Monday, August 27, 2012

Whither City Hall?

Eugene City Hall (all photos by me)

We all knew the day was coming. The City of Eugene has abandoned and shuttered its City Hall, the event passing with little fanfare or sadness. A victim of institutional neglect and community indifference, the once celebrated building suffered a protracted decline.(1) It now sits vacant and forlorn, its fate all but sealed. 

City of Eugene administrators and politicians have pondered that fate for the better part of the past two decades. Something needed (and still needs) to be done. While the realities of City Hall’s physical shortcomings and the costs to remediate them took precedence in the discussions, its critical role as a symbol of civic government and community identity also figured prominently. The abandonment of City Hall leaves Eugene wanting for a new building emblematic of its citizenry and culture. It would be a shame if Eugene’s residents found themselves in future years without a city hall they could readily identify and point to with pride. 

It’s unlikely the now abandoned City Hall will ever be revived in a form that adequately preserves the qualities that made it an important example of mid-century public architecture.(2) As for a completely new building worthy of serving as the visible seat of municipal government for Eugene, I’m afraid the writing is on the wall. City officials realized taxpayers would not support the estimated $174 million boondoggle envisioned in 2008 by THA Architecture. The modestly scaled scenarios painted more recently by Rowell Brokaw Architects would do little to adequately consolidate the city’s far-flung administrative functions or ensure a structure befitting the civic stature that is associated with the institution of city halls. 

Not surprisingly, there’s been plenty of community debate about what Eugene can afford and deserves when it comes to a new city hall. Two individuals I know well and greatly respect recently contributed their voices to the conversation, both sharing their thoughts about converting the current Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB) headquarters into Eugene’s next City Hall. 

Tom Santee wrote a guest commentary in the August 19 edition of the Register-Guard in which he championed the idea of adapting the EWEB headquarters as City Hall. Tom served as EWEB’s public relations professional during the late 1980s when its current headquarters was designed and built.(3) He believes the highly visible landmark’s prime riverfront location and iconic form are ideally suited for repurposing as the city’s symbolic seat of government.(4) 

In last Friday’s edition of his weekly column for the Register-Guard, AIA-SWO executive director Don Kahle countered (indirectly) Tom Santee’s enthusiasm for consolidating city services in the EWEB building. Don’s principal objection to Tom’s plan is that the EWEB headquarters isn’t where a city hall should be. In Don’s mind, the building is literally and figuratively on the wrong side of the tracks, outside of Eugene’s downtown core. He also believes that, while attractive, the EWEB headquarters blocks views and access to the river. 

What do I think? With only mild reservations, I find myself in the camp of those who advocate transforming the EWEB headquarters into Eugene’s next City Hall. If EWEB is looking to relocate its administrative functions, I can’t think of a better and more sustainable outcome for its current home than to extend its life in civic service. 

By virtue of its physical prominence, visibility, and architectural quality, the dominant reading of the EWEB headquarters is of an important public facility. The community-inspired master plan for the redevelopment of EWEB’s riverfront property and Willamette River Greenway restrictions effectively would guarantee its distinction as the only major building near downtown to be located so close to the river. Its future within a park-like setting along the river’s edge is assured. Contrary to Don’s assertions, the EWEB headquarters does not block access to the riverfront but rather marks a point of access and extends the urban grid to it. The headquarters is one of the few buildings in the city that overtly acknowledge the river and its importance to Eugene. 

The headquarters is admittedly smaller than necessary to house all of City Hall’s functions. However, it could accommodate the majority of those associated with citizen contact, providing one-stop convenience for as many services as possible. Departments with less of a need for direct contact with patrons could remain located elsewhere.(5) The EWEB building already does feature generously proportioned public meeting facilities, an attractive atrium, and convenient parking. 

EWEB Headquarters viewed from Alton Baker Park across the Willamette River.

Some functions might necessitate construction of new spaces. For example the municipal court requires facilities tailored to security and other functional demands associated with the judiciary; I imagine these would be difficult to create from within the current fabric of the EWEB headquarters. Likewise, it might be desirable to construct a grand new council chamber, perhaps similar in character to the old one. Any new addition to the EWEB headquarters could occur as an annex to the west, away from river, in keeping with the riverfront redevelopment master plan.  

Don’s criticism of the EWEB headquarters being too far removed from the center of downtown is valid. Yes, it will forever be separated from what should be our community’s center of gravity by the Southern Pacific rail lines. Then again, the nearby Federal Courthouse is similarly isolated from downtown by the Franklin Boulevard/Mill Street approach to the Ferry Street Bridge. Eugene’s downtown is lamentably diffuse but shouldn’t be circumscribed to exclude EWEB or the Federal Courthouse. If anything, we should embrace connecting downtown with the Willamette River and restoring historic ties between the city and the waterway it was founded upon. 

Like Tom Santee, I believe converting the EWEB headquarters into Eugene’s new city hall can be a win-win scenario. EWEB could entrust its prominent, uniquely situated, structurally sound, and energy-efficient building to the City of Eugene rather than to a private enterprise that might permanently remove it and its riverfront prospect from the public realm. The City would secure an attractive new home for itself at a considerable discount compared to the cost of constructing equivalent space from scratch. Moreover, it would demonstrate its commitment to sustainability by highly valuing the energy embodied in the original construction of the EWEB headquarters. Rather than expending increasingly scarce resources and funds on a new building, the City would walk the talk and lead by example. 

I suspect I might be missing an important point here, a shortcoming which would bring into question the very underpinning of this concept. I have not studied the entire issue in detail. Perhaps Tom and I are mistaken and the idea of converting the EWEB headquarters into City Hall is a terrible one. 

What are your thoughts? What form should a new city hall for Eugene assume?
(1) The 1960 design by Stafford, Morin & Longwood was a winner of a juried, two-stage design competition. Regardless, murmurs about replacing the facility would begin all too soon as its deficiencies became apparent. These deficiencies include its vulnerability to collapse in an earthquake, and reliance upon an antiquated steam heating infrastructure, which the Eugene Water & Electric Board terminated this summer. 
(2) Otto Poticha is a fan of Eugene’s former City Hall. "With its unpretentious look and courtyard design, the building” he has said (it) "has a warm, friendly and inviting atmosphere... Our City Hall is a very special and unique architectural achievement... It is unique in the world as a city hall." 
(3) WEGroup Architects & Planners designed the EWEB’s headquarters. The cost of construction totaled $23.8 million in 1988. The headquarters is comprised of a four-story building with an open, atrium-style lobby that is connected by a skywalk to a two-story building to the north. EWEB’s plaza and fountain are well known to residents who walk or bike along the riverbank path between the buildings and the river. 
(4) City Council member Mike Clark also is a strong proponent in favor of converting the EWEB headquarters to become Eugene City Hall. 
(5) It needn’t include the Eugene Police Department, which recently moved its offices to a building on Country Club Road, across the river from downtown.

1 comment:

Samual James said...

EWEB headquarters likely to be changed as the need of the current Luxuries era, these must be sound a unique building structure like the way you enlighten my ideas, defiantly this is only the way to show authorized reorganization.
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