SALEM — A city-hired architect last night recommended that the Essex Street pedestrian mall be opened to one-way car traffic and that 20 parallel parking spaces be added to the brick and cobblestone corridor that runs through the center of downtown.
Salem could enact the change while preserving and enhancing the pedestrian-friendly qualities of the mall that have made it become known as the city's "family room," said Tim Love from the Boston firm Utile.
"Our goal is to capitalize on things that are good about it," he said during the fourth and final city-organized forum to discuss the mall's future. Love's proposal gives the city the flexibility to close the mall to traffic during peaks in pedestrian usage, like the month of October, but open it when activity slows in the winter.
The concept was met with a mix of praise and concern from the large crowd that gathered in the Salem Five Community Room on the mall.
"I support this idea," resident Dorothy Hayes said. "It's very creative and will introduce energy into the area."
Critics worried the change would strip Salem of a space that makes it unique and turn the mall into a car-clogged link to the Museum Place Parking Garage.
"The mall works (now)," said Michelle Brown, an employee of the Trolley Depot. She spoke in favor of rehabbing the mall's deteriorating infrastructure. "Let's fix it and try and make it better."
Mayor Kim Driscoll explained that the proposal is "the beginning of a process for us." It will be included in a grant application the city is submitting later this month to the National Endowment for the Arts.
The NEA asked Salem to compete for some of the federal agency's "Our Town" grant funding based on a statement of interest from the city. Salem is seeking $100,000 to pay for a design that will include a master plan for public art.
In his presentation, Love highlighted two areas that could host performances — the large plaza near the museum entrance, and where the mall intersects with Central Street. The existing fountain at the plaza could be replaced by one flush with the ground, he suggested. When water wasn't flowing, performances could take place.
The facade of the nearby parking garage, Love said, could be turned into "a green mosaic" of vegetation.
The mall stretches 950 feet from Washington Street to the Peabody Essex Museum. The introduction of vehicles, beyond the delivery trucks that drive on it now, would not spell the end of the brick and cobblestone that distinguish it from traditional asphalt roadways. They could be refurbished or replaced and complimented with new trees, stormwater-draining "rain gardens," and better lighting, as shown in a slide presentation by Love.
Letting cars in gives visibility to businesses along the mall because potential shoppers will drive by looking for an on-street parking space they're not likely to find, Love said. At the end of the mall, they can turn into the garage.
"We need traffic, we need people and you've provided options for that," said Glenn Kennedy, who works at 209 Essex St. He left his office last Thursday night and "there was not a single person on the entire mall."
People complain that its cobblestones are not walkable, that the placement of street furniture and landscaping is an impediment to customers trying to get to some stores, that the two aging fountains need to be taken out or improved, and that the space is deserted during the winter and at night.
Driscoll, with The Salem Partnership and the Peabody Essex Museum, invited businesses and residents to discuss what should be done. The planning sessions began in January and the city and museum split the $34,669 cost, which included Love's services.
The extent that the mall will be used by cars and pedestrians has yet to be decided, but Driscoll said it was important to pursue a design that makes the "shared model" possible.
Kate Leavy, owner of Roost Urban Country Design and The Beehive in Salem, agreed.
"Design it once and do it once," she said. "We're never going to all agree, we all have different agendas. But I think we can all agree that the current condition of the mall is not great for the city."