Sunday, March 9, 2014

Think Big, Start Small, Make It Happen

Conceptual design for the new Eugene City Hall (sketch by Rowell Brokaw Architects)

I attended one of the two open house events last month to learn more about the Eugene City Hall project and ask questions of the design team led by Rowell Brokaw Architects (RBA). I also watched RBA’s February 10 city council work session presentation. My take-away from both events is that the conceptual framework for the city hall block and Phase 1 construction project is a product of a careful weighing of the myriad factors in play. If I know anything about the project, it is nothing if not challenging and fraught with emotion, burdened by history, and constrained by a miserly budget.

Given all of this baggage, I found RBA’s conceptual design eminently logical. In particular, one of the project taglines—Think Big, Start Small, Make it Happen—is a succinct definition of the long-term strategy for developing a new City Hall. Biting off more to begin with than the City can afford is fiscally and politically untenable. Ultimately, an incremental, modest approach will more likely allow for context-sensitive adjustments over a period of several years. The majority of the members of the city council agreed, signaling their support for the direction proposed by the design team. The notable exception was Betty Taylor, who supports retention and rehabilitation of the existing (and now very much threatened) city hall building.

Check out the project website prepared by RBA. There you will find all of the information the team presented at the public open houses and the city council work session. I found the eight project goals statements particularly useful and well-written. The evocative, precise project goal statements read very much like the patterns assembled in A Pattern Language, the highly influential 1977 book on architecture, urban design, and community livability authored by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure.

The RBA team developed the project goals and refined them with input from the community. Each goal includes: 1) a title articulating the goal, 2) an observation a condition, problem or opportunity, and 3) a goal statement written in active, concrete language. The project goals and accompanying project values statements give ordinary citizens, not only design professionals, a way to work together to design a new seat of civic government for Eugene.

Of the eight project goals, the following three appeared to have tipped the scales in favor of razing the existing City Hall (underlined emphases are mine):  

Cities and communities are dynamic. A healthy city changes over time without losing its identity, and can be responsive to new needs, threats, and opportunities. Similarly, a healthy and resilient city block can adapt to change, include a mix of uses, and provide multiple paths to success in the future.

Re-envision City Hall as part of a “living block” with a dynamic and responsive future. Site the building in a way that encourages the efficient use of land, activates all four streets, and points toward better opportunities yet to come.

People feel more engaged with local government when they can see it. City Hall should connect the community with its local government and decision-making process. The existing building turns its back to the street and isolates important civic functions from the public realm. It does not reflect or support the style of local government in Eugene.

Design a City Hall that reaches out. Connect with the public realm at sidewalk level. Engage and improve the quality of the surrounding public realm.

City Hall should be a welcoming and accessible place that engenders a sense of civic pride. Every resident should have direct access to its services and feel they belong.

Design a City Hall that is physically and culturally accessible. Include a gracious and clear entry that supports people of all abilities and backgrounds. Locate important spaces so that they are visible from the street and connected to the public realm. Welcome everyone.

It’s my understanding these goal statements were developed organically rather than pronounced a priori. Regardless, they do betray the long-held sentiment of a majority of Eugene citizens who find it difficult to love the abstract, pedestrian-unfriendly, and parking structure-like aesthetic of the 1964 City Hall. A focus group of community stakeholders, neighbors, and professionals confirmed this prevailing perception when asked by RBA to discuss cultural accessibility and how City Hall can become a more welcoming place that connects with our entire community.

Bird's-eye view of the design concept 

What If? 
Even at this stage of the project where the general design concept appears firmly established, two “what if” questions can still be asked.

One is whether the project’s modest first phase will fulfill the ambitious goal of being a memorable and iconic place of civic life while also being uniquely Eugene. No matter what, the first phase will be the heart and soul of the future City Hall. What if its limited scope and $11 million direct construction budget prove inadequate for the task? My hope is that the final design will surpass expectations and Eugene will be graced with a new City Hall that sets a very high bar for the future build-out of the entire block and the downtown of which it will be a very important part.

The other question is the elephant in the room: the imminent loss of the current, competition-winning, mid-century modern City Hall building. Can it still be saved? Otto Poticha’s crusade to save it from the wrecking ball now includes his proposal to locate the new city hall on the City-owned quarter-block immediately to the south across 8th Avenue. Doing so would spare the older building so that it could be “mothballed” pending identification of an appropriate new use or set of uses.

In the March 6 edition of the Eugene Weekly, Jerry Diethelm offered another intriguing idea: constructing a “new stately City Hall along 7th Avenue on the north end of the North Park Block . . . one that opens to the south on a market square for the Saturday Market and Farmers Market and gives us the two-for-one of a restored park block and a City Hall that is as good as we are.” Jerry’s proposal would likewise spare the existing building, postponing the question of its ultimate fate until a later day.

I previously addressed the question of whether the existing building should be saved, concluding that correcting the current city hall’s failings may be too great a challenge to realistically overcome. There’s no small amount of irony in my arriving at this conclusion given that I also recently championed saving Michael Graves’ seminal Portland Building, a likewise severely flawed project whose future is also very much in question. The way I rationalize my opposing attitudes toward the two buildings is to assess as objectively as possible their respective significance as examples of architecture. I don’t think there’s any question the Portland Building is much more important to Post-Modern architecture than Eugene City Hall is to the legacy of mid-century Modernism. 

What’s next? 
Rowell Brokaw will present the project’s schematic design to the city council next month. If the council green lights the project, RBA’s team will shoot for completing construction documents by the end of 2014. With McKenzie Commercial already on board as the Construction Manager, demolition of the existing city hall and construction of the new building could start even before the CDs are finalized. If all goes to plan, we may be witnessing a ribbon-cutting as early as December 2015. 

If you have questions and comments regarding the project, email the project team at

No comments: