Thursday, September 17, 2020

Our Salem Vision and Draft Plan Relies too Much on Arterial Conversion to Mixed-Use

In order to "protect" existing single detached housing and "neighborhood character," the vision offered by Our Salem in the new draft plan concentrates too much on already busy arterial streets and does not do enough to leverage our system of smaller, minor arterials and collector streets.

The main place this is visible, seemingly the project's "one big idea," is in the way the project team took a "mixed use paint brush" to the major corridors of Commercial Street and Lancaster Drive and changed the color on the existing zoning outlines. This is not by itself a bad move, but because it is an isolated move, it looks like warehousing new projects on streets that are already busy, unpleasant, and polluted.

Focus on "major corridors"

(This key is not very helpful or clear
as information design)
This might seem like it is a move for walking and transit away from driving, but because it is in isolation it is very limited.

Even with mixed-use conversions, is this massive cross-section on South Commercial ever going to be friendly for walking?

Is Mixed-Use by itself going to help with this?

An important missing ingredient, then, is a boulevard conversion for Commercial and Lancaster. The proposed change from commercial to mixed-use zoning needs to be accompanied by a stroad-to-boulevard conversion in the streets. Otherwise they will still be oversized for autoist primacy and still very zoomy. Boulevard conversions also add medians for street trees and improve tree canopy. They prioritize local travel on the margins at calm speed and give through-travel the center.

A Nelson/Nygaard proposal from the helpful
Stroad to Boulevard tumblr
(gone now, alas, but see Strong Towns here)

By contrast at a much smaller scale, the Neighborhood Hub concept is undernourished, still too much of a small idea and even trial balloon. In the body of the plan, it says the hubs are "distributed" but it's not really clear where. The actual locations are hard to find on the high-level overview maps.

This is not very helpful, too notional

In an appendix, however, there is a list of them, and they seem too few, too small, and crucially are disconnected from any affiliated upzoning that would create the necessary number of nearby residential customers to support them. They are almost certain to need a greater penumbra of nearby residential density of customers to work. (See "Climate and the Neighborhood Hub Survey" for a little more on this.)

Potential hubs in an appendix

Adjacent to the vast swaths of mixed-use conversion on Commercial and Lancaster there is also this question of penumbral upzoning. (We have seen this also on the State Street Corridor study, where the transition to single detached housing on the alley remains abrupt and we do not nourish the envisioned mixed use development on State with gradual upzoning three and four blocks north and south. This new study should also consider why that plan has not yet jump-started redevelopment on State Street - do we have the right strategies in place? If not, more of the same is not going to work.)

Not wrong, but is it the right lead goal?

More generally, on transportation, the main goal is procedural, "complete streets," and not actually any actual and measured result of transportation or behavioral change. If we intend to tie this new plan to climate, the goal is changing transportation patterns for safety and emissions, not just changes to infrastructure. The infrastructure is a means to the end, not the end itself, and it is possible that changes to infrastructure by themselves will not create enough new walking, biking, and busing trips. 

In our planning there is a repeated pattern where we confuse a sign of a thing, or a means to an end, for the desired thing and end itself. Look we have a complete street! Never mind that it's not yet being used completely. If we build a complete street, and few walk, bike, and bus on it, why is that? What more do we need?

We see this particularly on greenhouse gases, where the goal is blather about "pursuing strategies," not anything particular or concrete or measurable.
We must have more definiteness
In the end, the rhetoric on "protecting neighborhoods" in a discussion of parking reveals the bias.

Are neighborhoods really this fragile?

The idea that our neighborhoods are fragile and need protection from parking, from traffic, from poor people, or the wrong people, or from commercial encroachment, or whatever, is key to the exclusionary way we have constructed privilege and reduced housing options in neighborhoods, and we need to look at this more closely. It is a mid-century, autoist paradigm that no longer serves our 21st century exigencies of climate, housing affordability, and justice. (See also "Defense against Developer Dark Arts" on the way we have used historic districts especially for this.)

The rhetoric of "protection" is two generations old
The 1983 Grant Neighborhood Plan
This Our Salem plan is about concentrating change on those major corridors and arterials, and not about distributing change throughout the city. There is too much effort towards insulating neighborhoods from change.

This restriction on more widespread change may seem necessary in order to secure consistent support for passage of any new zoning and plan, but it also vitiates and enervates the plan, making it too modest, too small, too ineffective. As a preliminary matter, too, it does not set up any Climate Action Plan or HB 2001 compliance plan for optimal success. 

Council and the Planning Commission will next Wednesday have a formal Work Session on it, and there might be still more to say in another pass at the plan before that meeting. There are, of course, several other dimensions to the plan, and you will find other angles of interest.


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Another thing about merely invoking mixed-use zoning, something briefly touched on with State Street, is that we really lack a pattern of consistent success with new mixed use projects.

Sites like the Belluschi seasonal pond on the corner of Chemeketa and Liberty downtown remain a crater.

The whole Fairview site is supposed to have some mixed use projects, but so far it's all neo-traditional single detached houses and three-story walkup apartments set on large parking lots. There's no middle housing or anything commercial embedded in a mixed use building. The "village center" is theoretical still.

And, again, the State Street project has not yet attracted any new mixed use developments.

For recent successes we have the Courtyard apartments and the restaurants at Court and Front, and we have the tiny apartments going up on State and Commercial.

We have some ingredients missing if we really want to commit to and see built new mixed use development and redevelopment.

MikeSlater said...

Thanks for your comments. I look forward to future comments.

I have a slightly more positive take, but I've often been accused of being an optimist.

Before we can dive into a discussion of the plan, it probably would be good to discuss expectations and the constraints of the planning process. The comprehensive plan is primarily driven by the population forecast of 65,000 new residents over the next 15 years, an increase of roughly 28%. In planning for that population increase, the City needs to also accommodate standards for commercial, industrial, and multi-family land availability. These requirements limit the range of options to pursue. For example, City staff ran an option that considerably increased density in the downtown area through their model and found they couldn't meet the mandated multi-family land inventory requirement with that approach.

My understanding from reading various land-use literature is that the single best policy to reduce GHG emissions is to bring services and employment closer to where people live and the best way to do that is converting to mix use zoning. It seems that the current plan rather aggressively adopts that strategy. Yes, Commercial and Lancaster are busy, but the rezoning includes State St. (previously adopted) Liberty St. South; Commercial St South; Fairground Road-Portland Road; Silverton Road; and parts of Market Street. In addition, there are pockets of mixed use in several developing parts of west and south Salem, such as on Sunnyside Road and Mildred Lane.

You make a very good point about up-zoning the properties adjacent to the proposed new mixed-use space. On the other hand, mixed used ostensibly includes some housing to help support the services.

I agree that Commercial and Lancaster, at a minimum need a road conversion if a mixed use, pedestrian oriented street is to be successful. The city is going to have to take the lead on that rather than wait for each developer to incrementally improve their own section of the street. In the case of Commercial, there already is a plan and (I’m checking on this) some funding to do that conversion. See here.

The plan adds significant multi-family acreage to the existing comprehensive plan (which the City is required to do).

I think your point that neighborhood hubs are a trial balloon is correct. I think the city would characterize it that way, too. The question is whether testing the idea at a small scale is the wrong approach.

You didn’t mention the City’s other trial balloon: According to the document. “Properties shown as "R4" or Residential 4 would keep their existing Comprehensive Plan designation of Single Family Residential or Multi-Family Residential. They would, though, be rezoned to a new zone called Residential 4, which would allow live-work space and up to four dwelling units.” This idea is would be tested on Market Street NE, Center Street NE, and 17th Street NE south of State Street.

You are right that there is very little change to existing SF areas that are already developed. My guess, though, is that the definition of SF will change to allow for up to 4-plexes. That’s one issue to keep our eyes on.

I think the bigger question is not whether the plan is big enough for the needs, but will the City adopt the long list of policies and goals required to make plan’s vision successful—and then faithfully implement them.

MikeSlater said...

I can conform that two pieces of the Vista-Commercial corridor project is moving forward. From Julie Warncke:

Yes, the Commercial-Vista Corridor Project was approved by the City Council. We have received funding to construct two recommendations from the plan:
Buffered bike lanes from about Oxford to Madrona, including a bike signal at the Commercial/Liberty split and a pedestrian crossing median near Triangle. Design is in progress; construction anticipated in 2022.
Sidewalk infill on the east side of Commercial from Ratcliff north towards Vista (in front of Fussy Duck) and a new traffic signal at Commercial and Ratcliff intersection. Funding for this has recently been approved. Design is scheduled to start in 2022 and construction is currently programmed for 2026.

C Jones said...

Related to MikeSlater's comments above, the desire on the plan's part to "protect" single-family neighborhoods appears to conflict directly with Oregon's new land use rules that are scheduled to take effect by 2022. They allow for 2 to 4 units (I am not an expert on the new rules) on all (essentially all?) lots zoned for detached single-family dwellings, or something like that.

Eugene is doing a pretty good job so far of engaging with the new rules and publicizing them to its residents. See for an example.

Jim Scheppke said...

If I were the King of Salem and had unlimited resources at my disposal, I would convert all of the major Salem stroads (especially Lancaster, S. Commercial, Market, Fairgrounds/Silverton and Portland Rd.) to tree-lined boulevards, all with Bus Rapid Transit! Dream on.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Fortunately, there are many interesting things on which to think and comment in the plan! Probably there will be more to say in a preview to next week's Work Session, and I may circle back to some of the things Mike highlights.

Re: "City staff ran an option that considerably increased density in the downtown area through their model and found they couldn't meet the mandated multi-family land inventory requirement with that approach." That is very interesting - but how is this even possible? You add multifamily housing downtown, and somehow you run out of multifamily land? Is there more to it? That just doesn't add up.

Here are pictures and thoughts over the years on the Commercial-Vista Corridor study and then the funded projects. These projects are not a stroad-to-boulevard conversion, however, and keep a very wide cross-section with the auto travel lanes. Even buffered bike lanes do not meet the NACTO "all ages and abilities" standard for a road this big and and with these car volumes and speeds. You may be more optimistic about the Commercial-Vista projects also.

As for HB 2001, Eugene had signed onto the League of Oregon Cities attempt to slow-walk and/or neutralize State mandates, so it's hard to believe the City of Eugene is really embracing HB 2001 and missing middle housing. A former chair of a Eugene Neighborhood Association has given presentations against HB 2001 (excerpts here) and is also trying to mobilize neighborhood opposition. Is it really being embraced by the City of Eugene and its citizenry?

The City of Salem had also signed on to the letter, and between that, the SRC, on-going questions about the way the City of Salem manages the tree program - blah, blah, blah - it's just hard to be an optimist and trusting with the City.

Finally, Jim is right to highlight BRT possibilities on Commercial and Lancaster, and I should have mentioned that with the mixed-use bit. Thanks, Jim.

And thanks Michael and C. Jones for thoughtful comments.