Sunday, November 15, 2009

A River Runs Through (Eugene)

Aerial view of the Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB) riverfront site.

Based solely upon attendance at the November 10 EWEB Riverfront Master Plan Design Options presentation, it’s clear that a broad cross-section of Eugene’s citizens want a say in the future of the city’s downtown riverfront. Well over two hundred people attended the public event, filling the EWEB community room to capacity.

EWEB's urban design consultant, Rowell Brokaw Architects, and the Community Advisory Team (CAT) did not disappoint, presenting three thought-provoking, alternative visions. Each scheme involves the development of connections between downtown and the Willamette River, as well as improvements to the riparian environment. All would employ sustainable design strategies, and propose ways to teach about our river, our history and our city.

Option 1: City Green

  • Concentrated public open space
  • Pavilions in the park
  • Internal public space away from river’s edge
  • Extension of city grid at site’s urban edges
  • Double and single-loaded primary street

Option 2: Organic Plazas

  • Internal public plaza at heart
  • Green extensions into city
  • Character developed around existing buildings
  • Backs of buildings on river
  • Internal double-loaded primary street

Option 3: River Bow

  • Layers of open space and paths at river edge
  • Fronts of buildings on river
  • Most publicly accessible riverfront
  • Green reaches into city on 5th and Ferry
  • Multi-modal festival street along river

It’s important to note that the options are representative of broad concepts only; Rowell Brokaw’s intention was to generate discussions about the place rather than necessarily settling upon a specific design direction.

All three options found their advocates among the enthusiastic community members in attendance at the meeting. The common thread was a desire for a more urban experience at the river’s edge. Many waxed poetically over the prospect of public access to the riverfront – of enjoying a cup of coffee al fresco while watching people and the river roll by; of working and living in a pedestrian-scaled, walkable precinct that is a reflection of their ethos. They imagined vibrant, people-oriented spaces, where they might engage in the life of the city. They recalled their fond experiences in other communities that embrace the rivers that run through them(1).

Some spoke of the unmatched potential of the EWEB site to resurrect the primacy of the Willamette River in the collective Eugene psyche. As central as the river was to our city’s identity during its formative years, it was clear to everyone at the Design Options presentation that this is no longer the case. EWEB’s vacation of its 27-acre property presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revive the downtown core by intensely developing and connecting it to the riverfront. Restoring the historic and structural importance of the river would abet efforts to seek identity and orientation. It is a key to reinforcing Eugene’s genius loci: the spirit of the place, that which we find most unique, distinctive, and cherish about our city.

Surprisingly (for Eugene at least) there were only a few individuals who expressed the opinion that any development along the riverfront is undesirable. While there are certainly many more who strongly believe that the river should only be restored to as natural a state as possible (read: humans are not welcome), they chose not to speak up or did not attend the meeting.(2) Those that did attend would undoubtedly acknowledge that EWEB, Rowell Brokaw’s team, the CAT, and the City of Eugene are intent upon protecting and enhancing the complex river ecology rather than harming it. The project’s guiding principles include developing habitat for species on and near the site, aligning riparian restoration with the river and site hydrology, and recognizing that the property is a part of the greater Willamette River watershed.

The EWEB site today, looking west toward the 5th Street Market.

I was impressed by the depth of consideration evident in the presentation. As a design challenge, this is an immensely complex undertaking. The physical constraints are numerous: the parcel’s history, its irregular shape, the necessary easements, the presence of site contaminants, and the scouring river itself. The points of connection to the existing urban fabric are limited, a consequence of the looming viaduct and the rail line along the property’s south boundary that forms a no-man’s land. And what should be done with the existing buildings on the site, particularly the old steam plant, warehouse, and vehicle maintenance shops? Are these structures worthy of preservation and adaptive reuse?

Under the viaduct.

Other challenges for EWEB and the designers include determining the correct mix of uses and a desirable balance between density and open space. They must satisfactorily address the vexing problems of parking and vehicle access (and how cars, cyclists, and pedestrians might all coexist peacefully). The team must also model a successful financial pro forma that provides some assurance of economic viability to prospective developers.

EWEB could answer the question of project feasibility in part if it developed a networked, ground-coupled energy loop that would serve the entire development. This would be an infrastructural improvement that it could finance by issuing long-term, general obligation bonds, a financing mechanism that is less practical for separate building developers. If EWEB made such an investment, it would secure a new income stream while eliminating the developers’ need to construct dispersed, less economical heating and cooling plants – a win-win situation.

I left the meeting questioning whether the density of development suggested by the concept images might be less than necessary to attract developers. Afterward, Greg Brokaw pointed out that the total floor area depicted with each of the options actually represents the equivalent of several Crescent Villages. The real question may be whether the Eugene market is large enough to absorb so much new commercial and residential space in the city’s core.

My hope is that whatever shape the EWEB Riverfront Master Plan takes, it will provide a blueprint for reviving Eugene’s downtown by giving people a reason to go there.(3) Ultimately, this might suggest that downtown’s center of gravity should shift toward the river. If this occurred, the City’s ongoing efforts to resuscitate the current core area would warrant reassessment. At the least, a successful riverfront development could provide an impetus for a more deliberate reinforcement of Eugene’s urban identity.

Visit the EWEB Riverfront Master Plan website regularly for project updates. The next public input meeting will occur in February 2010, when Rowell Brokaw will present the draft master plan.

All images in this post courtesy of Rowell Brokaw Architects.

(1) Register-Guard columnist Bob Welch beat me to the punch with his November 15, 2009 column about the future of the EWEB property that also riffed on the “River Runs Through It” theme. Darn you Bob Welch!

(2) A true restoration of the river at this site to its previous, natural state is impossible. Before the Willamette was altered by human activity, it followed an altogether different and mutable course. Today, the south bank of the river as it flows past the EWEB property is armored to prevent erosion and to preserve its current alignment.

(3) I’m echoing Bob Welch’s words in this regard. He asserts in his column that people have reasons to go downtown now, but the critical mass necessary to make it a vibrant place does not exist. A river connection will attract more people and make downtown a destination worth going to.


Anonymous said...

There has been some interesting political activity in the nearby Riverfront Research Park this week. There is some coverage of it in the Emerald in case you are interested.

Randy Nishimura, AIA said...

Yes, the Riverfront Research Park and the EWEB site developments should mutually consider the bigger picture here. They are contiguous and address the relationship between the private and public realms - not to mention the riverfront - in a somewhat consistent and coordinated fashion. The link to the Oregon Daily Emerald editorial is