Sunday, February 20, 2011

February AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

AIA-SWO chapter meeting, Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at The Actors Cabaret (photo by Will Dixon, AIA)

Within a civic culture like ours that exalts consensus decision-making, the merits of strong leadership can sometimes be overlooked or devalued. While inclusiveness and a willingness to entertain views from various factions are virtues, so too is the ability to recognize the vision, purpose, and intelligence that is characteristic of effective leaders.

The February 2011 AIA-Southwestern Oregon chapter program enlisted two of the more prominent leaders in our community for a conversation with each other and the gathered AIA-SWO members: University of Oregon president Richard Lariviere and Eugene city manager Jon Ruiz. Both men are relatively new to their respective positions, and both came to Eugene from outside Oregon.(1) In their current roles, each has quickly demonstrated fresh thinking, a willingness to shake things up, and the value of determined leadership.

AIA-SWO executive director Don Kahle facilitated the conversation. In lieu of prepared speeches, he asked Richard and Jon to bring questions they would like to hear answered, either by their leadership counterpart or by the community's design professionals. Serendipitously, the set for The Actors Cabaret’s current production of The Drowsy Chaperone provided an eminently suitable backdrop for the evening. It was as if everyone had retreated to the parlor to engage in a warm and informal apr├Ęs-dinner chat over glasses of wine. That it yielded some truly spirited and genuine discussion was a pleasant dividend.

Given whom Richard and Jon represent, a natural focus of the dialogue was how relations between “town & gown” might develop in years to come. It was clear both firmly believe the fortunes of the University of Oregon and Eugene are inextricably tied to each other. Mutually beneficial plans for the future figure prominently on their agendas. In their minds, there’s no getting around the fact that Eugene remains first and foremost a college town.(2)

Don offered Jon the opportunity to ask Richard the first question(3):

How can the community tap the talent of the School of Architecture & Allied Arts?
RL: The University is trying to break out of the old mindset that town & gown are separate. Everything that happens in the city impacts the university. The opposite is likewise the case. What will the relationship be? I’d like to think that the leadership of the University of Oregon and the City of Eugene would always consult with each other.

The Sustainable Cities Initiative is an example of how Eugene might benefit directly from research conducted at the university and particularly the School of Architecture & Allied Arts. Gresham was the first city to take advantage of the initiative. Over 80,000 hours of student and faculty time was applied to projects throughout the city. It started with only six courses, ultimately expanding to twenty-one across five different academic departments by the end of the school year. Working on such projects gave students a comprehensive look at how a city really works. They saw how important the political process is. Their completed work will contribute to future planning for Gresham. It is an asset that the city could not have come by without the assistance of the university. It was a comprehensive effort to infuse sustainability and community outreach into the curricula.

Salem is the next community that will benefit from the Sustainable Cities Initiative. Eugene may get its turn.

Richard followed Jon’s question with two of his own that more pointedly highlighted challenges that confront the UO/City of Eugene relationship:

What can the City of Eugene do to ensure an adequate stock of housing for students?
JR: I don’t know of an easy answer. Accommodating affordable, nearby housing for students has not always been straightforward. There has been resistance from affected neighbors and the neighborhood organizations. Communication with them is important. It’s their quality of life that is directly impacted when a large new development is constructed. Place matters a lot to people.

How do we move from a regulatory relationship to a conversation?
JR: The City of Eugene needs to change its culture. Presently, the City places too much emphasis upon avoiding what citizens fear rather than looking at what might be possible. The Planning & Development Department is often perceived as an obstacle rather than a partner. This needs to evolve toward a sharing of common goals. The community would welcome seeing the city and the university working cooperatively. Finding the “third place” may be a solution, the forum for a civil society. What are we all seeking? What does livability mean to everyone?

Richard and Jon were eager to field questions from others. Members of the AIA-SWO old guard and youthful associates alike seized the opportunity. Here’s a sampling along with Richard’s and Jon’s responses:

How can the City of Eugene and the University of Oregon engage and persuade the community to follow their lead on important issues? The forthcoming decision on the West 11th Avenue extension of EmX is an example where the city and the UO both endorse the project but it faces strong opposition by some.
JR: You have to listen to everyone in the community. That being said, people need to understand that decisions being made today will impact generations to come. We cannot afford to be shortsighted.

RL: People confuse unanimity with consensus. It may not always be possible to wait for everyone to agree on everything.

Has the university considered a long-term plan of developing satellite campuses dispersed at points along a fully developed EmX system?
RL: No.

The University of Oregon is physically close to downtown Eugene. Why doesn’t the university build student housing downtown? In the days before urban renewal, downtown Eugene had plenty of older buildings with apartments occupied by students above ground floor shops.
RL: We’re trying to keep students on campus because the neighborhoods prefer it that way.

Of the “college towns” that Eugene is frequently compared to, which ones are doing it right?
RL: Certainly not Austin, Texas.(4) Years ago, Austin enjoyed a reputation as progressive but more recently the effects of poor planning decisions are becoming evident. Eugene is still not so big that it cannot be managed. It’s also not so small that it can’t manage its destiny. Eugene still has an opportunity that it must not squander. It doesn’t want to risk making the same planning mistakes that Austin did.

What about incentivizing desirable forms of private-sector development to facilitate desired outcomes?
JR: The Envision Eugene process is considering the promotion of strategies like variable systems development charges that would reward favorable development strategies with reduced fees.

The City has a tendency to roll over to the demands of NIMBYs. Can this change?
JR: The concerns of neighbors–those “on the ground” and whose lives are directly impacted by development–can inform and improve neighborhood plans. The City cannot ignore their voices. However, the City wants to avoid both over-regulation and reactive decision-making. The use of form-based codes may be a means to secure greater acceptance by neighborhood groups resistant to the prospect of new development. By illustrating commonly shared and desirable development objectives, the City is hoping that form-based codes and the projects designed to comply with them will typically garner support rather than opposition. Walnut Station may be a crucial test of this concept for Eugene.

University of Oregon president Richard Lariviere (L) and Eugene city manager Jon Ruiz (R)(photo by Don Kahle)

A key set of questions that hovered over the entire proceedings dealt with how AIA-Southwestern Oregon could assist the university and the city in the pursuit of their common goals (especially those endorsed by the architectural community). What is our future role in the relationship between the UO and the City of Eugene? Can we help the city take greater advantage of the university’s intellectual capacity? Is there a way we can better leverage our considerable talents to the benefit of both institutions? Don Kahle opined that it wouldn’t take much. Simply being a third party might be enough to stir the blinkered “town & gown” dynamic.

We have already assisted the City of Eugene by conducting charrettes that addressed vital urban design issues. AIA-SWO professionals and UO faculty have also worked together on complex community projects. These separate partnerships have fostered a culture of synergy and innovation. There is no reason to believe that a three-way association involving AIA-SWO in an advisory role on matters of mutual interest to all parties would not also thrive.

The potential for involvement is limitless. Jon cited the promise inherent to the strengthening of connections between downtown Eugene and the UO campus. He mentioned the Millrace and the Willamette River and their significance to both the university and the city. For his part, Richard challenged us to design inspiring places. He asserted that architects have a moral duty to speak out when something is not being done right. In his view, the consequences of poor planning and design are too significant for AIA-SWO not to contribute to an investment in the shared social capital of the city.

This conversation of leaders was lively, frank, and thought-provoking. It felt as if we were just getting started when the call came to wrap things up. Heartfelt thanks to both gentlemen for a most enjoyable evening.

Richard Lariviere and Jon Ruiz have assumed the helm of leadership at a propitious moment in Eugene’s history. Their influence will indelibly shape the future of this place we call home--its prospects, character, and identity. If AIA-Southwestern Oregon is to join their company, we must be prepared to demonstrate the same caliber of leadership on matters of importance to all of us.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Note: I previously blogged about the town & gown phenomenon, primarily with respect to the relationship between local architectural professionals and the UO School of Architecture & Allied Arts.

(1) Lariviere became president of the University in 2009. Prior to coming to Oregon, he served as executive vice provost and chancellor for the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Ruiz previously served as assistant city manager for Fresno, CA. He assumed the position of Eugene’s city manager in 2008.

(2) The University’s 22,386 students contribute $232 million directly to the local economy. This includes supporting a total of 2,932 on-campus jobs and $107 million in household earnings. It is one of the largest and most stable employers in the Eugene-Springfield metro area. UO athletics events, the Olympic Trials, the Oregon Bach Festival, and other attractions make the university and the surrounding community a significant tourist destination (each year, 690,000 people attend academic events and an additional 650,000 attend athletic events on campus).

(3) My transcription skills are severely limited by my spastic penmanship and subsequent inability to read my own writing. These extracts are my best shot at reasonable facsimiles for Richard’s and Jon’s own words.

(4) Richard Lariviere served as dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin from 1999 to 2006.


Heidi Peschel said...

Good post Randy. On the topic of utilizing the AIA membership and by extension the Eugene Architectural community in general, it would be nice to see both the City of Eugene and The University of Oregon focus on utilizing local Architectural firms more than they have in the past. I think this was brought up or hinted at in the meeting, perhaps there is something inherent in the process or culture that is preventing better use of local firms? Local firms seem somewhat under represented in current city and university projects.

Randy Nishimura, AIA said...

Heidi: Unfortunately, it's a bit of a Catch-22 when it comes to local firms securing some of the more prominent City of Eugene and UO projects. Many high-profile projects are large and complex, and understandably clients tend to favor design teams with the requisite experience. This means that firms who've done similar work have a better chance of securing these projects.

That being said, PIVOT is presently working with the City on the renovation of the office building on Country Club Road to serve as the new Eugene Police Department headquarters. TBG is designing an addition to Allen Hall at the UO (along with Yost Grube Hall of Portland). Of course, RSA worked on the Eugene Public Library (for which we teamed up with Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott of Boston).

Anonymous said...

Local firms are skipped due to the stealthy influence of the UO Foundation