by Geoffrey James, AIA

The new police facility that Salem citizens approved in the May election will be the first public building built in Salem since 2005 when we cut the ribbon on our new convention center. The project has been controversial. I know. I served on the first Blue Ribbon Task Force appointed by Mayor Anna Peterson that came up with a plan that the city council rewrote and submitted to voters — that failed.

The new plan for a smaller facility that voters approved is an improvement. But it is only that; a plan. It is not a design. The design comes next, and the question now becomes: will the design reflect the desires of the community that will be paying for it, or will it be an “inside job” reflecting only the desires of city hall insiders and staff? Based on how the process has begun, I fear we are headed for the latter.

To hopefully avoid that outcome and stimulate the thinking of the community, here are my thoughts about what we should be aiming for, and what we should be scrupulously trying to avoid.

The overhead image shows the plan that was originally presented by the Chicago architects, the DLR Group last year — the one that voters rejected.

Even though we will shortly be embarking on a new design, it is instructive to look at the original plan, especially to see what we should avoid.

A public building — one that is paid for by the taxpayers — should present itself in an attractive setting, with trees and landscaped setbacks.  Mill Creek is a public amenity, and the community is paying nearly $6 million for this site, so the continued public access to a creek walkway and linear park in a treed setback would be an attractive addition to Salem, like the Mirror Pond at City Hall.

The design criteria for the public access and amenities is especially important in the wake of Ferguson and other outrages where the police are under attack for their militarization and bad actions.

Without some community guidance and design criteria it is conceivable that the staff and outside consultants might simply decide to create a walled compound, like this one. The worst-case scenario would be that, in secret planning meetings, they decide to pave up to the creek, on fill, and install an 8-ft. barbed wire fence along the creek, and store a row of SWAT vehicles, effectively keeping the public out.

DLR suggested building – approachable or intimidating?

This street level image shows the front view of the original plan, as presented to the City Council by the Chicago consultant.

This might be fine in Illinois, where hundreds of people, and many police, are shot every year, and the police may feel they are under attack. A menacing fortress is certainly not appropriate in Salem Oregon, where the police have a good reputation.

Currently, in 2017, the existing police headquarters at City Hall is accessed directly off a public plaza. The chief’s office is right off that lobby. The police cars are mingled with the public’s vehicles. Not ideal. The police cars need to be in a secure area, but the police should present an image of being community-friendly and accessible. In the original plan, the chief’s office is moved to the top (4th) floor at top left. The police vehicles will be in a parking structure behind the four-story building.

Notice several disturbing things about this concept. First, the public are restricted to a paved parking lot in front, to the entrance lobby, and to a meeting room (see on left). Note the absence of any landscaped setbacks. If the private sector wants to build a commercial building they are told to set it back with 20 ft. of landscaping. Should not the city obey those same rules? Should not a public building set an example of especially attractive design and landscaping? The City of Salem has shown an affinity for “new brutalism” architecture in the past. Is that really what we want?

The overhead picture shows a fenced off Mill Creek at the north of the site. The design drawings show parking structures built up to the creek, and no setback or public access. Is this building community friendly, or is it a fortress?

To be fair, it should be noted that after the failed bond measure there was a new site plan created by the DLR Group. And if you compare the new site plan with the earlier one you will note some “green”. Their first plan was criticized for its lack of landscaped setbacks and its lack of any access to Mill Creek. The new version at least showed a landscaped setback of the parking off Commercial Street. The building was set back a little from Liberty Street, with some landscaping. There was a patch of green landscaping in front, off Division Street. Mill Creek is shown as a wide setback, but this is for code reasons.

The new plan needs to go even further as follows:

• Connect the Liberty landscaping to the Mill Creek landscaping and construct a public walkway or linear park.

• Set the building back from Commercial Street. What we currently see is the wall of a four story (60 ft. high) building built vertically right at the edge of the public sidewalk, with zero landscaping.

It is public involvement that will make our new police facility a community friendly building and not a forbidding fortress. The public must be heavily involved in both the selection of the project architects that will design the facility and in the design itself.

So far we are not seeing this from the city. The RFP “Request For Proposals” for the architects that will design the facility was issued June 28th with a deadline for submission at the end of July. The RFP states that “a selection committee, comprised of city staff, will be used for the purposes of evaluating all responsive proposals.” It goes on to say that the city staff “reserves the right to conduct interviews, or ask follow-up questions, if they are necessary based on the city’s sole determination.” This is a terrible process. The opposite of what is needed. No public involvement. No city council involvement. An inside job. Maybe the fix is in and the staff has already decided the outcome.

As for the design process itself, it doesn’t get any better. Here is how the process is described in the RFP (with my emphasis): “The consultant will work closely with the core project team consisting of a contracted Owner’s Representative and staff from Police, Public Works and other key internal stakeholders. The architect will report to the Public Works project manager and may occasionally be responsible for presenting project information to executive management, City Council and the public.”  Again, this describes the opposite of a public process. It involves only “internal stakeholders.” The architects “may present” their plans to council and the public. As citizens and taxpayers we should all find this highly objectionable.

There is, of course a better way. We need to insist on a public process, like the charrettes our school district has held in the past, with the architects and the stakeholders, teachers, students, parents, and building users. The architects record all ideas on 3 x 5 cards, and develop the conceptual designs on site, and the public can drop in at appointed times, to interact with the architects, contribute their ideas, and receive an explanation of which are possible to be implemented. That is how a high school is designed. A police station is a publicly funded building too, and those who pay for it should have their say, and be listened to.

Example of successful facility

This last image is a police facility I saw recently that obviously was designed with lots of public input.

It has extensive landscaping and setbacks, and a generous public plaza. Police and the public can interact, and the facility certainly does not portray a fortress image. Instead, it is colorful, welcoming, handsome and encourages the public to visit and utilize the well-landscaped setting.

I can only hope that the city staff sees the error of their ways, or that our city council will set them on the right path of public involvement. If given the opportunity, in a public process, I will make these recommendations that I believe would result in a community friendly police facility for Salem:

• Include generous landscaped setback and yards all around.

• Maintain public access to Mill Creek and create a public walkway and linear park.

• Enlarge the public parking lot into a public plaza, and include basketball hoops so police and local youth can interact, and the public can visit for picnic tables and a chance to meet the police.

• Ensure that the architecture is not a concrete bunker, but is indeed a beautiful public building that the people of Salem love and respect, in the same way that they may grow to love and respect their police force.