Saturday, March 6, 2010

Where the City will meet the River

Could this be Eugene's downtown riverfront of the future?
(Rendering by Rowell Brokaw Architects)

I joined 300 fellow community members last Wednesday evening at the Eugene Hilton Conference Center to view and comment upon the draft master plan prepared by Rowell Brokaw Architects for the Eugene Water & Electric Board’s Willamette riverfront property. As was the case at each of the previous public events produced by EWEB as part of the master planning process, I was very impressed by the enthusiasm elicited by the project and Rowell Brokaw’s responsiveness to that interest.

Rowell Brokaw principal John Rowell, project manager Kaarin Knudson, and Margot Long of PWL Partnership Landscape Architects skillfully presented the outline of the master plan. They prefaced their description of the concept by characterizing it as a framework and not necessarily an exact representation of what the revitalized riverfront will look like. The master plan is a comprehensive document that will set out the overall strategy for future development and test its viability. It’s a vision of what might be.

The progression of this vision is clear to those of us who have followed its development since last September. From the establishment of the master plan’s guiding principles, through the refinement of three distinct design options, to the integration of public input, the EWEB team has continually added layers of consideration and depth to the concept. The result is very promising, a plan that those in attendance could be excited about.

Some of the key features of the draft master plan include:
  • Repairing the site and developing a sustainable future
  • Extension of downtown Eugene’s “great streets” – 5th Street, 8th Street, and Broadway – into the EWEB site to improve connections between downtown and its riverfront
  • Enhancement of the riparian edge along the river, with green fingers and view corridors that reach back into the city
  • A great looping arc of a street that roughly parallels the Willamette’s bow but traverses the site from its inland southeast corner northward to the existing EWEB headquarters
  • Quirky block shapes dictated by the overall configuration of the 27 acre site, existing utility easements, the proposed street pattern, and of course the river itself
  • A mix of building types and heights, with taller structures (as much as 120 feet high) located further from the river’s edge overlooking shorter buildings closer to the water
  • “Restaurant Row,” a string of relatively small buildings (height limit: 30 feet) that would face the river and front a pedestrian boardwalk – people places to see and be seen
  • Safe bicycle and pedestrian paths
  • A reinterpreted “millrace” that would filter storm water runoff before it enters the river
  • Development of a “cultural landscape” to ensure that what is new also remembers what came before
EWEB Riverfront Master Plan - Revised Design Concept, March 3, 2010

The master plan combines some of the best elements from each of the three design options (City Green, Organic Plazas, and River Bow) presented at the last public event in November. The plan has a legible structure that the community will understand. It’s easy to imagine it being the robust framework that is necessary to cohesively guide development over a period of many years. Its primary shortcoming may be the fact that it essentially stops at the boundaries of the EWEB property rather than extending beyond them. If it did encompass a greater area, the master plan would be of increased value. A plan of larger scope could inform future redevelopment of adjacent properties, perhaps even before the EWEB site itself is fully transformed.

Audience members wield their "clickers" in response to poll questions

Soliciting input from as many of the interested citizens in attendance as possible is a huge challenge. It’s important that those who take the time to participate believe that their opinions matter and that they have a hand in shaping the future of an important community asset. Fortunately, the EWEB team and its meeting planners took advantage of a computerized audience response system (ARS) at the master plan presentation (and last November’s design options meeting as well) that was an interactive and fun way to collect public feedback. EWEB provided individual wireless keypads (similar to TV “clickers”) to everyone so that each person could immediately submit their responses to multiple choice poll questions. These responses were instantaneously tabulated by a computer and the results projected on a screen for all to see.

The benefits of ARS include a reduced tendency for participants to answer based on crowd psychology because it is difficult to see which selection others are making. It’s all too often the case at similar public meetings where ARS is not used that a “herd mentality” evolves. People become influenced or intimidated by their most vocal peers; in Eugene, the result is that it is often a minority, rather than a representative cross-section of the community, that effectively dictates the course of discussions and public policy.

Some find fault with ARS because such polls can be ineffective proxies for more substantive discussions on issues of importance. I don’t think that was the case at this meeting. The questions posed by the EWEB team will be significant to the shaping of the final master plan recommendations. For example, audience members were asked to weigh in on the question of whether or not they found the prospect of buildings as tall as 20 stories acceptable. Another question posed was about which landscape treatment for the public open spaces they considered most appropriate. The responses to these questions and others are certain to be useful to the design team.

It’s now back to the drawing board for Rowell Brokaw Architects to incorporate this latest public feedback into a final master plan. EWEB will present this final plan to the Eugene City Council in June. If approved, EWEB would then apply for a change to the property’s land-use zoning, a process that could take up to a year to complete.

Ultimately, EWEB’s goal is to sell the land. In order to do this, it’s clear that Rowell Brokaw’s concept – this framework for achieving a riverfront our community will embrace – must hold the promise of a financial return that is attractive to developers. To be realistic, attaining this goal will likely require taxpayer backing for the construction of the necessary and expensive infrastructure (open spaces, streets, and utilities). Under any scenario, this community will be disinclined to relinquish total control of the river’s edge. Whether it will support the development of vital, vibrant commercial ventures along its urban waterfront remains to be seen.

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