Friday, April 20, 2012

Incremental Growth

Rendering of Capstone Collegiate Communities’ project for downtown Eugene (Humphreys & Partners Architects L.P.)

A (literally) big news item on the downtown Eugene development front these days is the huge apartment complex proposed by Birmingham, AL developer Capstone Collegiate Communities. If built, the $89 million project will occupy the old PeaceHealth Medical Group (formerly the Eugene Clinic) site astride Olive Street at 13th Avenue. It would consist of five 5-story apartment buildings with a total of 1,234 bedrooms in 379 units. Two 7-level above-ground parking structures would provide 1,014 on-site parking spaces. 

Boosters believe the project will further revitalize downtown Eugene by greatly increasing the resident population. AIA-Southwestern Oregon executive director Don Kahle is one of the more exuberant cheerleaders. In his March 16 column for the Register-Guard, Don imagines Capstone laying the foundation of a whole new era for downtown. He declares “Students will breathe life into the center—the soul—of our community.”

Harriet Cherry of PIVOT Architecture and David Funk of bell+funk are likewise big supporters of the Capstone proposal. They jointly penned a guest viewpoint in the April 19 edition of the Register-Guard in which they assert the residents’ demographic is “very attractive” and would contribute to a safer environment because of its sheer size. They believe the project will draw the downtown population we’ve yearned for.

The project has its critics too. There are those who oppose Capstone’s request for a ten-year property tax exemption. Others object to the magnitude of the proposed development, or the possibility its youthful monoculture will enjoy partying too much, or that Capstone’s profits will come at the expense of homegrown developers, and so on.(1)

The Eugene Community Advisory Team, led by steering committee members Paul Conte, Sherrill Necessary, and Jean Tate, occupies a middle-ground. It wants to ensure that one of the most significant developments ever proposed for downtown Eugene contributes to the community's overall interests. Its primary mandates include ensuring that City Council’s decisions are consistent with the Envision Eugene pillar to “protect, repair, and enhance neighborhood livability” and hosting public forums to disseminate information about the project.

I haven’t attended ECAT’s meetings or the other public forums, so I feel somewhat unqualified to debate the project’s merits and/or shortcomings. Regardless, my gut compels me to side with those who think Capstone’s ambitious project may be disproportionately large for Eugene.

Map of downtown Eugene; the Capstone site is in purple.

In their book A New Theory of Urban Design (1987), Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure advanced the concept of piecemeal growth, one of seven detailed rules for growth.(2)  As defined by Alexander and his team, the rule of piecemeal growth requires that no single project be too large. Furthermore, it mandates a reasonable mixture of project sizes and distribution of functions within an overall framework.

The benefit of piecemeal or incremental growth is that it allows for fine-grained adjustments over time. Assuming growth is desirable at all—in the case of downtown Eugene, I believe it is—development in smaller increments is less likely to result in undesirable outcomes. The entire enterprise of designing a desirable downtown is risky, especially when the stakes are highest. In the case of the Capstone project they are very high.

Fundamentally, we can view the urban fabric as a complex adaptive system subject to the effects of interrelated groups of activities. Because of their complexity, it is difficult to fully understand cities, let alone plan them well. Another analogous model is to view cities as living organisms. Like any life form, they are vulnerable to structurally disruptive effects. Predicting the impact of changes carried out in big chunks isn’t easy if we factor in the highly interdependent systems of which cities are comprised.

Arguably, one effective mechanism for improving the urban environment has been trial and error. Minor missteps provide feedback useful for recalibrating future choices. Small errors are relatively easy and inexpensive to correct. Bigger, coarser mistakes are far less so.

Of course, small is relative; a huge new skyscraper in Chicago might stir barely a ripple. On the other hand, few here in Eugene would characterize Lane Community College’s Downtown Campus as small. That ambitious multiuse project (now under construction) is set to significantly impact downtown’s future. And yet it would be dwarfed by the Capstone venture. As I said above, Capstone’s project would introduce 1,234 student residents downtown, nearly a thousand more than the LCC apartments will. That’s a big number.

What might the consequences be for downtown if Capstone’s big gambit fails to pay off? What if the student housing bubble bursts, the project’s anticipated market never materializes, and the development fails to achieve full occupancy and profitability? Would Capstone ever locate a buyer to take the property off its hands? Can downtown Eugene afford a forlorn white elephant?(3) The last thing we need is our own Pruitt-Igoe.(4)

Demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, 1972, St. Louis

I’d love to be wrong about this. Incrementalism isn’t necessarily the best course. The clear prescription in some instances is catalytic change, a dramatic challenge to the status quo. Beneficial evolution in nature doesn’t always progress in a linear fashion; sometimes it surges forward. Perhaps the Capstone project will be the tipping point past which downtown Eugene will once again pulse with life as the heart of our city. Perhaps it is exactly the kind of change we’ve been looking for.

Then again, bigger isn’t always better. If we as a community are to make mistakes, my preference would be for them to be small and manageable. I prefer incremental growth.

(1)   A critic of a different sort is Otto Poticha, FAIA. Otto believes the project is “innovative, creative, and out of the box” but he’s no fan of the design by the Dallas, TX office of Humphreys & Partners Architects.

(2)   The seven rules for growth are:
  1. Piecemeal growth
  2. The growth of larger wholes
  3. Visions
  4. The basic rule of positive outdoor space
  5. Layout of large buildings
  6. Construction
  7. Formation of centers
(3)  Retired architect Dan Herbert authored another recent commentary about the Capstone project. He echoed councilor Alan Zelenka’s suggestion that the city mandate guidelines for adaptive reuse of the Capstone project’s parking structures. Dan went further to propose the guidelines include the residential components as well. I agree. Our buildings need to be flexible and adaptable to change over time. What works now may not work as well in the future. We cannot be blind to the reality of change as a constant.

(4) Yes, this is hyperbole. Pruitt-Igoe and its legacy of misguided public policy, poverty, segregation, and crime are orders of magnitude beyond what the Capstone project might become under the gloomiest of scenarios.


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Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful analysis. It's sad to see a number of Eugene architects falling over themselves to promote this project.

-- Paul Conte
Steering Committee member
Eugene Community Advisory Team

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI said...

Thanks Paul. While we may be perceived as like-thinkers, architects are not necessarily in agreement on all issues. This is an instance where I am not in agreement with many of my professional colleagues.

Anonymous said...


You might be interested in how this project is unfolding ... not good. Now that Capstone has their tax exemption, they're stonewalling serious community concerns.

Follow (oldest to newest):
Today's (July 11) Register-Guard "Guest Viewpoint" at:

-- Paul Conte

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI said...

Paul: Yes, I read your guest commentary this morning. This is all very interesting. We shall see how the city council reacts as the facts reveal themselves.