Whatever ill-advised committee made the decision to build Salem City Hall in a Brutalist style partially redeemed themselves by including a raised plaza and park on the building’s north side. Sadly, however, they are in similar condition to a great deal of Salem’s public infrastructure: neglected.
An elevated plaza runs between Liberty and Commercial Streets along along the north face of City Hall. Its main feature is concrete planters, some of which form the perimeter and others are standalone. The concrete is aging and the plantings are largely neglected.
This shallow rectangular planter (above) greets visitors who walk up from the ground level parking lot. It contains two conifers in need of pruning, random clumps of blue oat grass, weeds, and a neglected rock fountain. The planter begs to be treated as a Japanese garden, with carefully clipped pines, the existing boulders, and low maintenance gravel or native moss. One of the two conifers needs to be relocated or removed within the planter to eliminate the left-right symmetry. Perhaps one or two woody shrubs could be added.
A close-up look (below) at the rectangular planter box shows the small (probably too small) boulder fountain. The round rock base has aged nicely and has a patina of moss and lichen, as do the other small boulders. They are surrounded, unfortunately, by weeds and the blue oat grass, which is out of scale with the rest of the elements.
The rectangular planter is flanked by staircases on the east and west. Immediately behind it is a low, raised platform (below) that serves no evident purpose. It reminds me of platforms found in Chinese courtyards and plazas that were used to stage religious and civic rituals. Today, they often serve as stages for potted plants and penjing (bonsai) displays. In Salem, this platform could be used for potted plants, an art instillation, or topical informational signage.
Many of the planters are concrete squares. The one shown below has a tree and a nice display of colorful day lilies. What it is missing from this planter is some trailing plants that would break up the mass of the planter and disguise the material’s poor condition. Other planters have trees or shrubs (rhododendron) but no ground cover other than weeds. In the absence of living ground cover, whether native moss that colonizes the planter or ornamental plants selected by the city, the City could use crushed river rock, mint hay, bark dust (even arborist chips, which are visually unappealing) to reduce the weeds, improve the appearance, and improve the health of the plants. One planter was empty.
The trees in the planters were very poorly maintained. The tree shown below is representative of a majority of the trees in the planters. The poor condition of trees at City Hall’s is both an embarrassment and a metaphor for much of our city’ s infrastructure.
City Hall’s park has a great deal potential. It is anchored by a large pond that sits within a clipped greensward. The pond is fed by a diverted stream that flows in from the southeast and then debouches into Pringle Creek through a contrived spillway on the north side. An oval concrete path encircles the pond. Benches are thoughtfully placed around the pond, some are open to the sky and others are shaded. The park’s plant material, however is neglected.
The park’s north side is bounded by a hedge of what looks to be Ilex crenata, which screens City Hall’s ground floor parking structure. The photograph above shows maple saplings rising up through what should be a dense hedge. It’s hard to know, but those saplings may be 5 years old.
The photograph to the right shows an individual Ilex crenata specimen with a young tree or shrub growing through it and grasses and invasive English ivy at its base. The shrub will likely hang on for many more years. Eventually, absent maintenance, it will be split apart by the tree growing through it and will serve as a living scaffold for the English ivy before it is smothered to death.
The presence of English ivy, one of the Northwest’s most damaging invasive species, can be found throughout City Hall grounds. It climbs bridge struts, threatens plants, and serves as a pervasive ground cover. The photograph on the left is of English ivy as a ground cover around the northern perimeter of City Hall’s parking structure.
Himalayan blackberry, the kudzu of the Pacific Northwest, is prolific in riparian zones in Salem. In the photograph below, invasive blackberry forms a thicket between the mowed greensward and Pringle Creek. If you look closely, you can see English ivy climbing the Liberty Street bridge.
Interestingly, Salem Revised Code 50.705 reads “No owner shall cause or permit noxious or rank vegetation upon premises or in the right- of-way of a street abutting any premises.” English ivy and Himalayan blackberry are on Oregon’s list of noxious weeds.
A Treatment Plan for City Hall’s Plaza and Park
The park and plaza at Salem City Hall can be significantly improved with some new plant material and maintenance. Below are a set of simple suggestions. A landscape architect could develop far more creative suggestions.
- The plaza’s central planter should be renovated. The framing, some of the plant material, and our Pacific Northwest environment call out for a Japanese approach to the renovation. The conifers should be moved within the planter and heavily pruned. A tall boulders or three should be added to the existing low boulders. Gravel, moss, or a low grass should serve as ground cover. A broadleaf evergreen shrub or three (i.e. camellia) should be considered.
- The existing trees in the square planters should be removed and replaced. There are a number of deciduous and broadleaf evergreen that would do well in the planters and that would require little water in the summer. I’m partial to deciduous crape myrtle and evergreen Osmanthus fragrans, but I’m sure there are native options.
- There are several approaches to the square planters in addition to the installing news trees. First, the planters would benefit from cladding over the existing concrete I’m partial to wood, but other materials would work. In terms of plant material and mulch, options include: (a) tree with gravel mulch, (b) tree with organic mulch, which would encourage the colonization of native mosses, (c) tree with upright and trailing perennials, and (d) tree with low-growing ground cover.
- The perimeter planters, which largely contained hedged rhododendron, would benefit from regularly mulching. Here, crushed river rock or pea gravel would work well, or large bark chips. Fine mulch would require regular weeding or the application of chemicals.
- The ivy needs used as ground cover around the parking structure needs to be removed and replaced with a more appropriate ground cover. Northwest native options include wood sorrel, native strawberry species, and wild ginger., The same is true for the blackberry growing between the park and Pringle Creek. The city has extensive experience rehabilitating riparian corridors with native plants.
- The park needs an extensive multi-year program of weeding and pruning the trees and shrubs.
- The park would benefit from consistent signage. Currently, there are a few signs that identify trees or landscape features. They typeface on some signs is wearing out, and the fact that some plants and shrubs are identified and others are not makes the signage appear random.
There are many more options. One option is to re-design the landscape with a sophisticated, low maintenance native plant scheme that uses grasses and forbs instead of clipped turf.
The Willamette Valley was once an oak savannah. We could recreate that habitat at City Hall’s park. It would benefit local wildlife, reduce maintenance costs, and showcase a habitat that is not only extremely rare but uniquely ours.