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Mall Plans Require Thought And Balance

Strategic business planning critical to success of mall improvements.

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.

Dungidog April 17, 2012 at 10:53 AM
Very well said! The last thing I want to see is the mall open to traffic again.
Jason Haley April 17, 2012 at 11:59 AM
I agree too. One thing that bothers me about the pedestrian mall make over project, is why is it in such a state of disrepair anyways? If we redo the whole thing, are we going to make sure it is kept up with repairs next time?
Chris April 17, 2012 at 12:08 PM
I was by the big fountain Sunday, a beautiful sunny day, and the water wasn't turned on, surely having it on would make it more of a pleasant attraction. Also, the concrete of the 'archway' in one corner is crumbling at the top, why hasn't it been maintained/repaired? I think someone is making a conscious decision to let things fall into disrepair, but I'm not sure what their agenda is.
d April 17, 2012 at 01:09 PM
Thank you, Mr. Legault. I agree on all points. Fiddling with the planters and surfaces is pointless without a compelling and comprehensive vision.
Tom Uellner April 17, 2012 at 01:17 PM
Thank you Bill. I would hate to see the mall open to general traffic. I would stop walking there and visiting the shops if it was. The draw of the mall is that it is a nice open space for pedestrians to walk. Also, I know that cobblestones are quaint but they are not well maintained and even if they were, they are hard to walk on.
Erin Cyr April 17, 2012 at 01:25 PM
I am always surprised when I read that there is ANYONE who wants the ped. mall open to traffic. I just googled "cities with pedestrian only areas are" and got studies saying cities with pedestrian only areas are healthier, more desirable to home buyers, make communities more livable, and encourage more families to live in said city. If I can find all of that in a 2 second google search, then there must be a lot more evidence that the ped. mall is a benefit to this city. I certainly think surfaces should be safe for everyone, but I definitely agree that changes should be smart in the short and long term.
Cheryl Michaels April 17, 2012 at 01:33 PM
I too am troubled by what seems like a hap-hazard approach despite the amounts of money spent on planning services. The fountains, the traffic, the walkways, art exhibits, tables and chairs, benches, green space, Museum Place Mall upgrades, PEM expansion - they all need to be part of one plan that, liked or not, is announced as one "vision" and open to all.
Jane Stauffer April 17, 2012 at 01:48 PM
Since everyone here thinks we should keep the mall, here is another viewpoint. Just take a look around at Beverly, Peabody, Marblehead and Danvers. Their downtowns work without a pedestrian mall. Salem tried to fix something that wasn't broken. It is time to make streets again, Essex Street, Central Street, etc. I even think getting rid of the "steps" around Town Hall would be a great idea, and make it another street. When vendors set up they seem to perch awkwardly on those steps. It could be closed off once a week for the Market, something that was done for over 100 years. When you look at the pictures that accompany this article, it seems we are trying to force an idea rather than look at how the area is really used.
Bill April 17, 2012 at 02:14 PM
I agree 100%, the mall feels dead when not in peak tourist time. No life or energy. Make it a street again.
CarleaSkunkrawk April 17, 2012 at 02:35 PM
At first I wasn't in favor of opening the street to cars, but I think it could at least be closed certain times of the year. As previously said, cars already drive on it...I do it occasionally myself, dropping stuff off at the Vault. If some vehicles are allowed and others are not, where is the line drawn? A civilian could just as well technically make a delivery as a FedEx truck. As for the mall, if the mall is going to be saved it needs more diverse businesses and less crystal balls ans tshirts.
Georgia Smith April 17, 2012 at 02:56 PM
I would love to see Salem make an effort to attract cafes and restaurants to Essex Street -- is it currently not zoned for this? If Essex Street felt more like the mixed-use space it is, I think we'd see much more foot traffic year-round and more "evergreen" businesses would be attracted to the area. While tourism shops are important, we need a much better mix of businesses in order to make the area thrive in the long run. The LAST thing we need is to open the street up to cars. We're so lucky to have it as a pedestrian walkway -- we just need to make better use of it.
Don Nadeau April 17, 2012 at 03:13 PM
Hear! Hear, William! I lived right next to Cabot Street in Bevery for years, and it held ZERO appeal for me (except Cabot Theatre). I sold my car and walked or biked to Salem almost every day to enjoy the common and the mall, until I finally packed up and moved here. I can refute the other pro car comment above as well, since I have spent so much time walking the mall: I know it is well-travelled most times, and the folks are actually much more aware of the shops and more inclined to window shop or pop in than a drive-by would be. One or two blocks closed to fast cut-through traffic does not kill a city. Cities - especially tourist cities - that do not have public destinations for community, are no better than strip malls. And sometimes unplanned, incremental change works - just look at, um ....
Erin Cyr April 17, 2012 at 06:17 PM
Your opinion on downtown Peabody "work"ing is odd. As a lifelong citizen of Peabody, save these last 3 years, I know that most people from Peabody find the downtown area to be the worst part of the city and avoided at all costs.
Bob Broderick April 17, 2012 at 06:55 PM
I too am in favor of keeping this a ped mall. If it were open to cars that would end up on washington st then it would just be part of the traffic jam. And i don't want to be walking there. Also, there needs to be budget money to upkeep the brickwork, if that is what will replace the cobblestones. Some good thoughts here.
Michael Berry April 17, 2012 at 09:28 PM
Will the city be offering any incentives to businesses that would commit to leasing space and or businesses that are currently located there? Have they reached out to any local businesses, that are located elsewhere, that may be insterested in relocating to empty spaces in the EISM? I suppose that would be part of the planning. I also think a big part of the equation is parking. Do people in Salem realize how empty the parking garage can be and how inexpensive it is to park there? Would it behoove the city to offer Salem residents an even less expensive alternative? A resident parking discount? This may be a pedestrian mall, but a whole lot of people drive to downtown in order to be pedestrians here. I suppose this could be part of the planning as well. We all know what the mall looks like during October. Will there be any thought for the seasonal merchants who set up shop for the "Happenings" in their tents and shelters? Can the city make it better, and easier for them while receiving more revenue for the better facilities and services? Are there similar spaces that are successful that can be looked at as an example? I'm just thinking out loud here. Bill has this pegged: It needs to be well planned and well thought out before any or our monies are spent. (Bring back Almy's).
john April 18, 2012 at 12:30 AM
The days of old tell the story of Salem. Industry left for numerous reasons and will never return. Everyone loves the simple downtown feel that Salem offers but there is no real draw other than the seasonal tourist attraction which is shorter than the half the year. Incentives to business are quickly being blocked out by higher parking costs and the out of control traffic situation. Many businesses in downtown and at the wharf are closed in the off season.More low income housing will define the future of this city and it looks like we will become more like Lynn than Marblehead.Like the dreams of cruise ships at the power plant dreams of what downtown can be are extremely limited.
melas April 18, 2012 at 07:18 AM
There is a major misconception among the "we want traffic on the Pedestrian Mall" crowd.  Automobiles do not equate stronger sales for the businesses on the mall.  First, all across America, downtown shopping for essential goods has shifted from Main Street USA to giant shopping malls and superstores.  This shift took place all across America decades ago, it's not a Salem phenomenon. Second, automobiles on a small section of Essex Street will not help business in this seasonal town, case and point: Pickering Wharf is open to automobiles all year round, many of the businesses enjoy robust sales May - October, but their customers and sales dwindle the remainder of the year.  Wharf Street can get busy and people are everywhere, however, in February it looks like a ghost town, it is dead.  Wharf Street is open to autos year round, but it is dead in the off season.  There is no correlation between sales and auto access, it's a false argument; Salem is a seasonal town.  There may be ways to make Salem less seasonal, but it has nothing to do with that small stretch of pedestrian friendly roadway we call the Pedestrian Mall.
melas April 18, 2012 at 07:19 AM
I believe the Pedestrian Mall draws people who otherwise wouldnt see anything special about the heart of downtown Salem. I have actually seen tourist exploring the streets of Salem and I remember the reaction of one who reached the mall while I was walking by, she said, "Wow!".  Nobody is going to say Wow!, if that small section of Essex Street became just another roadway.  We literally have hundreds of miles of roadway in Salem, all littered with automobiles, loud radios, idling motorcycles and traffic jams.  That small stretch of bricks and trees, right in the heart of downtown is a pleasant surprise to some and a peaceful oasis to those of us who appreciate a break from the ordinary.  
William Legault April 18, 2012 at 03:27 PM
The photos that accompany this article were taken just before it was written. They were not used to make any point, all of the vehicles in the photos just happened to be there at the time.
Matt Buchanan April 18, 2012 at 11:22 PM
I'd prefer to keep the mall closed to cars, but make some upgrades, as melas mentioned this area is a break from traffic / congestion and make our downtown unique and interesting. I think that the cobblestones should stay, but be made more walkable and even, I'm not sure how practical this is though. The real issue though is the businesses there. I have no problem with tourist shops, but even the shops that are geared towards locals mostly close in the late in the afternoon / early evening. I'm not sure how, but attracting businesses that stay open later would be a good start. I think that a couple bar / restaurants would be great down there, but this brings up the issue of over-saturation in the city.
Leese April 21, 2012 at 02:26 PM
I'd also prefer to keep the mall closed to cars, but I'd like to see a larger, year-round, open-til-9, non-tourist business go into the Museum Place Mall. This would drive traffic to businesses in the pedestrian mall year round, and later into the evening, potentially attracting other businesses with similar hours catering to residents rather than seasonal tourism. It would also given a customer boost to both Cinema Salem and the many downtown restaurants, which are economic pluses for our community. We humorously refer to the Museum Place Mall as the "Dismal" (pronounced diz-mall), as it really is a dismal place that's embarrassing to bring out-of-town friends looking to experience Salem.
Abigail Bates August 12, 2012 at 08:15 PM
I am not so sure how I feel about traffic on the mall. What I do feel is that the East Indian Mall needs to revamp! What is going on in there? I think we need a Trader Joes in that spot. Or someting with appeal. We have the parking garage. The theatre is wonderful with the coffee shop and a few of the shops are very nice. Then there is the space between the Hess station and whatever that wall is??? What is happening in there behind that beautiful fence? It is on a canal is it not? Then we have the carousel building that I believe belongs to the Hobbs. That building would be a beautiful spot to have breakfast,lunch,and enjoy sunsets. I can never figure it out. It is ???????What I don't know? My heart rate jumps when I walk around this town. Ever try to drive from 114 over Washington to Derby? Which lane is safe. It is not clear to me.. Someone help me before I get a ticket or wreck my car.Is it too much to get this city to put real arrows on the street?
Abigail Bates August 12, 2012 at 08:16 PM
sorry I got carried away
john August 12, 2012 at 10:37 PM
Tourism has killed any chance of Essex St being open to traffic. Those days disapeared with Almy's.It's tourist trap in summer and a dead zone in winter.

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