Salemites agree that the pedestrian mall on Essex Street has a lot going for it—historic charm, a variety of shops and an ambience that attracts families and shoppers.
But it will never be like the wide open piazzas of Italian cities like Rome and Sienna, or similar pedestrian malls in the U.S. that are more connected to surrounding urban spaces through cross streets.
Given the mall's limitations, a series of forums to discuss ways to redevelop it are reaching the "hard part," Mayor Kimberley Driscoll said at the conclusion of Tuesday's meeting at the Salem Five Community Room.
Business owners and residents gave their input and contributed ideas for creating a "great urban space," while Tim Love of the planning and architecture firm Utile provided a framework based on other pedestrian malls that are successful, in this country and abroad.
In his presentation, Love pointed to pedestrian malls in cities like Burlington, VT, and Charlottesville, VA, as successful models, due to mixed use that allows vehicle and pedestrian traffic to co-exist.
"Great places change their character based on civic events and time of day," Love said. "It's not a one-size-fits-all solution."
Business owners in the group of attendees of about 100 tended to agree.
Christian Day, owner of HEX said keeping the mall off-limits to cars doesn't work for businesses.
"I don't think we can keep this and expect it to survive," Day said. "You can't tell me this works if there's not one night-time restaurant other than Rockafellas."
Kate Leavy, owner of two shops on Front Street, RoOst and the beehive, plans to open another in Urban Elements' former location on Essex Street, but said she would never consider opening a shop further up the mall away from Washington Street.
"In my heart of hearts, I'd like to see mixed use with slow and limited traffic," Leavy said after the meeting. "I'd like to see businesses survive."
Leavy grew up in Charlottesville and for seven years managed a restaurant on a street in Asheville, NC, that is always busy with pedestrian traffic, she said.
The hopes of creating something similar in Salem bumps up against the realities of the City's uneven seasonal tourism, the lack of an anchor retail store downtown and a problematic distribution and management of parking.
If people can't find nearby parking, they won't come to her shops, Leavy explained.
Tackling those difficulties doesn't fit entirely within the scope of the pedestrian mall plan, Love explained.
Day said it is "the market" that will decide the success or failure of businesses on the mall, but the job of the City is to "facilitate" business and help it succeed.
"We're starting to get to the hard part," Driscoll said.
"Is there a way to accomodate all the things we want in a way that makes sense?"
At the next forum, the architecture firm will present a few different proposals in hopes of finding such a solution.