Monday, January 20, 2014

January AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

Eugene City Hall - Council Chamber (my photo)
The saga of Eugene’s city hall—the slow, sad decline of a competition-winning design and now the promise of its revival—fascinates anyone who cares about downtown Eugene and the potential for City Hall to symbolically represent our participatory form of democracy. It was the hope for a glimpse of the building’s future that attracted so many of us last Wednesday to the Rogue Ales Public House(1) to attend the January 2014 AIA-Southwestern Oregon chapter meeting. On hand to slake our thirst for information were Mike Penwell (City of Eugene Facilities Design & Construction Manager), and John Rowell, AIA and Kaarin Knudsen, Assoc. AIA of Rowell Brokaw Architects (leaders of the master planning & design team). 

Mike Penwell has spent much of his past 15 years with the City of Eugene pondering what is best for City Hall. This process has taken many humbling twists and turns. Ultimately, it is culminating in an effort that Mike said is in many ways playing catch-up with the recent renaissance of downtown Eugene. Chastened by a jaded citizenry and the recent economic downturn the City of Eugene is now thinking big (by looking forward and imagining a rejuvenated City Hall as an ambitious catalyst for its corner of downtown) but starting small (limiting the total project budget to a modest sum). Given the many factors at play, I believe this outcome will in due course be viewed as the best one possible. 

I previously chronicled the protracted course the City followed in its selection of the team it would entrust with master planning City Hall’s future (as well as my frustrations with the process the City employed). I also earlier supported adaptive reuse of the current EWEB headquarters as City Hall but that’s an idea whose time has passed. Regardless of my previous feelings about the project, I’m happy for Rowell Brokaw Architects (and the rest of RBA team, which includes the Miller Hull Partnership) and have every confidence in their ability to deliver an outstanding master plan and a first phase design solution for City Hall on its current site. 

John and Kaarin said RBA hopes to complete the master plan sometime in April of this year. The master planning process will entail RBA’s envisioning 5-10 distinct options, from which it will subsequently select three for further development and consideration by city councilors. Ultimately, City Council will choose a single design option, encompassing 25,000 to 30,000 square feet of program area through renovation, new construction, or a combination of the two. The City set the total project budget for this first phase of work at $15 million; $11 million of this sum will be committed to direct construction costs. 

The functional program includes the following:
  • Council chamber
  • City Manager’s office
  • Mayor’s and councilors’ offices
  • Community meeting rooms
It’s important to note how small the initial program area is relative to the overall site, which presently occupies the entire downtown block bounded by 7th Avenue, High Street, 8th Avenue, and Pearl Street. The upshot is the project isn’t likely to completely transform City Hall; there just isn’t enough money available. Instead, the first phase will crucially lay the groundwork for future development on the site. Whether these future phases will involve additional city facilities or commercial space may be determined by the master plan RBA is preparing. Most important is the establishment of a flexible framework that allows for change over time. As Mike quipped, the framework “will make it clear there is another chapter to the story.” We’re not going to witness a blockbuster transformation; instead, we can look forward to City Hall evolving organically over many years, responding purposely to needs as they arise and funding is available.

RBA is viewing its master planning process through a wide-angle lens. They’re applying lessons learned from recent urban design success stories in Eugene and elsewhere, and also working toward realizing the City’s broader goals for downtown (such as the reinforcement of the “Great Streets” concept). They’re looking at the “big picture” by projecting what the impact of their evolving plan may be upon the surrounding environment, and vice-versa. 

The master plan will likely establish the extent to which the existing building’s mid-century Modern design is preserved. The City wants to save the council chamber, so the iconic cylinder will largely be spared the wrecking ball. Intriguingly though, John and Kaarin posed the question of what “retaining” the council chamber really means. Does it necessarily stand for slavish preservation? Probably not. Considering all options, RBA has even broached the possibility of repositioning the council chamber, perhaps so its floor is aligned with a new street-level entrance. The City has also applied for a heritage grant to fund further study of how best to address the historic significance of the existing building. 

Soon after choosing RBA to lead the design team, the City selected McKenzie Commercial Contractors, Inc. as the Construction Manager/General Contractor (CM/GC). Jim Mender is McKenzie’s project manager. Since coming on board, he’s worked closely with RBA to examine the existing facility and the potential for retaining and/or salvaging and repurposing building components. For example, Jim determined that 30,000 board feet of high quality cedar is salvageable from the wood screen that is the most prominent feature on all sides of the building. While much of this lumber superficially appears rotted or otherwise of questionable value, much of it is actually intact beneath the surface. 

RBA is also exploring the potential of preserving the various freestanding and bas-relief sculptures that currently lend City Hall so much of its character. The City’s mandate to RBA is to not only retain as much of this art as possible but also include new pieces as part of City Hall’s future. RBA plans to add a master artist to its team to ensure that both the existing art and future commissions are thoroughly integrated in the design of the building. 

Additionally, the City wants to maintain City Hall’s existing parking capacity. The master plan will presumably describe exactly how this will be achieved. 

Of course, everyone wants City Hall to once again thrive as Eugene’s civic heart. We want City Hall to be an expression of what matters to our community. We hope it will become something all of us will point to proudly as “our city hall.” We want it to reflect our aspirations for what our downtown can ideally be. We also expect a renewed City Hall to be nothing less than a model of sustainability(2), “radically accessible,” and welcoming. We want to love our City Hall again. 

John and Kaarin did not include in their presentation any drawings that would have illustrated their initial thoughts about City Hall’s future. A first look at the master plan options is reserved for the City Council, as it should be. The rest of us will get our opportunity sometime in February at a public open house. Overall, things will happen quickly. Once RBA completes the master plan, it will prepare the construction documents for the limited initial phase of renovation. Mike envisions occupancy early in 2016, just two years from today. 

Everyone involved with the development of the master plan is acutely aware of what Eugene’s citizens and civic leaders want for City Hall. Mike, John, and Kaarin understand they’re stewards of a legacy to be passed forward to generations of future Eugeneans. Their goal is to develop a robust plan that a century from now will still reflect the best of what this community is and stands for. It’s a tall challenge, one that I believe they’re more than capable of meeting. 
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Scott Clarke, AIA used the January chapter meeting as an opportunity to introduce the theme for his tenure as AIA-Southwestern Oregon’s president in 2014. By definition “depth of field” is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear acceptably sharp in an image; however, the term also serves to express Scott’s goal of broadening (deepening) our chapter’s outreach to be more inclusive of the entire breadth of the AIA-SWO membership. Scott wants to deliver value to all members regardless of whether they’re based in Eugene/Springfield or elsewhere (for example, there are 62 registered architects in Bend, not all of whom are yet AIA members), practice architecture in a conventional sense or not, engaged in related professions, or active in academia. He wants AIA-SWO’s depth of field to be as great as possible so that everyone benefits through participation in our chapter activities. Under Scott’s leadership, I fully expect to see AIA-SWO grow, diversify, and prosper.  

(1)  I’m sure Rogue Ales are refreshingly tasty and produced using only the finest ingredients (I wouldn’t know because I’m not a beer drinker); however, the cramped quarters of the basement meeting room of the Rogue Ales Public House and noise from above were less than conducive to the presentations by Mike, John, and Kaarin. Many in attendance could not find a seat and stood for the entire program. Others complained to me afterward about not being able to hear clearly because of the occasional ruckus upstairs. What was wrong with The Actors Cabaret as a venue for AIA-SWO meetings? It has ample room and is better when it comes to acoustics.  

(2)  Rowell Brokaw is ambitiously targeting an Energy Use Intensity (EUI) of only 25 for the project. Additionally, their goal is to ensure a net-zero ready building, one that is an exemplar of resilient design.

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