Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Pitfalls of Public Planning Processes

South Willamette Concept Plan public workshop at the Hilyard Center in Eugene, 6/27/12. That's Robin Hostick, City of Eugene Senior Urban Design Planner, at the lower right of the photo.
I attended last Wednesday’s public workshop concerning a draft of the City of Eugene’s South Willamette Concept Plan. I haven’t participated in many such meetings in the past (shame on me) with the exception of those associated with land-use projects I’ve been involved with either professionally or as a representative for AIA-Southwestern Oregon. I was reminded of the extent to which the public involvement processes are at once both vital and problematic. 

The City’s best means to ensure inclusion of all relevant perspectives and mitigation of negative impacts is undoubtedly the direct engagement of citizenry in the planning of its shared future. Those affected by the City’s plans for the South Willamette study area have a right to be involved in the decision-making process. That being said, the meeting underscored one of the primary shortcomings of public involvement, which is that large community meetings are frequently hamstrung by the need to present too many complex issues in too little time. 

In the case of Wednesday’s meeting, the decision by the South Willamette Concept Plan team (led by City of Eugene senior urban design planners Robin Hostick and Trish Thomas) to focus the discussion upon the possible forms of future buildings in the plan study area meant that other important considerations (such as enhanced provisions for cyclists) were necessarily tabled for future meetings. This was perhaps the only practical option; the South Willamette Concept Plan will be nothing if not overwhelmingly complex and multifaceted. 

It is precisely this complexity which makes it difficult for stakeholders to adequately comprehend the virtues underlying the concept plan and its ties to the broader Envision Eugene strategies for accommodating up to 34,000 additional city residents twenty years from now. I suspect many if not most Eugeneans support in principle the efficient utilization of land within the urban growth boundary, the need to manage future growth, and the protection of natural resources. The challenge for the planners is to translate abstract concepts for compact urban development into the reality of a prescriptive plan and potentially a form-based code that would similarly enjoy widespread support. 

What I heard at the workshop suggests that, while people want to espouse support for broadly backed community goals, each individual also tends to default to more focused, personal concerns. How will implementing the South Willamette Concept Plan impact my daily commute? What effect will it have upon the value of my property? Will the plan result in the construction of a looming structure that will leave my home in perpetual shade? I witnessed a tendency by participants to compartmentalize issues, to mentally manage the concept plan by isolating their specific interests to the exclusion of other equally valid considerations. 

For example, one attendee expressed affection for her neighborhood’s current morphology of small, single-story, single-family homes on individual lots. She believes this character is worthy of preservation rather than replacement with higher density development because it is what she knows and is comfortable with. Conversely, she supported Envision Eugene’s promotion of dense urban development. Either she failed to reconcile how it would be possible to make room for tens of thousands more people within Eugene’s boundaries without densification or she did not believe it should be her worry. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, she had at minimum unwittingly isolated her preference for the status quo apart from her advocacy for compact growth. 

Another participant articulated her disdain for “ugly boxes” when citing the downside of denser, multistory development. Unfortunately, her measuring stick is most likely the past examples of poor building design that are all too numerous in cities across the country. It’s difficult to convince folks like her that the same may not be the result if the general outline of the South Willamette Area concept plan moves forward. Obviously, the onus is upon the architectural profession—not the City of Eugene—to design projects she would find attractive regardless of their size. The City needs to help stakeholders distinguish between the good bones of the concept plan and its implementation on a project-by-project basis. 

People fear what they cannot visualize or understand. They fear change. In their most virulent form, these fears are manifested as intractable NIMBYism. The complexity of the innumerable, endlessly interrelated factors involved intensifies uncertainty. There are risks inherent in both disseminating too little and too much information. With too little, organizers risk criticism for withholding knowledge essential to understanding the issues at hand. If they provide too much they hazard charges of obfuscation through inundation. 

Is the development of far-reaching studies like the South Willamette Concept Plan too ambitious? Are such plans less-than-useful tools for achieving desired outcomes? Is their fate to be so watered down the principles upon which they were founded become compromised? The answers to these questions may be “yes.” Because the public does not always respond as intended, the plans will most certainly vary from what their authors originally envisioned. Whether the number of concessions granted render these plans ineffective isn’t always predictable. 

For the city's staff, the measure of the success of the public planning process may ultimately be a modest one. Achieving the goal of engaging as many constituents as possible may be enough. Anything more would be icing on the cake. Examples might include the ability to anticipate and answer more questions than not about the plan. Or it could mean alleviating the frustrations of those who have difficulty expressing their concerns. 

I empathize with Robin and Trish as they must confront the challenges of guiding the public process for the South Willamette Area Concept Plan. Their task is clearly not an easy one. Big public meetings are not always the most useful means to reduce opposition arising from misunderstanding or disinformation. As I argued above, there’s simply too much for casual participants to learn and a scarcity of time within which to absorb it. Discussions about land use projects also too often pit disparate interests against one another. It’s easier for opponents to muster troops than it is to marshal supporters. 

I don’t profess to have a magic bullet when it comes to utilizing public processes to envision a desirable future. I do believe the success of our urban environment is contingent upon incremental, adaptive moves that build upon the triumphs and failures (large and small) of all preceding actions. I prefer to consider any current urban design vision as merely a snapshot of what we think the future could be. It is what we want for tomorrow from today’s perspective. The view from tomorrow might be very different and that would be okay. After all, the proverbial flutter of a butterfly’s wings may well set into motion an alternative future the best-laid plans cannot foretell.  

Saturday, June 23, 2012

June AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

"Crawlers" crowding the reception area at Robertson/Sherwood/Architects (all photos by me)

AIA-Southwestern Oregon marked the summer solstice by offering a change of pace for its June chapter meeting. Rather than the usual fare of a sit-down dinner & educational program, this past Wednesday evening featured a thoroughly enjoyable “office crawl” through the offices of three downtown Eugene architectural practices. 

The three participating firms—Robertson/Sherwood/Architects, TBG Architects &Planners, and PIVOT Architecture—each hosted a planned activity intended to be both entertaining and educational. 

RSA "Jeopardy!"

The starting point for the office crawl was Robertson/Sherwood/Architects. RSA offered up “Jeopardy.” Modeled after the television game show of the same name, the contestants (that is, all of the office crawl attendees) formulated responses to facts about RSA projects in the form of a question. Unfortunately, Alex Trebek wasn’t on hand to assume his customary role as host of the show. Even so, everyone had a grand time and there was even a winner: Rex Prater, AIA was the recipient of the RSA raffle prize (a gift card for Belly Restaurant, which would be the office crawl’s final destination). 

Andika Murandi of TBG Architects & Planners during the office crawl visit at his office.

Next up was TBG Architects & Planners. Boasting an enviable record that stretches back sixty-three years, TBG’s contribution to the office crawl was a contest entitled “Know Your Competitor’s History.” The challenge was to correctly answer a series of questions associated with the firm’s storied past. Some of the questions were intriguing to say the least. For example, do you know which of the following companies was incubated as a tenant in TBG’s current office space? 

  1. Oregon Research Institute
  2. Slocum Center for Orthopedics
  3. Nike Athletics
  4. Pape Caterpillar
  5. Dynamix
I don’t know the answer to this question; was it Nike? Trish Thomas, AIA, on the other hand, correctly answered more questions than all of her fellow “crawlers” and, courtesy of TBG, was the winner of a gift certificate to J. Michaels Books

Toby Barwood, AIA (right center) served as MC for PIVOT Architecture's stop on the office crawl.

A stop at PIVOT Architecture’s beautiful new office rounded out the crawl. PIVOT principal Toby Barwood, AIA served as master of ceremonies for his firm’s take on the board game genre. In this instance, the objective was to navigate the gantlet of challenges which typically confront an architectural project, from the initiation of design to securing the building permit. Toby divided the group into two teams: the “Vermillion” and the “Pepperoncini.” The teams advanced by spinning a dial, sometimes securing an advantage by adding staff to move the project toward obtaining a permit more expeditiously. Ultimately, the “Pepperoncini” established their supremacy and prevailed as the winner of the engaging contest. 

The evening’s final destination was the newly located Belly Restaurant, which also was a sponsor for the June AIA-SWO meeting. Belly is known for its “rustic, European farmhouse soul food” and is justly popular among Eugene’s gustatorial cognoscenti. 

In sum, the well-attended office crawl offered participants the opportunity to tour various firms’ workspaces and learn a bit more about the projects each firm has designed or is currently involved with. It’s always a treat to catch a glimpse of what our peers are up to and the inner workings of their offices. I predict that the crawl will become a fixture on the AIA-SWO calendar in years to come.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Designing Healthy Communities

Terri Harding, AICP, is the City of Eugene’s Public Involvement Program Manager. As a new Board Member with the Oregon Chapter of the American Planning Association, she is assisting with event planning for the evening talk with Dr. Richard Jackson described below. Terri asked for help to promote Dr. Jackson’s presentation so I’m doing my part by announcing it here. 

The Education and Outreach Committee of the Oregon Chapter of the American Planning Association, along with 1000 Friends of Oregon and the Oregon Environmental Council, and the Oregon Transportation and Growth Management Program is proud to present the 2012 Healthy Communities Speaker Series with Dr. Richard J. Jackson

Richard J. Jackson is Professor and Chair of Environmental Health Sciences at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Jackson lectures and speaks on many issues, particularly those related to built environment and health. He is host of a 2012 public television series Designing Healthy Communities which links to the J Wiley & Sons book by the same name published in October, 2011. He co-authored two Island Press Books: Urban Sprawl and Public Health in 2004 and Making Healthy Places in 2011. He has served on many environmental and health boards, as well as the Board of Directors of the American Institute of Architects. 

Dr. Richard J. Jackson

Dr. Richard Jackson will discuss the link between our health and the way our communities — especially our suburbs — are designed. Obesity, asthma, diabetes and heart disease are all aggravated by the auto-centric way we live our lives today. For the first time in two centuries, children today face shorter life expectancies than their parents due to unhealthy lifestyles. It doesn’t have to be this way. Dr. Jackson will talk about how well designed communities and better transportation choices can enable physical activity and improve both our physical and mental health. 

For more information about Dr. Jackson and the Designing for Healthy Communities project, go to:

What:     Designing Healthy Communities, a presentation by Dr. Richard Jackson 

When:    Tuesday, June 19th, 2012 
               5:00 pm to 5:45 pm – Reception 
               5:45 pm to 7:00 pm – Lecture and question and answer

Where:   Eugene Public Library, Bascom-Tykeson Room 
               100 W 10th Avenue Eugene, OR 97401

For more information, contact Terri Harding, City of Eugene, (541) 682-5635 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Tower Crane!

It was a long way up to the top of the tower crane!

Lease Crutcher Lewis (LCL), general contractor for the Lane Community College Downtown Campus project, achieved an important milestone this past week when it removed the gigantic tower crane that stood at the center of the jobsite for nearly a year. 

Tower cranes are remarkable things. They appear spindly and yet are capable of lifting enormous loads. The manner by which they are erected and disassembled is fascinating. The length of the horizontal jib on the crane used by LCL was so great it could extend to reach beyond each end of the city block-long site. 

The Downtown Campus project tower crane was also tall—very tall. So it was with some trepidation that I climbed to the top of the crane on the day before LCL dismantled it. Joining me (with no hint of unease whatsoever) was Mariko Blessing, Associate AIA, my colleague at Robertson/Sherwood/Architects. Riley Allen, one of LCL’s young project engineers, came along with us too for his first trek to the summit of a tower crane.  

I don’t remember suffering much from a fear of heights when I was younger. Perhaps it’s because I’m older now and my physical equilibrium isn’t what it once was, but climbing an open ladder 120 feet into the sky was a little unnerving. The fact the tower swayed in the wind just a bit certainly didn’t help matters. I did overcome my anxiety to reach the top (or more precisely to the operator’s cab, located just below the pinnacle of the crane’s mast and above the slewing unit). 

View from the tower crane operator's cab. That's Riley Allen of Lease Crutcher Lewis (general contractor) at the right. The Eugene Public Library is seen across the street from above.

Another view from up on high, this one looking to the northwest. The Broadway Place apartments are in this view.

The construction scene of the interior courtyard below the tower crane.

We met Lonny, the crane’s affable operator, inside the tight quarters of the cab. He described for us the operation of the crane, including how much the working arm often bows under the strain of its load. The skill necessary to hoist and move heavy material safely was clear.  

Lonny also explained the method that would be used to take apart the crane. A combination of loosened connectors and the sequential removal of the jib components would result in a marked lean to the mast even while Lonny and the ironworkers were still on top of the lofty assembly. He made all of this sound so matter of course when the reality must surely be nerve-wracking and demanding of the strictest possible safety procedures. 

Disassembly of the tower crane by a mobile crane (June 13, 2012)

The builder’s granting of permission to the architect to ascend the tower crane before its dismantling may never achieve the ritualized status of other construction project customs, such as the topping out ceremony. Nonetheless, Mariko and I approached the event as a commemoration and our conquering of the looming structure as a rite of passage. We’re no longer tower crane greenhorns; we’ve achieved exalted status as tower crane summiteers. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Why CSI?

I’ve been a member of the Construction Specifications Institute since my return to Oregon in 1988. Prior to joining I did not know exactly what CSI was all about. My boss, James M. Robertson, FCSI, persuaded me to attend a meeting of the Willamette Valley Chapter to learn more. This would be my introduction to a diversified and close-knit community of construction professionals, many of whom I now count as trusted friends and advisors.

While the accomplishments of CSI include continuous development of construction documentation standards (such as MasterFormat) and the education of professionals to improve project delivery processes, it is perhaps the organization’s diversity that is its greatest achievement. Unlike the American Institute of Architects, which primarily exists to serve the good of the architectural profession, CSI membership is open to anyone interested in the advancement of construction communication standards. In addition to architects, the institute welcomes the participation of engineers, contractors, facility mangers, product representatives, manufacturers, owners, and of course construction specifiers. The only qualification is a common desire to contribute to the improvement of communication in the construction industry.

Before I became a CSI member, my contacts among the many non-architect participants involved with construction projects were most often limited to job-related exchanges. Seldom were my encounters of an informal or social nature with contractors or the others. My association with the Willamette Valley Chapter broke down the unspoken barriers I was accustomed to, allowing me to develop meaningful cross-disciplinary relationships. Today, these relationships have improved my effectiveness as an architect. There’s no substitute for mutual respect and friendship when it comes to working together to successfully complete complex and difficult projects.

The Willamette Valley Chapter is one of the more decorated and active of the 140+ CSI chapters around the country. Numerous WVC members have held offices at the region and national levels as committee chairs, region directors, and Institute president. I’m not sure, but it would not surprise me at all if the Willamette Valley Chapter has a higher proportion of members who have been elevated to Institute fellowship than any other. We are blessed with an incredibly energetic, motivated, and collegial group of construction professionals.

Jim Robertson is a case in point. Throughout his lengthy involvement with CSI, Jim has helped to develop and promote standards for design documentation and construction contract administration. These include CSI MasterFormat and contributions to CSI’s Project Resource Manual, which is recognized as the foremost primer about the proper principles, techniques, and formats for writing and organizing specifications. Along the way, Jim participated on numerous institute committees and boards, including service as Northwest Region director and national vice president. He now represents CSI as one of eighteen member organizations of the International Construction Information Society (ICIS), which is dedicated to establishing international construction documentation standards.

Besides Jim, other Willamette Valley Chapter members welcomed and encouraged me to make the most of what CSI has to offer. They included Paul Edlund, FCSI, who to this day remains the chapter’s sage and its heart and soul, as well as Ron Eakin and Jim Chaney (Institute president 2000-2001). My network of mentors also numbered long-time members Gary Bartel, Ken Nagao, Linn West, and the late Jim Bernhard. The depth of knowledge and immense pool of experience and wisdom I was able to tap helped shape who I am today as a professional.

Thanks to their encouragement, I would eventually assume a number of Willamette Valley Chapter board positions, culminating in my tenure as chapter president in 1995-96. From a personal development perspective, my period as a board member and as president proved enriching and instructive. I’ve taken what I’ve learned from this experience and applied it to my work and everyday interactions.

Veteran members have also been the foundation of the education and certification programs CSI offers. Offering their knowledge and time without remuneration, Paul, Ron, Linn and others have shouldered the burden of teaching the certification programs. I took advantage of these offerings early on to secure both Construction Documents Technologist (CDT) and Certified Construction Specifier (CCS) certifications. These credentials definitely carry weight in the industry and are evidence of my competence with construction documentation and communication.

Additional benefits of my membership with the Willamette Valley Chapter of CSI include the monthly chapter meeting programs and CSI-sponsored “lunch & learn” presentations. I’ve consistently found these to be informative and convenient means to acquire many of the continuing education credits I need for the purposes of maintaining my State of Oregon architect’s license and membership with the AIA.

It’s important to point out that I fully consider my involvement with the Construction Specifications Institute to be a complement to and not a substitute for my AIA participation. Both organizations serve my needs well as an architect and are not mutually exclusive.

Now is a great time to become a CSI member! If you sign up online between Wednesday, June 13 and Wednesday, June 20, you’ll pay only $192—a 20% savings—for your membership. Use the promo code “12spring20” when you join at promotion is only available to new members enrolling at the professional level. Chapter dues are not included in this promotion.

I’m certain those of you who are not yet members of CSI and become so will come to realize many of the same benefits of membership I have enjoyed. The ability to communicate effectively is increasingly a valued commodity in the business world. This is especially true in the fast-changing construction industry where so much is typically at stake and placed at risk. You owe it to yourself, your clients, and your projects to learn everything you can to become as conversant and effective as possible in your construction documentation and communication.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Car Sharing

Lane Community College is committed to the principles of sustainability. When it embarked upon its new Downtown Campus project, one of those precepts was to promote alternatives to car ownership and use. One such alternative is car sharing, which the college has embraced. 

In a nutshell, car sharing is a system under which many people share a pool of automobiles, either through cooperative ownership or through some other mechanism. The benefits of car sharing are acknowledged by the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system. The strategy is one of several means possible to qualify for LEED credit SSc4.3 – Alternative Transportation, the others being preferred parking for low-emitting and fuel-efficient vehicles, alternative fuel fueling stations, and providing a number of low-emitting and fuel-efficient vehicles equivalent to 3% of the project’s full-time equivalent occupants. 

Because the college’s ambitious project is targeting Gold and Platinum-level certification (1), there was never a doubt that sustainable site strategies would figure prominently in its development. The selection of the site itself was perhaps most important. Its immediate adjacency to the Lane Transit District Downtown Station and also to the City of Eugene’s Broadway Place parking structure (with its surplus capacity of parking spaces and installation of preferred parking and alternative fuel stations) ensured the new Downtown Campus would maximize its Alternative Transportation credits. The recent introduction of WeCars in the Broadway Place parking structure means that LCC students and staff will also enjoy a car-sharing option. 

An affiliate of Enterprise Rent-a-Car, WeCar mobilizes its members with short-term rentals of fuel-efficient, hybrid, and plug-in vehicles. For a minimum of one hour, drivers borrow cars for errands or business meetings at an hourly or daily rate that includes gas, basic insurance coverage, and up to 200 miles per use. The program is perfect for people who don't have a car but need one for certain trips that aren't reasonable by bus or other mass transit.

One published definition of car sharing characterizes it as the “missing link” in transportation options because of its far-reaching and interrelated benefits. Car sharing reduces traffic congestion and demand for parking, which leads to more compact urban development. Because car-share vehicles are usually newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles, there is also a considerable reduction of gasoline consumption and harmful emissions.

The Lane Transit District avidly supports car sharing through its Point2Point Solutions program and was partly responsible for coordinating WeCar’s introduction to Eugene. The agency secured a grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation to help make the program affordable to local users. Because of the grant, WeCar is able to waive the $20 dollar application fee and reduce the annual membership fee from $50 dollars to $25 dollars for the first year. Each driver who signs up also receives $50 in mileage credits. Anyone who is interested in becoming a member of WeCar can sign up online at

As the costs of car ownership (to individuals, society, and the environment) continue to rise, car sharing will increasingly become a preferred transportation option for many of us. Lane Community College, the City of Eugene, and Lane Transit District all recognize the benefits of and imperative for this transportation alternative. Inevitably as resources dwindle, the American dream of two cars in every garage will give way to a different vision in which the availability of viable transportation alternatives is most highly valued. Car sharing will undoubtedly help define this new transportation paradigm. 

(1)  The academic component of the project is set to achieve LEED Platinum while the student housing is targeted for LEED Gold certification.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

South Willamette Area Draft Concept Plan

Intersection of 29th Avenue and Willamette Street

The City of Eugene will conduct a public workshop on June 27 to present its updated draft concept plan for the South Willamette Street area. The workshop will be an opportunity for those who attend to weigh in on such matters as building form (heights, setbacks, etc.) and transitions between residential and shopping areas.

In a nutshell, the South Willamette Area Draft Concept Plan is a study for compact urban development and “opportunity siting.” The goal is to create a concept plan for how compact urban development can be integrated into an existing transportation corridor like the South Willamette district in a manner consistent with the Envision Eugene strategy for accommodating the city’s anticipated future growth.

The concept plan’s study area is roughly between 24th and 32nd Avenues on the north and south, and Amazon Park and the base of College Hill on the east and west. Willamette is the signature north-south street running through the center of the city. The stretch of Willamette Street between 24th and 29th was once popularly known as the “Gut.” During its 1960s-1970’s heyday, cruising up and down the Gut on a Friday or Saturday night was the epitome of the teenage car culture. Today, the Gut is no more but Willamette retains its auto-centric morphology.

My wife and I happen to live just a few blocks to the south of the study area so we have a strong interest in the development of the concept plan. We travel the route daily and frequent the many popular businesses along the south Willamette Street corridor. However—like our fellow pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and motorists—we find the streetscape uninviting. Conditions are poor for walking and bicycling, and inefficient for public transit and driving. It’s clear to us that carefully planned changes are necessary for South Willamette to truly become a successful and vibrant urban district.

According to City of Eugene Urban Design Planner Patricia Thomas, AIA(1) the intent of the plan is to:
  • Support business success and a vibrant urban district
  • Find opportunity sites for sensitively located denser urban housing types
  • Allow for gradual change and integration of existing desirable features of the district
  • Support all modes of transportation: walking, biking, and driving
Trish pictures the South Willamette Area becoming a "20-minute neighborhood," a place where people can accomplish a lot of what they want to do—find a place to live and do their errands, enjoy the outdoors and possibly even work—all within 20 minutes on foot, bike or bus. Exactly how this is achieved is the crux of the matter.

One controversial aspect of the draft concept plan is the absence so far of dedicated bicycle lanes on Willamette Street from 24th Avenue to 29th Avenue. Trish points out that a more detailed grant funded transportation study of Willamette Street is currently underway. She said the city will announce future meetings later in the summer to offer the public the opportunity to review the results of the transportation study and comment upon the street design. The study will presumably address the question of bicycle lanes head on.

The focus of the June 27 meeting is limited to a review of the updated draft concept plan and ideas about the future shape of building forms in the district. It will be a chance for everyone to comment upon the South Willamette Area concept plan and discuss how well it promotes the goals and principles of Envision Eugene. Don’t miss this event if you have an interest in the future of this important urban district.

Here are the details for the public workshop:

What:   Public Workshop: South Willamette Area Draft Concept Plan

When:  June 27, 2012   6:00 - 8:00 PM

Where: Hilyard Center, 2580 Hilyard Street

(1)  Trish is a friend of mine and former co-worker at Robertson/Sherwood/Architects. She is currently the project manager for the City of Eugene’s Opportunity Siting efforts. She can be reached by phone at 541-682-5561 or by email at