Thursday, March 15, 2018

Stream of Mystery and too much Open Space: Shelton Ditch and Pringle Creek Paths

As of last weekend, the Cherries at the Capitol hadn't started to open. Some earlier ornamental varieties were in perfect bloom elsewhere around the city, including Mill Race Park by Pringle Plaza, but not the ones at the Capitol.

This weekend they'll probably be opening, and in the gaps between any rains, be sure to enjoy them!

Incidental to the interpretive panel on the Winter Street Bridge was a reminder of the plaque for the Shelton Creek Bridge of more than a generation ago.

Shelton Creek Bridge and Dedication Plaque, 1984

Minto Bridge and Dedication Plaque, 2017 - City of Salem
And that brought to mind the installation this past year of the dedication plaque for the Minto Bridge.

There's no sustained comparison here at the moment, but it's interesting to remember and consider how shiny, new, exciting things fade into the background to become mere furniture we take for granted.

The walk was also a chance to consider in more detail some of the locations and concepts for the "Arts and Parks Corridor" some have discussed.

A Stream of Mystery

Footbridge closed (back in February)!
But first, some history! Just off Church Street at the Pump Station, the footpath and a secondary bridge was closed. This is the site of a small mystery in Salem.

The bridge crosses what looks to be the vestige of an old creek we have mostly lost track of.

1878 Atlas shows from south to north:
Pringle, Shelton, "Mystery," Millrace
The recent "Brief History of Salem Waterways" the City published omits it entirely.

But the chapter on "Historical Conditions" of the 2002 Pringle, Glenn-Gibson, Claggett and Mill Creeks Watershed Assessment has more:
On the 1878 Illustrated Atlas Map, Pringle Creek is joined at Church Street by Shelton Ditch and a stream of mystery which split south from the Mill Race, beginning between 12th and 13th, Mill and Trade Streets, flowing north of and roughly parallel to Mill Street until it turned almost 90 degrees south along Church Street, crossing Bellevue. Two earlier writers note this stream. According to landscape architect Elizabeth Lord writing a description of Pringle Park, “...There was Pringle Creek meandering through Bush Pasture, the Shelton Ditch in natural state, very attractive trees on the bank and the third, Mill Creek, all three joining hands under the Church Street bridge...” Dan J. Fry, an early settler who grew up in Salem, notes in his story that “...a small stream ran along Church Street into Mill Creek (now called Pringle Creek) which was very clear and a good fishing stream...” [internal references omitted]
It also is interesting, but not surprising, that the confluence of Pringle Creek and Shelton Ditch now seems to have moved a little west and north, not mostly on the west side of Church Street, perhaps partially channelized by the Shelton Ditch work but also influenced by erosion and gravel action.

This stream of mystery is probably not terribly important in the hydraulic history of Salem, and if it had been totally filled in or culverted, it might be worth even less mention. But because it has a bridge over that vestigial gully, and now we've mostly paved over the stream's course for parking and some roadway, it's worth considering a little. It might not be important, but it's interesting trivia!

Bicycling on the Path

Some have argued that this path system could be a primary corridor for walking and biking. But here is another section of the path system that is fundamentally unsuited for bicycling. The path is narrow, blind stair landings connect with it, and whether because of topography or aesthetics the path has these zig-zags. (It's not very wide, either. It probably doesn't meet current standards for a multiple-use path.)

The path links to stair landings and it zig-zags
At the bridge landing, at least five different pathways and stairs connect, with minimal extra room. It would get congested real fast.

At the bridge landing, at least five different ways radiate from it
At the Winter Street end, there's a blind corner that works fine for walking but is very awkward, even dangerous, with bicycles in the mix.

A total blind corner at Winter Street
When the path system was designed and constructed, its purpose was clear: "Pedestrian walks." It was not built to current multi-use widths and standards. It's for walking.

The dedication is silent on bicycles - it's clearly a "walk"

Ornamental Emptiness

These photos were also taken on a beautiful winter day, and there was only one other person on the path system. He can be seen in the photo of the "closed" footbridge. He was sitting on a bench and smoking.

Smoking Man (detail at bridge over stream of mystery)
There are no businesses or other destinations that open onto the path system that would give pulses of incidental activity to the paths. You have to want to stroll there. Much of the immediately adjacent land is parking lot. There is a clinic on the northeast and the former site of the hospital's emergency room on the southeast. Neither of these have any retail or other commercial use that would supply a stream of incidental foot traffic beyond employees taking breaks.

Frequently enough, the solution for this is said to be better advertising, better wayfinding and signage. But this accepts the paths as mainly a destination, as the result of a special trip. What these spaces really need - what all of our public spaces need - are other things nearby that are the primary destination and which induce incidental trips through the public space.

One person only on a beautiful winter day at Mirror Pond!
The elevation gap between sidewalk and sunken park is a barrier
This is a fundamental problem that advocates for Mirror Pond and the Civic Center, and other places like them, too often do not engage. The problem with Mirror Pond is that is isolated. Nobody goes there! A better public space would have a fringe of lively businesses and residences, whose residents and visitors would provide a stream of incidental traffic. They wouldn't have to make a determined decision to make it a destination for a break-time walk or a secret cigarette. The way Mirror Pond is sunk below the sidewalk along Liberty is also a great problem and is one of the biggest ingredients in the physical isolation. Out of sight is out of mind.

Good public space has lively edges from adjacent land use
via Twitter
We can't suddenly transform our public space into European styled plazas, but we shouldn't so insistently ignore what makes those places great. They are bordered by built things for people! Buildings with businesses and residences fringe them. They are not bounded by state highways, other busy streets, or other expanses of "open space."

Even though Mirror Pond looks like it is for walking, it is partially structured as a drive-to destination. It is conceived with autoist logic.

Looking east from Mirror Pond to Parkade, SAIF,
Robert Lindsey Tower, 1975
Salem Library Historic Photos
This is, in fact, the main problem with the whole Pringle Creek Urban Renewal Area, from Willamette University to the Willamette River along the Mill Race, Shelton Ditch, and Pringle Creek. The aerial makes clear the centrality of parking: The Pringle Parkade and the large SAIF lot. The paths have been piped like icing to decorate and fill in the spandrels between parking and building, and are not themselves the main elements. The space is very slack, downtown space used as inefficiently as possible, very much a "big box" deployment in space. It's a hybrid of "towers in a park" and "big box" store!

Additionally, it is structured as a pedestrian displacement system, a meandering way to get non-autos off of the side for the Parkway/OR-22 couplet. It was designed and built as a substitute for sidewalks, pushing buildings even farther away from the street. It is a quasi-suburban intrusion into what should be a fully urban space.

Some have argued that we should understand the spaces as a Japanese Stroll Garden, but even if that was part of the original intent, there are reasons now to critique it:
  1. Let's agree a Stroll Garden might be interesting somewhere, but is this the right place? Should we devote so much prime downtown space to a "stroll garden"? We already have the Capitol Mall and WU campus. Not to mention all the parking lots. There's lots of open space downtown, actually. A central argument here is that there is too much downtown open space, and we should want more of it developed, and more intensely developed.
  2. A Stroll Garden is structured as a destination, a drive-to destination, and we should instead want "walk-through" connections with rich edges rather than trip end points, a kind of glorified cul-de-sac. Minto Park is our Stroll Garden, really.


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

(Holy smokes. That was a brain fart! It was right the first time, and everything's reverted. Nothing to see here!)