Almost 40 year ago, a Salem mayor stood up and told those who had their own agenda for the future of downtown Salem to take a hike.
Plans for turning our downtown into what would basically have been a parking lot surrounding a few box stores were consigned to the ash heap of history.
The result of that change in plans was the pedestrian mall. A main feature of the mall was the retail center known as the East India Mall, which featured a parking garage, shops, restaurants and a food court. For a variety of reasons, the concept has not worked. Over the years, despite the numbers of tourists who visit the mall, it just has not developed into a shopping or social mecca.
The whys of the situation really don't matter at this point. What is, is, and now an attempt is going to be made to make the situation better.
There needs to be real thought put into any planning before a single brick or cobblestone is . If there is not a clear and concise end game to the upgrades, then all we are doing is spinning our wheels, and when all is done, we will have improved nothing.
What is the end game? Many seem to think it is to open that length of Essex Street to motor vehicle traffic. There are those who argue that this could be done just for "special occasions." There are also those who would prefer to see it reconstituted as a full time thoroughfare.
I am not in either of those camps. My preference is no vehicles. The reality is however, that the mall is already open to vehicles. Delivery trucks and vans, contractor vehicles, and many who just choose to drive their cars from one end to the other traverse the cobblestones all day. There are also more than a few businesses that have arrangements that allow some employees to access private parking spaces by driving on the mall.
The pedestrian mall layout is such that there has to be vehicle access. There are no rear access lanes for deliveries like those seen at most other similar public retail spaces. A design should make that access easier for the vehicles and safer for the pedestrians, but it should also be designed to discourage other non-essential traffic. Being a president of a local bank or a condo resident should not make someone an exception.
Effort and thought needs to be applied to creating a strategic retail plan for the entire area. Downtown demographics have changed dramatically over the last 15 years. There is room for more than just tourist related businesses. T-shirts and crystal balls drive a lot of the local economy, and for that we should be grateful, but the potential is there for the pedestrian mall to be much more than tourism.
Talk of sight lines and visual clutter is fine, but the conversation needs to go further. Making it better looking and accessible is not enough. True change is needed and real planning and vision is required for that to happen.
Like Fenway Park, our downtown is a gem. Painting it and putting in new and different planters is not enough. Fenway looks nice enough driving by in a fast car, but those who pay good money to sit by the Pesky Pole know better than to be fooled. The pedestrian mall deserves more than a fresh coat of paint and some trees.
The needs of the residents, both downtown and across the city need to balanced out with the the needs and wants of the those leading the drive for the upgrades. Banks and museums are an important part of our city fabric, but no more important than anybody else. We knew that back in 1970, and I'm sure that we know it today.