Thoughts on Architectural Islands Between the Lanes: Salem's Downtown Historic Districts

Brandon Spencer-Hartle, Land Use Leadership Initiative Participant

Thoughts and reflections from Brandon Spencer-Hartle, a Land Use Leadership Initiative Participant who is the Field Programs Manager for the Historic Preservation League of Oregon. Photos by Peter Ovington.

On May 4, 2012, a group of participants in the 1000 Friends of Oregon’s Land Use Leadership Initiative went to Salem to learn about how the City conducts downtown urban renewal, and to discuss the vision for downtown. As most planning-curious Oregonians know, urban renewal certainly isn’t a new tool, and it certainly isn’t without controversy in resource-strapped, tax-capped, equity-mapped 21st Century Oregon. While it may take Portland only a month to marathon an urban renewal area process from its initial public announcement to its final council approval, Salem has been at downtown urban renewal for 37 consecutive years. And from the informal conversations had on our recent trip, there’s no plan to put the Riverfront Downtown Urban Renewal Area to rest anytime soon.

wild_pearAfter 37 years of planning, tax increment spending, and park building, some of the most obvious hurdles facing downtown Salem have yet to be crossed. Long-time downtown stakeholders made no attempt to hide their frustrations about excessive travel lanes, a lack of bike/ped connectivity, and the need to attract people downtown, when given the opportunity to chime in at the Oregon Humanities Conversation Project led by Nan Laurence that capped off our day in Salem.

But Salem’s downtown has much to be proud of, not the least of which is its anchor commercial core. Salem’s downtown historic district (officially known by its roll-off-the tongue name of Salem Downtown State Street-Commercial Street Historic District) contains 91 buildings, 57 of which are deemed historic “contributing” properties. With buildings dating back to the 1860s (most are from the turn-of-the-century), the nine-block district is the heart of downtown Salem, located directly between the undeniably landmark public investments of the State Capitol and Riverfront City Park (a product of the urban renewal area). The historic district is the functional and visual center of downtown Salem and, by extension, the downtown urban renewal area.

Ohm eventDowntown Salem is privileged to have the integrity of building stock that past generations so generously left. Many of these buildings were built at no small expense to exemplify the values—or perceived values—of their original owners. Within the historic district, the awkward pockmarks of surface lots are relatively few and the behemoth parking garages have been largely pushed to the north and south of the district. Ground floor retail occupancy rates are higher than would be expected given the “state workers never come downtown” comments of many locals, the coffee options are plentiful (you can choose between Governor’s Cup, Starbucks, and the Beanery all at the same intersection), and the diversity of architectural styles is as good as any other district in the state. With a hodgepodge of upper-floor layouts and uses, the potential to adapt and modify the malleable old buildings is a New Urbanist’s dream come true.

But local residents and businesspeople have a lot of reasonable complaints: downtown streets are wide, the lanes are many, and the traffic is aggressive by design. As long as the connective tissue between the historic blocks, the bookend public amenities, and the larger urban renewal area remains oriented to the automobile, Salem’s historic district and larger downtown will inevitably languish and suffer the fate of our shortsighted post-war transportation decisions.

Ped_bridgeIn Salem we heard talk of building a new Willamette River Crossing, saw the new Salem Conference Center, and learned about a recent push to allow drive-thru banks downtown. While it’s good for planners, citizens, and policy-makers to weigh decisions like these, what downtown Salem needs most is something much more obvious: a walkable and calm street network that compliments the textured historic buildings of its historic district. After all, their builders didn't design them to be used and loved from the window of a Prius, but used and loved by shoppers, residents, and tenants (and their wallets). Slowing and narrowing the rivers of traffic lanes will connect the islands of great buildings that today sit there, waiting for the inevitable day when they realize their full potential once again.  

For more photos from this tour and conversation, please visit

Click here for more information about the Land Use Leadership Initiative.