By Shelley A. Sackett, correspondent
289 Derby Street is a half-acre parking lot that directly borders the South River. The site hosts a pop-up carnival during Halloween each year and little else.
All that is about to change.
Salem acquired the parcel in 2016 and, with a recent $750,000 state grant for construction, the City hired CBA Landscape Architects to design the new public space that will connect downtown Salem to its waterfront.
CBA Landscape Architects engaged Claudia Paraschiv as a consultant for this placemaking phase. She is a public artist, urbanist, and registered architect in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and owner of Studioful -Architecture, Community Art, and Neighborhood Design.
She founded the Salem Public Space Project to facilitate these placemaking meetings and engaged John Andrews, of Creative Salem, to co-facilitate. He built the 289 Derby St. website that included the public input surveys that were crucial to the information gathering process.
After a series of four 289 Derby Community Design Events, the permanent park design was unveiled at the fifth and final June 21 event, and it is a curvy beauty.
The whole process took a mere five weeks and involved the participation of community members in an exciting and innovative approach to collaborative public space planning called placemaking.
First coined in 2010, the term describes a hands-on approach for improving a neighborhood, city, or region by inspiring people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of their community. Typically, placemaking involves a series of collaborative, inclusive meetings among stakeholders, municipal and professional representatives, and facilitators.
The goal for the 289 Derby Street public space project, according to Deputy Director of the Department of Planning and Community Development Kathleen M. Winn, is to have a place that is both beautiful year-round and flexible enough to accommodate different types of programming.
Unique to this project, however, was the process used to achieve that goal. Rather than engaging in the traditional top-down practice of having CBA Landscape Architects design the space first and then ask the public to retrofit it to specific use, the community meetings were used to hear from residents and other stakeholders what they wanted to use the space for before they designed it.
Anyone interested would be invited to join the conversation and have a say and a vote in how the 289 Derby space would be used and what it would look like.
“The idea is to bring the project to the people who will use the space and then have it designed to fit their desires,” Paraschiv explained.
Members of the Salem community were invited to help design the city’s public space at the vacant 289 Derby Street lot during four community events that took place on site from May 24 to June 14.
Each 289 Derby meeting gave participants a hands-on opportunity to experience the different activities the space might sponsor, such as music, yoga, gardening, games, outdoor movies and even paddle-boarding on the South River.
“The space was transformed to show people literally, ‘look how cool this could be!’” Paraschiv said.
The first event, “Dance & Design”, featured performances by local dance groups and a chalkboard wall where attendees were invited to write their favorite activities.
“Meet & Share” offered the opportunity to share personal visions of the public space’s character, programming, meaning and culture; games and activities were the focus of “Plan & Play.”
Both Paraschiv and Andrews couldn’t be more pleased with the process and its outcome.
“This was a grassroots effort to design and construct an otherwise empty lot. The idea is to try to bring it to the people who will use the space and then have it designed to fit those needs,” said Paraschiv,
“One thing we learned during placemaking is what a powerful tool the community and the municipality has with this process under the right direction,” Andrew said.
At the fourth meeting on June 14, approximately 200 residents local food and the opportunity to review and comment on the final two design options, one straight and one curvy.
By a margin of 70 to 18, the curvy plan was the overwhelming favorite.
The final collective schematic plan shows a balance green space and paved surfaces with an amphitheater-like area, lawn with shade, a multi-use stage and a variety of areas for meetings, play and chance encounters.
Some of the possible green space uses include botanical gardens and a labyrinth that could double as a space for group exercise and a small skating rink in the winter.
“It’s hard to believe that just five weeks ago we had our first listening session with ‘Dance & Design,’” said Paraschiv.
CBA Landscape Architects is continuing the design work and developing cost estimates. Permitting is underway and the City expects to have documents ready for late August, according to Winn.
Because the lot is the site of October’s Derby Street Carnival, construction could not begin before November.
In her summary report, Paraschiv credits local support for helping the Community Engagement achieve its three objectives of: designing a schematic plan direction with strong public support; creating simulated events of feasible, actual use; and inspiring local stewardship of some key elements of the park and programming for 289 Derby.
“This permanent park design is a collaborative collection process by the people who came to the meetings and the architects,” Paraschiv said with obvious pride.
Andrews believes that those vested in the 289 Derby collaborative process might likewise influence the larger long-term project of creating a connection between downtown Salem and the waterfront.
“One thing is certain,” added Andrews, “It really drives home the emphasis on making a harbor walk a feasible and existing part of Salem’s future.”
For more information, visit salempublicspaceproject.com and CreativeSalem.com/289Derby.