Saturday, February 16, 2019

Tsundoku

Just a few of my unread books on architecture.

Life is too short, and weekends are when my life’s deficit of time seems most acute. Regrettably, a normal part of my current routine includes devoting a substantial portion of each Saturday or Sunday (or both) to work in the office. Construction contract administration is sucking up an inordinate amount of my hours and energy. A seemingly endless series of Requests for Information, Construction Change Directives, Change Orders, and submittals make for downright Sisyphean labors. Also vying for my attention is the need to prepare for the two CSI Certification classes I help teach each Monday and Tuesday evening. On top of that, I’m also performing twice this weekend with Eugene Taiko at the annual Oregon Asian Celebration. Something had to give, and that something this time around is a particularly thoughtful blog post. 

By chance, I did discover a new word today that neatly sums up my current state of affairs: Tsundoku. Tsundoku is the Japanese word for the stacks of books you’ve acquired but haven’t read. According to Wikipedia, it combines elements of tsunde-oku (to pile things up ready for later) and dokusho (reading books). I’m not an obsessive collector, but there certainly are more than just a few volumes in my collection awaiting my more devoted attention. The majority of these are books about architecture and architects (what a surprise!). The fact they remain unread isn’t because their initial appeal to me has faded—it’s simply the case that time hasn’t been on my side. 

The news and media website Big Think published a piece by Kevin Dickinson last October titled The Value of Owning More Books Than You Can Read (or how I learned to stop worrying and love my tsundoku). In Dickinson’s estimation, the value of an unread book is in its power to get you to read it. Many unread books around you also remind you of your ignorance, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m looking forward to reading and enjoying all my books. Having many to read and learn from is a source of happiness. 

I didn’t intend this brief post to be a whiny plea for sympathy. I appreciate being busy and having challenging, satisfying work. I just wish every now and then I could enjoy having nothing to do other than curl up with a good book on a dreary winter day. I am fortunate: my collection of unread books--my tsundoku–patiently waits for me.  

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Franklin Boulevard Transformation


Otto Poticha, FAIA, recently sent me an email suggesting the AIA Oregon/Eugene Section Committee on Local Affairs (CoLA) become more actively involved in the City of Eugene’s current planning for major changes to Franklin Boulevard. He rightfully believes the project is too important to the community for CoLA to ignore. Thanks to Otto, it’s clear to me its implications are far-reaching and certainly worthy of my attention and that of all Eugene-based design professionals. The City hopes to transform Franklin Boulevard from an automobile-oriented arterial to a safe, comfortable, high quality, walking, biking, and transit street. Additionally, the project goals include: 
  1. Improving the corridor for businesses, residents, and the university population 
  2. Doubling the BRT lanes
  3. Accommodating motorists and freight
  4. Welcoming people to the city and the University of Oregon 
  5. Making the area attractive, green, and connected 
  6. Changing the street so people walking and cycling are accommodated safely, comfortably, and conveniently
The Franklin Boulevard Transformation project area extends between Alder Street and Interstate 5, and includes Garden Avenue and its connections to Franklin Boulevard. 

The City hired are large team of specialists for the project: 
  • HDR: Traffic analyses, street and intersection design, public transit design, and traffic control 
  • Cogito: Public engagement 
  • Toole Design: Pedestrian and bike accommodation, business relations, street design, and urban design 
  • SERA: Gateways, arrival experience, character
As noted on the project’s web page, the boulevard—with its wide lanes and fast-moving vehicles—can be an uninviting, unsafe, and uncomfortable street. For people who walk, bike, or ride the bus, it can be a significant barrier to getting from place to place, hindering the City’s long-term efforts to reach climate-reduction goals. 

Fortunately, the future of Franklin Boulevard may be bright. If successful, the project will achieve its stated goals, with the street wholly transformed to become a more comfortable connector of places, rather than a divider. Ideally the street will serve all modes of travel, graciously accommodating people who walk, bike, ride the bus, and drive. 

The project kicked off last October and will conclude late this year. The City is providing opportunities for community input throughout the process, including two intensive, multi-day workshops, the first of which occurred in January. That four-day workshop gathered ideas, incorporating them into preliminary design concepts for a transformed Franklin Boulevard. 

A concept image from the January 31, 2019 Franklin Boulevard Transformation reveal presentation

Otto attended the initial workshop, remarking that besides himself, only CoLA member Eric Gunderson was on hand to represent local AIA members. In his typical fashion, Otto quickly cut to the chase: Why no specific mention of the Millrace, the Willamette River, and Judkins Point? Shouldn’t such key physical features be factored into the development of a new vision for Franklin Boulevard? Ditto for the new Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact and its “scientists-only” pedestrian bridge. How will necessary standards for highway utilities and lighting be addressed? 

Why is providing dual lanes for the EmX buses necessary or even desirable? Dual lanes would gobble up valuable ROW, not to mention a massive chunk of the improvement budget. Why not broaden the vision to encompass a greater set of impacts? Imagine how the entire equation might be altered by envisioning another Willamette River bridge. Such a crossing would disperse heavy vehicular traffic. An excessive number of large semi-trailers and log trucks use Franklin Boulevard today because alternative routes do not exist. 

Why do the initial notions emphasize the development of roundabouts as gateways? Otto doesn’t believe a front door should be an intersection; what it should be is a positive space or place. Why no emphases on connections to existing open spaces, such as the meandering path along the Millrace in the vicinity of Franklin and Alder Street? 

As always, Otto is on point. Fundamentally, he doesn’t want to see a renewed Franklin Boulevard realized as a generic set of solutions to a very place-specific problem. Its master plan shouldn’t be a mere assemblage of assorted ideas. The process shouldn’t be reduced to a multiple-choice exercise. The boulevard is a significant public space and deserves to be planned with purpose. Design does matter. 

Notwithstanding his cogent thoughts to the contrary, Otto considered the initial workshop to be a good start for the project. Moving forward, the City is seeking input and answers to four discussion questions to help guide and shape the corridor’s future. 

Beyond the survey input, the City envisions the following activities: 
  • February – May 2019: Project Alternatives Evaluation and Screening 
  • May 2019: Design Refinement Workshop #2 
  • May – August 2019: Project Alternatives Design and Refinement 
  • August – November 2019: Corridor Analysis and Recommendations

Ultimately, there will be a report documenting the analysis of the opportunities and constraints involved with transforming Franklin Boulevard, as well as final recommendations for how to design and implement the plan. The incorporation of public input throughout is important, and it’s especially important for local design professionals to weigh in during the process. Ideally, our voices will contribute to a design for a transformed Franklin Boulevard possessing a true sense of place, while also being pleasant, accessible, and safe for people using all modes of transportation. 

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Where the City Meets the River

Early (January 2018) rendering of the proposed downtown riverfront development (SERA Architects)

The January 25 edition of The Register-Guard noted the signing of the formal agreement between the City of Eugene and Portland-based Williams/Dame & Atkins (WDA) for the redevelopment of the former Eugene Water & Electric Board property along Eugene’s downtown riverfront. Accompanying the piece was a loosely sketched rendering of the proposed development (see above). 

The admittedly uninspiring image took members of the AIA Oregon-Eugene Section Committee on Local Affairs (CoLA) by surprise. A stirred sense of immediacy sparked CoLA’s ensuing, spirited discussion (by email): the project is happening, and it’s about to leap from paper to reality. Was this the best WDA and its architects (SERA) could come up with? The rendering suggested a trite, generic response absent qualities expressive of its unique setting along the Willamette River. Indeed, why feature this one perspective, and why such a seemingly random assortment of banal brick boxes? Did the image portend a failure to measure up to promises made to the community for developing a lively and inviting district reconnecting Eugene to the river that runs through it? 

I chimed in even though I recently relinquished my seat on CoLA to make room for new blood around the table. I agreed with the others in finding the published rendering underwhelming. I echoed the consensus that if WDA wanted to create a buzz about their project, this wasn’t the way to do it, but I also suggested reserving judgment until there was an opportunity to see more. 

It turns out withholding fire was the judicious course to take, at least for now. The exchange among the members of CoLA prompted me to learn more. I discovered the offending rendering was only one of a series produced by SERA more than a year ago for WDA’s presentation of their initial vision for the downtown riverfront site to Eugene City Council. That presentation included a wealth of additional information, including a series of diagrams highlighting a thoughtful evolution of the 2010 EWEB Riverfront Master Plan and the 2012 Specific Area Plan. The newly refined development scheme builds upon the community’s vision expressed in the earlier plans, maximizes value for the public realm and private investment, is designed for the realities of today’s marketplace, and integrates with the City’s planning for the future riverfront park. 


Another one of the images from the January 2018 WDA presentation

So, I’ll criticize the R-G for choosing to accompany its recent article with a dated, preliminary sketch rather than a more current image or a series of more representative views from different vantages (it may be that SERA did not make newer renderings available to the paper). A year is an eternity in the evolution of a design concept. SERA is too talented a firm not to have honed its recommendations for buildings truly responsive to their unique setting. I suspect we’ll soon see detailed designs for the first of the development’s new buildings, at which time we’ll all have a legitimate opportunity to decide whether they hit the mark. The lesson here is to have all the facts at hand before choosing to respond in a public forum. 


Riverfront Development Master Plan by SERA Architects for William/Dame & Atkins 

What the City presently has available for scrutiny on its Downtown Riverfront Project web page today is WDA’s and SERA’s year-old presentation rather than anything newer. Presuming the proposed plan expressed in that presentation remains current, it is fair game for comment. 

I believe WDA and SERA are saying the right things. They envision a flexible framework, as opposed to a fixed plan, citing the difficulty of predicting the future and how their past developments occurred in ways they could not entirely imagine up front. Their master plan emphasizes “seamless” connections that SERA’s designers hope will feel like they have always been there. An extension of 5th Avenue will be a pedestrian-oriented “festival” street, with a straight shot to a riverfront plaza/overlook. There will be a connection to the eastern terminus of 8th Avenue at the location of the existing railroad crossing. WDA envisions a new, landmark pedestrian bridge over the river, providing convenient access to Alton Baker Park, as well as other links to the existing riverfront trail system. The plan promises “site porosity and transparency.” 

WDA will build the project in phases, in their words “organically and at the right pace,” with ultimate completion years from now. When fully built-out, the plan will include more than two-hundred apartments, seventy market-rate townhouses, a hotel, a restaurant, retail space, and an affordable housing complex with seventy-five units. A key to the project’s success will be attracting people to live downtown. WDA believes the site’s unparalleled setting and the right mix of amenities will sell themselves, and they’re probably right. 

SERA’s recommendations include limiting the size of the buildings, such that no one structure is taller than four stories. Additionally, they’re advocating for active ground-floor spaces, quality building materials, and a fine-grained scale. In the words of SERA principal Kurt Schultz, AIA, “the buildings shouldn’t appear like they’ve come from outer space.” This may suggest a proven, conservative formula for the architecture, though ideally one that will steer clear of an overtly ersatz, historicizing expression. 


Bird's eye view looking toward the northwest from the south end of the downtown riverfront project site

I won’t mind if the majority of the development primarily becomes a backdrop for its riverfront setting and the public spaces its buildings help shape. I don’t think a huge dose of architectural bravura is called for here. The exceptions may be the proposed restaurant building, which by virtue of its siting adjacent to the 5th Avenue river overlook and plaza warrants pavilion-like treatment, and the new pedestrian bridge crossing to Alton Baker Park. Both of these have the potential to be postcard-worthy icons for Eugene. 

One thing that does bother me about a single development parcel like this in a city of Eugene’s size is that it may be too large relative to the urban fabric into which it is being inserted or appended to. Ideally, WDA will indeed develop the property incrementally and organically over time, though a certain critical mass will be necessary to begin with. In a perfect world, WDA would not be working with what is effectively a clean slate and starting almost everything from scratch. Thankfully, the City retained the Steam Plant, which will provide a modicum of historical texture for the site. My biggest fear is the completed project will feel sterile, lacking the richness that accompanies neighborhoods featuring successive layers of development.(1) 


Steam Plant vision by the deChase Miksis/Arcimoto/Rowell Brokaw team 

Speaking of the Steam Plant, the City of Eugene is seeking comments(2) from the public on its recently unveiled redevelopment proposal by a separate team led by Mark Miksis of deChase Miksis Development and Mark Frohnmayer of Arcimoto. As noted on that project’s website, the Steam Plant (completed in 1931 and in use until 2012) is “an iconic representation of our community’s history, ripe with possibility for the future,” and “the last physical representation of the birthplace of industry for the southern Willamette Valley.”  Mark Frohnmayer believes the project is an “opportunity to build something that is undeniably Eugene . . . that’s infused with our spirit of innovation, that’s at the nexus point on the river between downtown and the university, and that truly invites community participation on multiple levels.” 

The Steam Plant team’s website includes a video and draft renderings (by Rowell Brokaw Architects) suggesting the abundant potential of the redevelopment. It all seems very promising: the project team is a high-powered amalgam of innovative, locally-grown talents. I particularly like the suggested pairing of a public part of the cultural landscape with co-working/shared office space within the building as a way to make the project financially sustainable. The Steam Plan website also includes a link to the City of Eugene’s online survey, which will be open for public comment through February 19. 


Future interior view of the Steam Plant (rendering by Rowell Brokaw Architects)

In my opinion, the successful repurposing of the Steam Plant is critical to the fortunes of the overall riverfront development. The renovation of the building is ambitious. It is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to honor the historic significance of the downtown riverfront site, and to link the heart of our city to the river by helping fulfill the “Willamette to Willamette” initiative. In the words of the deChase Miksis/Arcimoto/Rowell Brokaw team, “the rest of the [riverfront] district will be enhanced and will flourish if the Steam Plant—with its history, grit, and toughness—is the authentic anchor and connector that the public has been asking for.” 

I’m guardedly optimistic about both WDA’s riverfront development plans and the future of the Steam Plant project. If both are fully realized as their respective teams envision, Eugene might finally embrace the Willamette River in a manner befitting the waterway’s historical significance to our community. 

(1)  The City is about to remove the old, visually prominent bow-truss building adjacent to the Coburg Road viaduct. WDA considers it “an obstacle to getting the maximum value out of the property.” 

(2)  Representatives from the Steam Plant Team and the City of Eugene are hosting an Open House on February 7 from 4-7 p.m. at the EWEB Community Room. They will also be present at several community events to answer questions and get feedback. Community members will have the opportunity to speak with the team and learn about the concepts for the Steam Plant, as well as take virtual tours of building.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Oregon’s Economic and Construction Outlook

Josh Lehner, Senior Economist, Oregon Office of Economic Analysis

The CSI Willamette Valley Chapter originally intended its January meeting to feature a forecast of the Lane County economy and construction outlook for 2019. That meeting will still occur, but the chapter leadership postponed it until February 27, by which time this year’s economic trends may already be well-established. In lieu of the customary January meeting, CSI-WVC organized a lunch presentation this past week by Josh Lehner, Senior Economist with the State of Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis

I joined approximately fifteen others at Poppi’s Anatolia Restaurant in downtown Eugene to hear from Josh. He is an excellent speaker, amply demonstrating his comprehensive knowledge about factors in position to impact prospects for the local construction industry. These range from the macro-level down to dynamics very much specific to the Eugene-Springfield economy. 

Josh began by stating what has been clearly evident, which is that economic growth has been robust across the country for the past decade (the 10-year expansion of the national economy is a U.S. record). Increases in workers’ wages have been especially strong in Oregon during that period, averaging between 3 and 4 percent per year. Lane County employment has rebounded since its pre-Great Recession (before 2008) peak to the point where all industries are now at historic highs (the outlier is manufacturing, which witnessed a 40% drop in its numbers, from which it has yet to recover). The architecture and engineering fields now number some 15,000 employees statewide, with an average annual salary of $80,000. 

Not surprisingly, Oregon’s population expansion has matched that of its economy. Salem leads the state’s metropolitan statistical areas in terms of population growth. Here in Lane County, the majority of newcomers have settled in Eugene, with far fewer choosing to locate in Springfield for some reason. 

A direct consequence of the strong local economy is a housing affordability crisis, with the number of new housing units being built falling short of demand, driving up prices. Exacerbating the problem is how tight bank lending has been since the Great Recession. Additionally, the urban growth boundaries around the perimeters of each of the state’s cities and metropolitan areas control urban expansion onto farm and forest lands but also limit the supply available for new homebuilding. The residential construction sector has thus struggled to keep pace with the level of need. 

Josh pointed to several factors at the federal level that may influence how Lane County’s economy plays out in 2019. There is a troubling level of bad debt on the corporate side. Equally concerning may be the Federal Reserve’s shifts on monetary policy, and the Administration’s views on trade and taxes. On the flip side, the exponential growth of national debt and trade imbalances have yet to prove a barrier to growth. The direct impact of the recently imposed tariffs on trade has likewise been minimal, only amounting to 0.2% of Oregon’s GDP. The recent, record-breaking government shutdown began to impact the national economy but is now in abeyance. 

Generally, the economic outlook for 2019 remains rosy, though prospects for 2020 appear less so as economists predict recession-related risks will be elevated by then.

So, what do the latest local statistics say? Josh reported the rate of growth does appear to be lessening, and with it the pace of Oregon’s population growth. Domestic in-migration has been a prime driver of the state’s economy in recent years, so a decline in new residents may augur a possible economic slowdown in Lane County; however, this doesn’t mean a retraction is in order, simply that growth is tempering. A reason why further expansion is unlikely is the tight labor market, in which demand by employers exceeds the available supply of workers. This problem is particularly pronounced in the construction industry as shortages of laborers and skilled tradespeople are widespread. Current forecasts do predict levels of employment in Oregon’s construction-related industries will remain on the plus side for several years. 

I’m no economist but it seems to me a major consideration that isn’t being factored into the analyses by Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis and others is the existential threat to all of humanity posed by anthropogenic global warming. Perhaps this is attributable to how unprecedented the threat is. Without a doubt, the worldwide impacts are becoming increasingly significant and hard to ignore. These impacts will only intensify and have an effect on everyone, including all of us here in Lane County. The pessimist in me says our planet has already passed a tipping point toward an unavoidably apocalyptic fate. Our chickens are coming home to roost, and with them will come massive economic upheavals. In my mind, it’s not a matter of “if,” only a question about “when” everyone will begin to see these effects. 

*    *    *    *    *    *

Is it curious the chapter chose to conduct both a January lunch meeting and February’s coming chapter meeting on the same topic? Yes, though I believe February’s session may include a panel of economists offering a broad range of perspectives. That said, February’s speakers will be hard-pressed to outdo Josh’s first-rate synopsis of his office’s analyses and predictions for 2019. Big thanks to Josh for sharing his time with us.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

A New Value Base

Photo by Ian Mackey on Unsplash

The following excerpt from Bill Kleinsasser’s rambling, 1981 edition of his self-published textbook Synthesis is a lament that remains as timely now as it was when it was first written. Fundamentally, Bill espoused a humanist approach to designing our built environment, one grounded upon how we experience, identify, and interpret our surroundings. He promoted learning from history, embracing common sense, and designing places first and foremost for people. What concerned him was seeing architects instead too often surrender to financial exigency, flounder with cultural illiteracy, lean upon the crutch of technology, and generally ignore the creation of supportive settings.

As I’ve said before, I’m compelled to feature Bill’s writings here on my blog because his legacy is otherwise non-existent online and risks being lost to time. The audience for Synthesis was essentially limited to his immediate students. An increasing number of us are moving toward the back half of our careers or are already retired, so the opportunities to directly apply the principles he espoused in our work are dwindling. My hope is by publishing his words here that some among the newer generations of designers will also come to appreciate the value base he embraced.

A New Value Base
For many years an unbalanced and limited value base has caused environmental development to be less than satisfactory: often unsupportive, constraining, and rigid. Several prevailing practices have been the instruments of this:
  • The man-made environment is usually developed in large chunks and discontinuously, both in time and space, as if each place had to be auspicious and autonomous or, at least, as if each had to be done all at once and once and for all. This practice has caused tremendous, often fatal, impact on what exists, and has spawned the habit of not developing the spaces with the greatest experiential potential—those between buildings. The meaning that can be provided by the undesignated, relatively open character of these spaces is very great and there is no doubt that they have contributed much, not only to the experiential richness of many cities (especially some European cities), but to the places at other, smaller scales as well.
  • Economic and technological considerations often dominate the design of the environment instead of facilitating humane development. The experiential character of places is determined by land-value formulae, technical convenience, codes, and arbitrary budgets instead of by the careful, thoughtful consideration of the experiential supports and opportunities that will be needed as time passes and as circumstances change. 
  • Very often the eventual users of the environment are not consulted about its design, causing immediate personal and group misfits. 
  • Very often available patterns which explain the success or failure of places are not used. 
  • Very often the environment is designed for the first purpose and first users only, causing very rapid obsolescence. 
  • Very often users who must or wish to stay in places have no way of adjusting, personalizing, or otherwise effecting change to those places. This not only renders the places difficult to possess, but causes them to be, to a degree, out of control. 
  • Very often some form of management dictates too much regarding the use of the environment, thereby spoiling potential supportiveness. Consequently, the spaces that people get to live in have many problems:
    1. Missing facilities . . . they just aren’t there.
    2. Inaccessibility caused by inappropriate relationships among facilities and places of habitation.
    3. Misfits caused by sameness or rigidity. Life circumstances of people are often very different; therefore life spaces mush also be different . . . and they must change as people change.
    4. Misfits caused by change . . . peoples’ surrounding are often ruined as far as they are concerned, and no one knows.
    5. Unsupportiveness caused by inappropriate spatial character.

We need better methods of programming and designing the environment, especially the shared, public environment.

WK / 1981