By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — The next phase of improvements to the Essex Street pedestrian mall, including refurbishing the corridor’s fountain, may get the green light tonight.
The Salem Redevelopment Authority will vote on a redesign proposal that the board first saw in October. Since then, the city’s Design Review Board has looked at the designs and recommends their approval.
Plans include replacing some of the street’s cobblestones, removing and replacing eight unhealthy trees, and refurbishing the fountain at the Washington Street end of the mall.
The Salem Redevelopment Authority will meet tonight at 6 in the third-floor conference room at 120 Washington St.
The first phase of mall improvements, which included work on cobblestones and removal of landscaping beds, was completed in August and September.
If approved, the second phase of work could begin in early spring 2013. The first and second phases of the redesign are funded from the city budget, said Lynn Duncan, director of Salem’s Planning and Community Development Department.
Tonight, the Redevelopment Authority will vote on replacing eight trees at the Washington Street end of the mall, as well as continued work on the street’s cobblestones.
While some locals argued to keep the cobblestones for their historic charm, others said they were hard to navigate because they had shifted and become uneven over time, Duncan said.
Two of the cobblestone areas that are in the worst shape — in front of Bernard’s Jewelers and Rockafellas restaurant — would be replaced with brick.
Tonight’s vote could also OK a slate of improvements to the fountain at the intersection of Essex and Washington streets, the site of Salem’s first water source. The spot, across Washington Street from the “Bewitched” statue, was immortalized by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his short story “A Rill From the Town Pump.”
The work proposed for the fountain would make it functional again, Duncan said. It is rarely used because of maintenance problems, including being filled with soap bubbles by pranksters.
Proposed improvements include cleaning up the structure, including its plaque with excerpts of Hawthorne’s story; installing lighting; and removing the basin, where water would pool, and replacing it with a smaller basin and “splash zone” with a concrete frame, Duncan said.
The basin area and steps also would get new brickwork.
Removing the fountain altogether was discussed, and later scrapped, during numerous public meetings held on improvements to the Essex Street mall.
Tonight’s discussion and vote is on the next phase of an ongoing project to make the pedestrian mall more inviting, aesthetically pleasing and accessible, Duncan said.
Removing planters, leveling cobblestones and other improvements are meant to make the corridor more usable, she said.
“(We’re) making it a more exciting space ... less cluttered,” Duncan said. “Creating vitality in this core of downtown.”
The mall, which stretches 950 feet from Washington Street to the Peabody Essex Museum, is closed to vehicle traffic, except for delivery trucks.
A controversial subject — opening the mall to traffic — has been discussed at public meetings but has not been formally proposed.
Duncan said they’re not ruling out anything. “Right now, what we’re focused on is the redesign, (and) making the space better. ... We’re not doing anything to open it to cars now, but we’re not precluding that as a decision in the future.”
Bethany Bray can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.