289 Derby St: Let’s Invest in a Lot

carnival-lot-from-across-the-river

From Carnival to Parking Lot to….? What would YOU do with 289 Derby Street?

Well, the Carnival has been over for weeks, and 289 Derby Street is once more a parking lot. But, it could be a lot more. Should it be private development or public space? Public Space, of course!

The following is from my letter to Salem Councilors in support of the Carnival Lot for public use:

I am writing again in support of acquiring the 289 Derby Street lot for public use. When I first moved to Salem, I conducted informal surveys at the 2011 Farmers Market asking why people moved to Salem, since I seemed to be meeting many newcomers like me. Almost all said they love the walkability of Salem. Although anecdotes are plentiful, hard data is harder to come by to show the great economic benefit over time of good, useful, public spaces. Downtown Salem’s footprint is slowly enlarging with new development towards the Point and 1A; 289 Derby Street lot would be one of the largest such public spaces and serve as a great public amenity in what is quickly becoming the expanded center of our city.

carnival-lot-pano

As new places open to the South River, Carnival Street Lot would be a great amenity, and a welcome relief for future density.

The acquisition of the lot for public use would be a wise long-term investment for Salem; the ultimate cost is worth it for our investment in our public realm that could be a wonderful, democratic gathering space for all people, in view of the Point on one side, and the bustling downtown on the other, next to a currently neglected but changing waterfront. As a local architect and community artist, I am committed to an expanded and inclusive public realm that is useful, innovative, and beautiful – a worthy and worthwhile amenity to our city.

In our seemingly divided and siloed nation, public spaces offering access to public amenities, beauty, festivals, performances, art, community, and a place for conversation are increasingly important. We need more spaces where we can come together with those of different ideologies but an essential shared humanity.

Will you support the acquisition of 289 Derby Street for public use? Write your Councilors!

Read Mayor Driscoll’s OpEd here

Read from some of the Council concerns on the acquisition here

Street Interrupted: Keep the Connection

Girl with dog at Dodge Street

It is surprising how many people use this unfriendly path. Families with their children scale the asphalt, others rush by on their pedestrian commute, some simply explore. For such a little sliver of space, this sure boasts plenty of use value – just think of how many people would use it if it were actually inviting – and safe!

Unfortunately, this short cut will soon disappear altogether – it will be part of a new development. This useful path has been sold and it will be absorbed into the development, integrated as a superblock – a block much larger than the surrounding blocks that impedes fluid traffic flow, in this case, pedestrian.

Superblocks were recently bemoaned in The Point Neighborhood Visioning Plan funded by the federal Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant, which was awarded to the City of Salem by the Metro Boston Consortium for Sustainable Communities. The plan relates the negative impact of “oversized street blocks that are not human scale and difficult to navigate on foot.” (page 27 of the Point Visioning Plan) Why then, does the proposed development ignore the findings that refer to superblocks less than a quarter mile away? (The negative impact of superblocks is well documented throughout urban analysis and research.)

One of the most successful private development and public space projects of the Twentieth Century is the Rockefeller Center in New York City. The scale is much grander in all respects than the little path that connects Dodge Street Court to Washington Street; the concept is the same: design for fluid traffic flow to integrate a project with its context. The development donated public space to the city, including the new street “Rockefeller Center Plaza.” In the case of the Rockefeller Center, the plan actually added to the already porous and pedestrian friendly grid.

THE ROCKEFELLER CENTER_2008

Of course, in our Salem example, the connective piece is now in private hands, so what is to be done? I suggest using a Boston example to satisfy the private development needs and provide a useful connection for public use: the Boston Harbor Hotel offers a threshold and throughway from the Rose Kennedy Greenway to the Harborwalk – a private public access that was in fact constructed before the Big Dig was completed.

Boston Harbor Hotel; source: google images

Boston Harbor Hotel; source: google images

From the grand example, to our smaller opportunity: a small path would be useful and appreciated by the public, especially during the winter months when the snow piles high and even the most avid short-cut takers are deterred off their course.

Street Interrupted_Pedestrian Connection for Development2

Share a Chair Procession and Poetry Reading: The Event

Reading poetry, at sunset, beneath the pine tree.

Share a Chair is an attempt to place something in a space to begin a dialogue, to say “hello.” It is an offering, and in this case, we offered bright blue painted chairs and poetry.

The half mile march to the park.

On Saturday afternoon, over a dozen participants marched these nine bright blue chairs down Lafayette Street, a main thoroughfare, to Mary Jane Lee Park in Salem’s Point neighborhood, a small park unknown by most residents outside the area’s borders. Within the neighborhood, Mary Jane Lee Park is considered the heart of the community.

As participants set up the chairs, I invited the middle-school aged children by the swings to  join and listen; it was the small kids that came. They were instantly engaged. One girl asked me if this was to happen every day. Some made noises, others quieted them. They wanted to read, and sing but they were too shy. I am sure if we could stage this more than once, they would eventually participate.

Placing the chairs.

After the readings, participants named the chair they had carried over, and placed it in the park, in a space that seemed to need a place to sit. The idea to offer chairs came to me as I researched the park for an article, and I learned from one of the residents that benches had been removed from the park to discourage use by undesirable people. For sitting in the park, two benches by the playground remain, and five picnic tables chained to three trees. The chairs would be flexible, to be placed at will.

The children inspect the chairs.

The children were excited that the chairs would stay; they were also somewhat confused, and a couple warned that the chairs would be destroyed by “the big kids.”

But overall, they thought it was a good idea!

Musical chairs!

They quickly appropriated the chairs for a game of musical chairs.

Watching the basketball game.

Then the older kids took them to watch the basketball game underway.

The heart chair.

The chairs were successfully offered and belonged to the park to use or destroy.