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Pedestrian Mall Has Potential, Limitations

The second forum to discuss the future of the Essex Street pedestrian mall laid out a vision for a "great urban space."

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 to discuss ways to redevelop it are reaching the "hard part," Mayor Kimberley Driscoll said at the conclusion of Tuesday's meeting at the 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 ."

Kate Leavy, owner of two shops on Front Street, and , plans to open another in ' 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.

Ruth Montville February 09, 2011 at 03:21 PM
I understand the vision to keep the "historic element", however getting rid of the cobblestones, in my opinion, would be the best thing. As an "older adult", I find them very dangerous and difficult to walk on in any weather, especially since they seem to heave and shift so much.
KlassySalem February 09, 2011 at 03:35 PM
Agreed.
David Bowie February 09, 2011 at 03:59 PM
The cobblestones are not the problem - allowing multi-axle vehicles down the path is always going to ruin the walkway, the vision, and negatively impact the safety of visitors. Essex St. can and should remain a pedestrian mall with multiple access points along the way. Parking is a city-wide issue and addressing it as a community will help resolve many issues and arguments.
Lisa Dolloff February 09, 2011 at 05:22 PM
I completely agree with David Bowie (also, that is just fun to say). Also, the walking mall is one of the best things about Salem, and with the cobblestones, it makes Salem unique. How will turning Salem into every other city help bring more shoppers in? It won't. It will just help it blend in and fade into the background.
Mike Gibson February 10, 2011 at 12:36 PM
I'm in agreement with David and Lisa. I must be missing something. How does another street full of idling traffic and maybe 30 parking spaces almost surely taken by shop staff make the businesses thrive? I saw Harvard Square and Lincoln Road in South Beach go from unique places to shopping mall sans roof. I also fear the big retailers driving up rents and driving out the little guys. Then when profits drop, the big guys leave and the street is empty. And when I don't want to walk on the cobblestones, I use the sidewalk on either side.
Nelson Dionne February 11, 2011 at 03:08 PM
I think that the Fall Haunted Happenings weekend with booths set up from Town House Sq almost to Pickering Wharf is something we should be doing several times a year. Think themes & the city would really hop. Possibilities inc. The Salem Chew-Chew" food & food related merchandise, antiques, Veterans expo Memorial Day weekend, on & on. ,
Nelson Dionne February 11, 2011 at 03:10 PM
Re; Cobblestones; they actually used them way back when as they held up well under heavy horse traffic. The horses are gone, time for the cobbles to follow !
BJ Larson February 14, 2011 at 05:43 PM
I hope it remains a pedestrian mall. My husband and I spend a lot of time meandering there, and most certainly would not if it were just another street with cars. I am hopeful that as many parts of the downtown come alive, so will Essex Street.... We love Front Street too, and the Artists Row... I second whoever said, deal with the parking issue community wide....
Midge Lyon April 13, 2011 at 05:14 PM
I would be very very sad to see that cobblestone go... even pulled up and "repurposed." As a ten year resident, that part of Salem has always been in my heart.... I LOVE the idea of the rain gardens, and some sweet artistic lighting down there, and I love the idea of giving that stretch some TLC, but I would really hate to see it severely transformed. I feel nervous about people coming in from out of town and changing up what us long time residence have really become attached to. Having traffic down there gets both of my thumbs down :o( And Ruth, I would like to volunteer to help you cross the cobblestone anytime you need that help :) The brick sides are ok for you, right?

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