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Revamped pedestrian mall in Salem moving smoothly through hurdles

Posted by Ryan Mooney  October 25, 2012 08:48 AM

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Photo by Ryan Mooney

The Essex Street Pedestrian Mall, shown here during Haunted Happenings in October, rarely gets so much foot traffic on an average day. Renovations aim to change that.

The design for the second phase of work aimed at giving a fairly comprehensive facelift to the Essex Pedestrian Mall will be back before the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) for final approval after the Design Review Board approved it unanimously Wednesday night.

The SRA had passed the design onto the Design Review Board with the recommendation that members approve it with specific recommendations for any changes that should be made.

The Design Review Board wants new light fixtures to be shielded on the side closest to buildings - to avoid light pollution in residences - and wants the designers to look more closely at the base of the fountain at Washington Street for safety issues.

Otherwise, the design is looking good and quickly clearing the necessary hurdles. City officials hope that work can resume and finish in the spring.

Representatives from Boston-based Utile Design and Landworks Studios appeared before the board on Wednesday to discuss the design in detail, which Elizabeth Christoforetti, of Utile, is aimed at "opening up" the mall by improving sight lines and creating more clear lanes of travel, while not changing the integrity of the historic area.

"Really the goal here is to look at Essex Street, keep Essex Street exactly as it is, except make it a little bit better," Christoforetti said. "Begin to think about a renovation of this area as something that would happen incrementally, and as though no one would actually feel change. That it would happen, and somehow the next day it would become better, but nobody really knew why."

The first phase of work, which took place in August and September, focused on removing landscaping beds that obstructed pedestrian views and walking paths, and replacing them with tables and chairs. The second phase of work includes replacing seven unhealthy trees, removing two more planters, removing a kiosk, relocating mailboxes, and removing some cobblestone. Any cobblestone that remains will be replaced.

After receiving feedback from residents at the SRA meeting, the Salem Town Pump Fountain near Washington Street - which holds a bit of historical significance representing the city's first well - will be restored, rather than replaced.

Part of the restoration includes drastically reducing the size of the worn-out base to reduce the tripping hazard. Board member Ernest DeMaio suggested that making the base too small could actually increase the tripping hazard because people would be less likely to notice it as they are walking, and suggested designers look into making it a baseless fountain, hence the stipulation for designers to examine it more closely before going before the SRA again.

DeMaio also suggested the possibility of placing a plaque next to the fountain that would explain its historical significance, which many people do not realize. According to board member Michael Blier, there is a short story explaining the fountain's significance on the back of it, and the removal of a large landscaping bed behind the fountain should make it more visible. But a plaque someday is not out of the realm of possibility.

At least one board member expressed a desire to see the fountain removed. When public meetings were first being held two years ago to discuss possible renovations to the mall, the idea of allowing cars to use the road - currently it is only open to delivery and emergency vehicles - at certain times of the day or year was floated out by some, and Helen Sides says that keeping the fountain where it is prevents that possibility.

"I think it sort of makes it a done deal that this never becomes a street, and I feel like that's kind of taking that big decision and making it," Sides said. "I don't feel that that was resolved in the public meetings, that that was the position the city would take."

The budget for the second phase of work has not been finalized, but an estimated $60,000 was spent during the first phase of work, and the entire project is being funded by the city.

Ryan Mooney can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mooney_ryan.

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