Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Highest and Best Use?

This Monday, July 14, 2008, the Eugene City Council and Urban Renewal Agency (URA) will act upon the recommendations of City staff and a citizen’s committee regarding the five proposals(1) submitted for proposed redevelopment of the “Sears pit” and parking lot north of the Eugene Public Library on 10th Avenue. The decision that the council and URA make will significantly impact the course and momentum of future downtown redevelopment.

Two of the five proposals lead the pack: Portland developer Opus Northwest’s proposed six-story student-oriented apartment building, and Eugene-based WG Development’s five-story office/apartment mixed-use design. City staff favors the $40 million Opus scheme, citing the developer’s financial strength and readiness to proceed immediately as the decisive factors influencing the recommendation. The Eugene Redevelopment Advisory Committee endorsed the $28 million WG plan, primarily on the strength of its mixed-use program, which would include space for Pacific University’s Eugene presence in addition to a variety of market-rate apartments.

Setting aside for the moment the relative merits of these two proposals, it seems that no one has yet articulated an unassailable argument regarding what form of development is most desirable or appropriate for the half block north of the library. What is the highest and best use for this site? There is no shortage of opinions from armchair urbanists. Generally, the opinions reflect one of two opposing views: either preservation of the site as open space or intense development in pursuit of the larger goals of compact urban growth and downtown revitalization.

Preservation of the Site as Open Space
Those who believe that the half block should be preserved as open space generally favor its development as a green urban park. UO Assistant Professor of Architecture and Landscape Architecture Mark Gillem, AIA, contends that the City’s courting of developers with public subsidies such as tax abatements in the pursuit of downtown redevelopment is ill-advised. According to Mark, this is because public subsidies of private development skew the market, deterring competing projects or leading others to demand equal treatment.(2) By contrast, investment in public infrastructure, such as a park, may be a more effective and equitable catalyst for redevelopment. “Build it, and they will come” is Mark’s mantra, as long as the park is skillfully designed in accordance with a set of principles that he and his students have developed. A great urban park should be:
  • Located in the heart of downtown
  • Open to many uses
  • Surrounded by homes and shops
  • Shaded by tremendous trees
  • Bordered by streets with parking
  • Maintained and secured by the City

Ether Short Park in Vancouver, Washington, is an example of a successful downtown park whose design adheres to the listed principles and has sparked redevelopment in that city’s core.

Typical Saturday Market scene at the Eugene Park Blocks

My take on the concept of an urban park opposite the library is that a lack of open space is not what Eugene’s downtown suffers. For example, we have the more centrally located Park Blocks that sit astride Oak Street. The Park Blocks already abide by the majority of the principles (with the exception of being surrounded by homes, although the historic Tiffany Building with its upper-floor apartments borders part of one edge), supporting such diverse activities as the Farmer’s Market, Saturday Market, and political rallies. The Park Blocks are a well-used lunchtime destination for downtown office workers when the weather is nice. With further investment – perhaps including removal and redevelopment of the adjacent “butterfly” parking lot across 8th Street as additional green space – they have the potential to reinvigorate downtown in the way that Mark Gillem suggests is possible. However, in his January 24, 2008, essay in the Eugene Weekly, Mark dismissed the Park Blocks as “undersized and over-paved,” even though their aggregate area exceeds that of the Sears pit and its neighboring parking lot.(3) The Sears site also lacks mature shade trees, whereas the Park Blocks have a sizeable collection of them. I fail to see why the Park Blocks could not, with some improvement, exactly serve the role for downtown that advocates of developing the Sears site as an urban green have championed.

Eugene’s downtown largely lacks the cohesive fabric of buildings and outdoor rooms that is necessary to provide a supportive backdrop for the urban experience; indeed, there is an overabundance of single-story buildings that cannot adequately define a street wall, barren parking lots, and under-utilized public plazas. The perpetuation of the existing Sears site as open space isn’t likely to repair this loose fabric, nor is the success of the downtown or the library contingent upon its preservation as such. In fact, the library’s design team (of which I was a member) did not presuppose that such breathing room was necessary to complement the design of the building.

Intense Development
Planners want to bolster downtown Eugene’s role as the region’s center for housing, employment, entertainment, recreation and cultural activities. Toward that end, the 2000 Vision for Downtown Eugene and the 2004 Downtown Plan outlined the preferred attributes of future projects in the downtown core. These include:

  • A diverse mix of uses that energize and enliven the streets
  • Active ground floors, such as retail and active office spaces
  • Dense residential development, preferably owner occupied
  • Employment centers offering high-quality jobs and extended hours of occupancy

Dense downtown development should also be consistent with the City’s goal of compact urban growth, countering pressures to expand the urban growth boundary by offering more opportunities for housing and employment within the center of the metropolitan area rather than at its periphery. Intense development of the downtown is necessary to realize the City’s vision. The construction of a significant, multi-story, mixed-use structure is, in my opinion, the highest and best use for the Sears pit and the adjacent parking lot. This is the appropriate response given the broader physical and historic context of downtown Eugene.(4)

The Opus Northwest Proposal

The RFP for the “10th & Charnelton Development Site,” as the City refers to the property, favored proposals that feature most, if not all, of the preferred attributes. Therefore, passing judgment upon the extent to which the Opus and WG proposals satisfy this criterion is fair game. In this regard, Opus Northwest’s student apartment building (designed by PIVOT Architecture) should be marked down as it lacks the desired diversity of uses. Although it would be an example of dense residential development, it would be targeted to a mono-culture of college students rather than a variety of household types with a varied demographic. The small retail component of the project would likewise be student-centric, and represents the extent of employment opportunities that would be generated by the project. Overall, the risk is that the development would be a segregated enclave, albeit comprised of a dynamic, young, and educated populace. On the plus side of the ledger, the proximity of the Lane Transit District Eugene Station would provide convenient public transportation to the UO campus from downtown so that the students’ reliance upon the use of automobiles is minimized.

The WG Development Proposal

By the measure of the City’s own goals for downtown, the WG proposal should rank higher than the Opus project: It does include the desired mix of housing (with a variety of unit types with the potential for ownership options), offices (an employment center offering high-quality jobs), and retail uses. WG’s design (by TBG Architects & Planners in association with RTKL of Dallas, Texas) respects the historic block structure of the city and also creates an active node across the street from the library. However, questions regarding the estimated cost (regarded as too low to be realistic by the consulting firm retained to help evaluate the proposals by the City) and WG’s financial capacities have conspired to relegate its proposal to second-place standing in the eyes of City planners. In a July 6, 2008, editorial, The Register-Guard basically echoed the staff position, suggesting that the City Council focus on the threshold question of which plan offers the most certain prospect of financial success, rather than aesthetic and planning considerations. Therefore, the die appears cast with the deciding factors being that Opus is more financially robust than WG and Opus Northwest’s preparedness to move forward immediately with its proposal.

This isn’t right. We should not allow expediency to trump solid planning and design objectives. Rather than jumping impulsively at the opportunity to build something – anything – on the 10th & Charnelton property, the City should ensure that whatever development does occur is consistent with its vision for that site and downtown in general. If WG Development cannot provide assurances that it has the wherewithal to realize its project and that its cost estimating is accurate, the City should resign itself to waiting longer rather than settling for a scheme that doesn’t conform to the City’s downtown vision. We’ve waited plenty long enough already, and the pit is an eyesore, but compromising design principles and planning goals just so the site is occupied isn’t worth it.

(1) Alan Pittman of the Eugene Weekly provides a nice rundown of all five proposals so I won’t go into detail about them here.

Mark Gillem’s criticism of public subsidies for private development is somewhat misleading because he implies that the incentives are not allocated equitably. The fact is that the downtown incentives apply to all properties within the designated zones. These overlay zones include the Downtown Urban Renewal District, the Transit Oriented Development Overlay Sub-district, the Vertical Housing Development Zone, and the Multi-Unit Property Tax Exemption Boundary.

(3) The Sears development site totals 51,200 square feet, or approximately 1.2 acres. The Park Blocks presently total the same area on the two quarter blocks south of 8th Avenue that flank Oak Street. If the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza and a redeveloped portion of the “butterfly" lot are added to this area, the total park space would handily exceed the size of the Sears site.

(4) Eugene has done a poor job of understanding its urban morphology and sustaining its memory. The historic center of downtown is blocks away from the 10th & Charnelton development site, and is in fact closer to the current Park Blocks. There is an absence of legibility and coherence to Eugene’s downtown that is in part attributable to an ignorance of the past. Future developments should seek to reinforce rather than further erode what remains of the original urban structure.


Anonymous said...


You make a powerful argument. I appreciate the time and effort you put into your thoughts on this!


Mike Clark

Anonymous said...


Obviously, we agree with your conclusions and hope the council does as well. One factual correction of sorts: after receiving the comments about our financial projections, we revisited our pro forma and found an error. The revised calculations are in line with what folks were expecting and have been submitted to the City. Presumably, they are now part of the public record.

Nathan Philips
WG Development