Friday, November 28, 2008

A Seat at the Table

Jon Ruiz, Eugene City Manager

For its November gathering, the AIA-SWO “Dead Presidents” broke bread at Davis’ Restaurant with Eugene’s new city manager, Jon Ruiz. Mr. Ruiz has been on the job since April 2008; too little time has passed since then to effectively gauge his impact as city manager upon issues of concern to Eugene’s design community. Nevertheless, his interest in matters of urban design, downtown renewal, and smart growth is apparent, and he clearly appreciated the opportunity to speak with local architects about these topics.

In Eugene’s form of government, the elected city council sets policy directions and the city manager carries them out. The city manager oversees the operations of dozens of city departments, more than 1,500 city employees, and a half-billion dollar annual budget. The position is arguably the most powerful in Eugene’s city government. Consequently, there are those who are wary of this authority. Critics of the “strong city manager” model of government contend that the manager is too often effectively empowered to establish city policy de facto without council direction. On the other hand, as someone who has the luxury of being able to think beyond the next election and the interests of individual constituencies, the city manager may be the key person in city government when the issues demand long-term, big-picture thinking. This is a person who needs to have a seat at the table when architects gather to discuss the future of our city.

AIA-SWO Executive Director Don Kahle recognized the opportunity that Jon Ruiz’s recent hiring as Eugene’s city manager presented to the local architectural community. Don encouraged Eric Gunderson to invite Mr. Ruiz to the monthly Dead Presidents lunch meeting to convey our agenda to the city manager. The ultimate goal is for the city manager to look first to local architectural professionals for insight and guidance about how design excellence in the built environment can be achieved within the context of Eugene’s development policies and sustainability initiatives.

The lunch conversation largely focused on the immediate future for downtown Eugene. Topics such as tax-increment financing, downtown’s role as an economic development engine, downtown green space, and the possibility of emulating the success of the Portland streetcar system(1) were considered in rapid succession. A key set of questions revolved around whether Eugene’s identity was contingent at all upon there being a “downtown” in the traditional sense.(2) Is Eugene a city with a downtown, or is it a city composed of many neighborhoods without a strong center? If Eugene is to resuscitate its downtown, what kinds of incentives should the city provide given the distrust of many Eugeneans toward taxpayer subsidy of private development? Should the city assume the role of the primary employer and tenant in downtown if private interests fail to fill the void? What about the downtown urban renewal district? How much more public money should be invested to achieve the intent of the Downtown Plan?

The time to act for downtown Eugene is now, according to Jon Ruiz and many others interested in capitalizing upon the city’s sustainability initiatives. In Mr. Ruiz’s words, Eugene “cannot afford to be late to the dance,” for if the city doesn’t move quickly, “it will not find partners to fill its dance card.” With the dramatic shift in political winds at the national level, the talk of reinvestment in the country’s infrastructure, and the economy’s descent into recession, Eugene is now competing with countless other suitors for the attention of the green companies that represent the vanguard of a new sustainable economy. To what extent is a vibrant, vital downtown essential to attracting these kinds of businesses and employers to Eugene? What can architects do to assist the city in this regard?

Over the years, the City of Eugene and AIA-SWO have partnered on several design charrettes that have drafted ideas for improving the city’s core. These successful events are well-attended by city residents, municipal officials, developers, University of Oregon students, and other stakeholders precisely because our group is perceived as having no political agenda or dog in the fight. For 2009, the AIA-SWO will partner with both the city and the Eugene Water & Electric Board to produce a charrette that will generate a vision for the future redevelopment of EWEB’s riverfront property and its potential impact upon downtown Eugene.(3) The city profits immeasurably from the volunteered time of dozens of architects at each of these intense design sessions. The charrettes we have orchestrated are proven, useful tools that have informed and complemented the city staff’s own urban design and planning efforts.

The City of Eugene already regards the AIA-SWO as an invaluable resource at the city’s disposal. We’d like to keep it this way. By inviting Jon Ruiz to join us to discuss our mutual interest in the future of urban design in Eugene, we hope to cultivate a relationship with a powerful ally whose views mirror our own. We’re likewise hopeful that Eugene’s new city manager will always bring us to the table whenever the conversation turns to the subject of what can be done to rejuvenate our city center.

(1) Lane Transit District’s bus rapid-transit system, combined with a frequent downtown shuttle comprising smaller buses that continuously loop through downtown, may be a less costly, more manageable alternative to a streetcar network.

(2) That is, as the social, civic, governmental, and economic hub of a city. Eugene’s downtown may be a governmental center for the city, but its status as the social and economic hub for the metro area has been tenuous, at best, for decades.

(3) Contact me at (541) 342-8077 or at if you're interested in participating in the EWEB charrette.

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