Wanted: a vision for Salem’s vacant north downtown block

Salem leaders hope a vacant block downtown will become a catalyst for developing the north side of the city’s core.

City leaders are asking developers for proposals to build on the lot they’re calling “Block 50,” which once housed the old Union Gospel Mission men’s shelter, Saffron Supply Co. and several smaller businesses.

The city vision for the block is a development that combines affordable and market-rate housing with retail and other commercial use, including food and drink, according to a city announcement.

The block, located between Northeast Commercial, Chemeketa, Front and Center streets, is one of the largest remaining undeveloped properties downtown.

“We want something there to be catalytic for this area because we need it,” said Sheri Wahgren, Salem’s downtown revitalization manager.

Plans have been years in the making. Salem’s urban renewal agency has purchased lots on the block as they’ve become available, starting in 2019 with four parcels including the former home of Saffron Supply Co.

The final purchase came in the summer of 2021 when the Union Gospel Mission moved to its new headquarters just north of downtown. The city acquired the land for $1.575 million.

Demolition on the block began last December.

Now, city officials are asking interested developers to submit a plan detailing their experience working on similar projects and what they would do with the site.

“The vision for BLOCK 50 is housing or offices with a mix of active services on the ground floor, including restaurants, coffee shops, brew pubs, a grocery store or other retail,” the city’s announcement says.

Any development would include a requirement that 20% of apartment units be affordable to people making 80% of Salem’s median family income. 

Wahgren said as of today, that would mean one bedroom apartments that rent for $978 to $1,256 monthly, and two bedroom apartments renting for $1,203 to $1,508.

There’s no purchase price set for the lots, and the city’s request isn’t asking developers what they’d be willing to pay. Wahgren said rather than a traditional bid, her office plans to review proposals and work closely with the team that’s selected to develop the site.

Purchase price would factor in once the city is evaluating finalists and considering an agreement.

They wanted to leave options open for developers to express interest in a portion of the site or suggest other possibilities, she said.

“We want the process to be something we can sit down and talk through,” she said.

While downtown has seen substantial new construction and investment over the past five years, the north side of the neighborhood remains underdeveloped, with multiple vacant properties and opportunities for growth, Wahgren said.

That includes the vacant former home of J.C. Penney at 305 Liberty St. N.E., and Liberty Plaza.

Developers have until 3 p.m. Aug. 31 to complete a proposal including their vision for the site and their qualifications and for carrying out the plan they outline.

“Basically we’re asking the development community to tell us about their experience and what their ideas are for the site, aligning with our goals for the site,” Wahgren said.

More information about the process is on the city’s website.

Wahgren said she expects to review proposals, interview finalists and make a selection by the end of the year.

“We see it as a very important site,” she said. “Fingers crossed we get something good.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.