My Turn, Michael Young: What’s wrong with this streetscape?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 31, 2020

By Michael Young

Having just completed a streetscape improvement project in the first two blocks of East and West Innes streets downtown, the city of Salisbury has self-congratulated itself and is endeavoring to do the same on downtown Salisbury’s Main Street. It is long overdue.

However, considering what was promised and what we got on East and West Innes streets, the city needs to seriously pump its brakes. They need to complete what was promised on Innes Street. They need to ensure that what is being proposed on Main Street matches downtown stakeholders’ expectations.

Dotmocracy (yes, it is a thing), is an established facilitation method used to describe voting with dot stickers. In dot-voting, participants vote on their favorite streetscape elements (trees, planters, cross walks, street furniture, public art, lighting, bump outs) using a limited number of stickers to vote. Sometimes, you use colored stickers to identify elements that you like or dislike. It is fairly effective form of cumulative voting.

For countless years, downtown stakeholders (merchants and property owners) participated in this dotmocracy exercise. It became a running joke as nothing ever became of the endless, annual exercise. Finally, the city pulled the trigger and did the Innes Street streetscape. And what we got can only be described as (let me be kind) unremarkable, unimaginative, prosaic, ordinary, vanilla, dull, bland, mundane,  lifeless, stale, lackluster, uninspired and, most importantly, not as mutually agreed to.

High on the dotmocracy voting scale was pedestrian safety. Things like marked cross walks, traffic calming, better traffic speed signage and turning traffic yield to pedestrian signage, sidewalk bump outs and more. None of it was addressed.

Also dot-popular was replacing aged and, in some instances, dangerous cobra-style street lights with more pedestrian scale lighting. Instead, many existing lights were converted to LED. Many old light poles still sway in the wind and are marked as “dangerous” on city maps. Things like street furniture, trash cans, flowering vegetation and street art didn’t even get lip service.

The Innes streetscape project was three things:

1) new brick and concrete sidewalks.

2) Removing and replacing existing trees.

3) LED light conversions.

It was a traffic engineer’s dream design for the benefit of moving traffic quickly and did not enhance pedestrian safety, business and shopping. The expectations were not extravagant. The result was the product of allowing traffic engineers and bureaucrats to have the final say instead of business consultants, the downtown community and the community at large.

If the past is indicative of the future, Main Street merchants and property owners should expect no less. Or perhaps in this case, they should expect no more. But the devil is always in the details.

Main Street Salisbury is blessed with wide streets and wide sidewalks. It is a blank canvas. So, allowing the city to do something equally uninspired on Main Street, would be (at a minimum) a missed opportunity. Allowing the city to do something that is uninspired and potentially damaging to business would be a disaster. Eliminating parking would be one of those things that would fall into that category.

What is the value in gross retail sales of a parking space? What will be the loss? Is there a diminishing return on a wide sidewalk that is made even wider? Will design elements and street furniture encourage pedestrians to walk further or park further away and walk? Are pedestrian connectivity issues (getting to Main Street by foot) addressed?

Will there be places to sit? Will there be shade in the summer? Is it going to be a pet, kid, teen, disabled, elderly … friendly design? Will it still be aesthetically attractive 50 years from now? Are the materials that are being proposed going to look compatible with a 270-year-old downtown? Will they survive the test of time?

I pray for the best, but I fear for the worst if the completed East and West Innes streets streetscape improvements are indicative of what is to come.

Michael Young and wife Diane are former Main Street managers currently working as consultants and developers. They recently renovated and live in the Historic O.O. Rufty Building in Downtown Salisbury.