified with the Italian thunder god Jupiter appears from our word Thursday, Thunar’s day, which is merely a rendering of the Latin dies Jovis. Thus among the ancient Teutons, as among the Greeks and Italians, the god of the oak was also the god of the thunder. Moreover, he was regarded as the great fertilising power, who sent rain and caused the earth to bear fruit....
Your mileage may vary, of course, but the fact is, for many people, Christian or Pagan and members of other traditions too, big old trees rouse strong feelings. And for many, it may be St. Francis, not St. Boniface, who today offers a better model of reverence and respect for nature.

This ancient oak (pictured in 2011)
was cut down earlier this month
Council meets on Monday, and the big topic will be proposed changes to our tree ordinances.

Others will have stronger commentary and analysis - so be sure to read them. From here, right at this moment, it doesn't seem very useful to create yet another weak commission, though. It has seemed like we should prune the number of commissions and boards we have, while at the same time also strengthening the ones we retain so they can exercise better oversight or play a more robust advisory role. (But that is a relatively minor detail about process and administration, not about underlying policy values.)

This mighty oak is still standing, I hope (also from 2011)
A couple things to note in passing. Just a half a block away from the tree pictured at top, which was cut down earlier this month, is another venerable oak (above). It's just as big and old. As I have walked around Salem, these two trees have seemed like the biggest and oldest oaks visible from the street. So go pay your respects! (And if you know of a bigger, older tree - drop a comment. These oldest trees deserve more recognition! They have some kind of autochthonous power that transcends creedal limits.)

The other is that there are sometimes trade-offs. Though it has not been a popular stance, I continue to think that the historic and unique facade of the Ladd & Bush Bank trumps those oversized and shaggy Zelkova trees. I'm happy to see the architectural detail instead of the trees. In other places, there will be times that good building and design calls for tree removal. We are urban, and sometimes the built order should definitely supersede the natural or planted order. At the Blind School, for example, a good redevelopment with a modest parking lot might still have required the loss of several trees - but of course a good site plan would also have done a much better job of working around and with the older trees and saving a greater proportion of them. Very little is clear either/or, but there's a larger and more fertile center of balancing trade-offs and involving public process that we seem to be missing right now.

I still like seeing the bank's magnificent facade, though
On more recent scales of time, here's some good news. The old Greyhound Station on Church Street between Marion and Center Streets seems to have found a buyer. The Center for Hope and Safety, formerly Mid-Valley Women’s Crisis Service, which offers "a safe refuge and support to victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and human trafficking," has grown (the demand that drives this is not necessarily as you see a good thing) and needs more room. The old station is next door and available.

Old Greyhound Station (left)
and Center for Hope and Safety (right)
On Monday at Council, the City will be asked to restructure two forgivable loans, one for $300,000 and the other for $143,000, in order to secure a new loan for the old Greyhound Station. As long as the Center stays through 2024, the loan will be converted to a grant. Until then any repayment is deferred. The Center is in an old bank, and it is very nice to see these older buildings repurposed.

If you happen to walk by the station before the sale closes, you might still be able to see a neat mural in the south-most bay. There was a jazz club or something there, and the north wall has a very nice mid-century musical mural that has been exposed. (The plate glass glare and sun exposure has utterly defeated attempts to photograph it, alas! So walk by and see it in person before it goes away.)

Also, Council straight-up reaffirmed the Planning Commission's decision on the apartment development and parking ratio at the former golf course (see previous discussion here and here).

Marion Car Park from inside the Conference Center
Before the Council meeting proper, there will be a "Joint Work Session Between the Urban Renewal Agency and the Downtown Advisory Board" to discuss "Opportunity Acquisitions in Riverfront Downtown Urban Renewal Area." I think there is something like $2.5 million potentially available for acquisitions.

It sure seems like one strong candidate as an "opportunity site" is the Marion Car Park. It went through a foreclosure and the current owners want to demolish it, but since they haven't proposed anything greater than a gravel parking lot, the City's been clear that that's a non-starter. Either an adaptive reuse or a demolition combined with a strong redevelopment concept would be good and the Car Park itself does not seem so wonderful or important to insist on its preservation - especially as the Holman building, which was definitely worth preserving, had earlier been demolished for the Car Park.

D.A. White Seed Company on Front St.
The DA White Seed Company building also seems like a prime opportunity site.

There are probably other buildings in better shape whose owners might also like to sell or are already selling.

Otto J Wilson Garage (1911) for sale
The Otto J. Wilson garage, for example, might also be an opportunity site. I hope it can be preserved and not simply demolished for some new mid-rise redevelopment. It's an important link to the very first stage of cars in Salem, and would be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places if an owner were inclined to pursue it.

State and Commercial project, via Nathan Good Architects
Finally, those parking lots. The project at State and Commercial seems stalled some, and hopefully it will break ground soon. The other parking lots are also ripe for redevelopment. These "missing teeth" in the urban fabric are important to fill, maybe the biggest and best "opportunity sites" of all. The vitality created by businesses, customers, and residents will vastly exceed any potential losses in surface parking.

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