Friday, July 27, 2018

Proposal for Opaque Fencing at New Police Station Deserves Scrutiny

If you weren't able to attend the Open House for the new Police Station a couple nights ago, the City's published the Notice for Design and Site Plan Review at the Planning Commission.

From Commercial and Division
high-crash corner from zooming on Front Street
 buffered with landscaping (remember the chickens!)
Mostly the plan looks pretty good. It'll be interesting to hear of any real criticism on the design (as distinct from comments on the cost overrun, which has already got some attention, and likely will get more).

Two pods of bike parking proposed (red comments added)
Detail from view from Liberty and Division shown below
 On our narrow bike interests here, they ask for an adjustment on bike parking:
Section 806.060(a) indicates that bicycle parking areas “shall be located within a convenient distance of, and shall be clearly visible from, the primary building entrance.” and that be located within “50 feet from the primary building entrance.” We are required to have 21 bicycle parking spaces and will be providing accommodations for 22 bicycles, 16 (public) will be located on the front or Division Street side of the building and 6 within the secure parking area on the north side of the building. It is not practical to locate all 16 public bicycle parking next to the main entry door; we are proposing that half (8) of these spaces be located near the main entry and the other half (8) will be centrally located within the public plaza. Placing bicycle parking at the entry and within the public plaza provides better balance for the building and the plaza users. It also allows for better circulation and accessibility at the public entry and in the plaza area. Both of these locations are easily accessed from the public right-of-way. We believe this design approach better meets the intent of the standard which is to locate bicycle parking so that it is convenient and visible to the destination which may be the plaza rather than the actual Police Station. Programming needs and design constraints within the secure parking area do not provide adequate space for the 6 bike parking spaces to be within 50 feet of the primary staff entrance; however, these spaces are located within 50 of a secondary building entrance and adjacent to the parking garage thereby having access that is convenient to bike parking.
That seems totally reasonable and is a sensible reading on the "intent of the standard."

Blank Walls and Fencing

This is a lot of blank wall along Commercial Street
But more generally, there is in fact one questionable item. They also ask for a completely opaque fence around the parking area.

Fence and future path at Liberty by creek bridge
Comments added, detail from Liberty/Division view below
An adjustment to the opacity restrictions found in SRC 800.050(a)(1)(B)(i) for walls or fences more than 30 inches tall and within 10 feet of a street abutting property line is requested for the walls or fences and gates that surround the secure parking areas adjacent to Commercial and Liberty streets. The desire for secure parking for Police vehicles and staff was identified by the Salem Police Department, in order to achieve this solid fencing or walls up to 8 feet for surface parking areas is proposed in the design. The need for this level of screening conflicts with the above noted standard which states “Fences and walls within a front, side, or rear yard abutting a street shall not exceed a maximum height of eight feet when located within ten feet of a property line abutting a street; provided, however, any portion of the fence or wall above 30 inches in height shall be less than 25 percent opaque when viewed at any angle at a point 25 feet away from the fence or wall. However, this standard does not anticipate the needs of uses which require greater levels of privacy or security allowed in various zoning districts.
From the Northwest along Commercial Street
There is already a long mostly blank wall along the Commercial Street sidewalk, and any opaque fencing on the parking area really makes for a bunker and compound. On the backside of the parking lot, along the creek, an opaque fence, even immediately adjacent to a police station, will hem in a future path and greatly diminish the path aesthetics and perceived safety. It will be a tunnel with no way out and no sightline out.

While the specific needs of the Police Station are a little different, it also seems like we are seeing more fencing downtown in response to homeless people camping, loitering, or begging. For a fairly direct comparison, there is a new fence behind SAIF along the creek path, and in some ways it makes the path feel less safe. It keeps people out at SAIF and gives them a feeling of greater safety, but it channelizes people on the path and reduces options for that one time evasive action might be necessary or prudent. There is also the cinderblock opaque fence along the sidewalk on the south side, the second phase, of South Block at the Boise project. It doesn't make the sidewalk here less safe, but it does kill the mood on the sidewalk.

The opaque fencing at South Block deadens the sidewalk here

Non-opaque fencing at SAIF along Pringle Creek path - in April

Same fencing at SAIF, with gate and landscaping this month
At the Police Station it's not clear that an opaque fence actually would make the parking area more secure. What it does is make the parking area more secret, and that deserves extra scrutiny at the hearing - and maybe extra scrutiny and public accountability always. The parking areas at City Hall are currently open, and while a more secure enclosure might be reasonable, are we certain a more opaque one is really necessary?

If there are times when activity needs to be concealed, maybe a victim needs concealment from an accused, the parking garage itself should offer enough hiddenness, and it does not seem necessary for the whole surface lot itself to be enclosed by an opaque fence.

Maybe there's a good reason for the opaque fencing, but that should get a greater airing and more public scrutiny. It should have to meet a higher test for the public good.

From Liberty and Division - note backside fence along future path
Finally, the path along the creek seems to have been postponed, and that's a real loss.

There are a few other elements in the plan review that require exceptions or adjustments, but they seem trivial. (It will be interesting to read criticism or comment that finds them non-trivial!)

The Hearing will be at the Planning Commission on Tuesday, August 14th.


Here's a "before" image of the SAIF courtyard without a fence. (See comments below for more.)

Streetview from 2012 showing berm only, no fence

Update, Monday August 6th

The SJ and Eugene Register-Guard both picked up an AP wire story on the the weekend's protests in Portland.

Just editorially, it is interesting to see the difference in imagery they each picked to illustrated the article: The SJ chose a phalanx of antifa counter-protesters, but the RG chose to show Police deploying in riot gear.

The story was not primarily about the danger of antifa groups, however.

The story was primarily about Police use of force, the possibility of excess force, and the possibility of asymmetric or biased application of force.

So I'm not sure the SJ chose the best image image to accompany that particular article.

Contrasting photos in the SJ and RG
The larger point here is that the semi-autonomous action of Police as a paramilitary group is something that demands civilian oversight.

To the extent that we give the Police a secret staging area in back of the new Police Station, we may be encouraging the over-militarization of Police.

That's why the proposal for opaque fencing should have a vigorous public debate.

Since we are the State Capital, it might turn out to be a necessary thing. But it's not something that should just happen incidentally without scrutiny, and advocates for the opaque fencing should have to make the argument in public.

Update, August 8th

The Staff Report is out for the site and design review on the new Police Station.

As we think about a new building, we still may not be thinking enough about programming, culture, and civilian oversight.

What kind of police force do we want in our new building?

For the most part the Staff Response seems routine and unexceptional, but the section on opacity remains opaque and in need of more discussion and analysis.

From the application for opaque fencing

From the Staff Report recommending approval of opacity
All that is said about the request for opaque fencing is the phrase "security needs" and hand-waving.

Nothing to see here, move along...

But what exactly are those anticipated security needs? Why isn't there more discussion of this?

So far, anyway, there is no public discussion of legitimate policing activities that require a secret back lot.

The rationale for the request is also opaque.

But based on trends towards the militarization of police forces, a back lot wholly screened from view offers a staging area for paramilitary operations. It's hard not to fear that this is at least part of what "security needs" really implies, and that we may regret not looking more closely at design elements and the programming all they imply.


Susann Kaltwasser said...

Cost was given as the reasons for changing the kind of fencing. But I think slats in chain link as they are proposing is a potential for more maintenance.

When I spoke at length with the main architect I was told that the front entrance and the plaza was not final yet. He claimed a lot of ADA work had to be figured out yet. There might be a ramp of sorts and the parking strip where handicap parking places would be required had to be designed yet. The problem is that the ADA requirements might actually eliminate a lot of normal parking spaces right near the doors. I know they said that there would be parking across the street and in the next block, but without bus service in the area and adequate parking, I fear that the plaza and the community room might not see the use that we hoped.

Thanks for the heads up about the Planning Commission hearing. This was a fact that for some reason no one managed to mention at the public open house. I wonder why....

Sarah Owens said...

The fence line at SAIF is not new, just the fence is. The old fence was chain link covered with green stuff and set behind shrubbery, so the new fence opens the area up quite a bit, compared to the way it was.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

I have occasionally got into the SAIF courtyard and taken photos of that great oak and that now-missing post-and-lintel sculpture, and apparently those memories have overwritten those of the chain-link fence! Thanks for the correction.

Still, the fencing and lack of meaningful activity, as well as lack of eyes and ears after the weekday 9-5 day, hampers the usefulness and attractiveness of the path system.

Suzanne is right about the potential for underuse of the plaza and for it to be an ornamental emptiness. Without nearby attractors and other meaningful adjacencies, the plaza may function a lot like the Sculpture Garden at the Conference Center. Or like those weird square planters and patio area on the deck above the parking garage at City Hall looking out over Mirror Pond.

But there are those blocks on the south side of Division St there that will also be redeveloped, and if we get something with housing, the plaza could be more active. The key to the plaza will not as much be parking as foot traffic.

It's too early to say it will be orphaned for certain - but it's a risk, as you say.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Wait! Hopefully this link will work. Here's the streetview on High Street at the creek from April 2012. It shows the flood control berm only, and no fence. So there was access into the courtyard without a fence - at least at that moment.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

Funny that you mentioned the "ornamental emptiness" of the Conference Center and the north side of the Civic Center. Those were two examples that I used with the architect for the police station. As we talked about perhaps a 'missed opportunity' with the plaza. If you clutter it with planters there is a missed opportunity to have bike rodeos, or gatherings for National Night Out or basketball events.

I urged putting the planters close to the edges so that the vegetation will not get stepped on, but also can provide seating. Putting the barriers next to the parking area can create a sense of protection, and create the sense the plaza is a 'room' where you can gather.

I regret that we will lose all those mature trees for young saplings that will take years before they give us some shade, but at least they will exist.

I drove by the Conference Center art sculpture 'garden' the other day and again is was nothing but a hot barren wasteland with no one present. Tables set out, but no one in sight. But I did not know part of the problem is that it is the top of an underground parking garage, so some landscaping is limited. However, surely they could replace that terrible red rock with something more inviting. Surely there are plants that can do there that take little water.

What I wanted to see...I shall repeat myself letting the creative people of Salem give suggestions or take on some of the planning for public spaces around public buildings. Is that too much to ask?

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Added a clip on Police use of paramilitary force, on protests in Portland, and the need for civilian oversight.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Added link to staff report, which recommends approval of the opaque fencing.