Sunday, August 3, 2014

Debate and Discourse: Hallmarks of a Healthy Community

Eugene City Hall (my photo)

As its appointment with the wrecking ball nears, Eugene’s vacated, mid-century modern city hall finds itself at the center of a fervent debate. Its principal protagonists have been members of the local design community, and its primary forum has been the opinion pages of The Register-Guard and Eugene Weekly.

I suspect many who have read the starkly contrasting points of view expressed in the published comments are variously: a) baffled by the affection some of the writers have for a building many citizens consider ugly and uninviting; b) exasperated by detractors who fail to share their appreciation of city hall’s fashionable Mad Men-era design; or c) confounded by the disparate opinions articulated by architects who presumably spring from similar wells of education, experience, and perspective.

The readers may also be puzzled by the eleventh hour appeals to save the building. Didn’t this ship sail months ago? Ask Otto Poticha, FAIA, this question and his answer is a resolute “NO.”

Otto, like a dog with a bone, refuses to let go of the building. His crusade to save it from demolition includes his proposal to locate the new city hall on the city-owned quarter-block immediately to the south, across Eighth Avenue. Doing so would spare the old city hall so that it could be “mothballed” pending identification of an appropriate new use or set of uses. Others—including Chuck Bailey, AIA, Eric Hall, AIA, and Marston Morgan, AIA—have rallied to Otto’s side, penning their own letters favoring retention and resuscitation of the old building.

In the March 6 edition of 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.

What is it about our vacant and forlorn city hall that these seasoned architects believe merits its preservation?

Eugene’s city hall was the widely published winner of a prestigious architectural design competition juried by a group of distinguished regional architects. Completed in 1964, the design by Stafford, Morin, and Longwood Architects is a noteworthy example of the mid-century modern architectural movement and a valuable part of local civic history. Its informal and democratic organization of a plaza surrounding a central council chamber is decidedly anti-monumental, as befits our community.

While Eugene city staff cited the building's abysmal energy performance as one reason to move on, it’s also true that the most sustainable version of city hall may be the one that already exists. Advocates of city hall’s architecture can convincingly enumerate the dollars the city could save by reusing the existing structure, as opposed to building a totally new facility.

They also rightly argue that we are at risk of repeating the past in a bad way by ignoring it. Thanks to well-intended but misguided urban renewal, Eugene now laments the loss of much of its irreplaceable architectural heritage (such as the previous city hall and county courthouse). By condemning city hall to the dustbin of history, are we making the same mistake?

On the opposite side of the ledger, John Reynolds, FAIA, pulled no punches in his July 29 letter to the R-G. For John, city hall is an oppressive one-story box on stilts decorated with heavy wooden slats, a product of a bygone era that set important buildings atop pedestals, aloof from the surrounding sidewalks. He noted how city hall confronts pedestrians with an “oversized fence looming over a vertical moat in the form of a dark view into a sunken parking lot.” He acknowledged the pleasant central courtyard, but correctly observed that it is neither visible nor readily accessible from the street.

The old building is too standoffish for how we think about government today and our "Great Street” aspirations. Some argue the building should go not because we don’t care about our past, but because it impedes our way to another, richer, older part of our history—a return to a time before we abdicated so much of our urban landscape to the automobile.

I could blink my eyes and imagine this same conversation happened around the Skinner Butte cross. It’s a valued (some would say “revered”) part of our community’s history, but what it stands for is not in step with our values and identity today.

I share John’s belief that correcting city hall’s failings may be too great a challenge to realistically overcome. I can’t imagine any way to ameliorate city hall’s shortcomings without fundamentally erasing the very essence of the original design that Otto and the others are so vociferously defending.

Eugene City Hall, High Street facade (my photo)

The absence of unanimity among architects about city hall may be perplexing to some, but the very fact it is so elusive is also why I find the debate and discourse so encouraging. We may not all agree about what should be done with the building, but that’s really beside the point. 

Vigorous debate and discourse about what’s best for the built environment are hallmarks of a healthy community. Cajoled by Otto, the Local Affairs Committee of the American Institute of Architects – Southwestern Oregon Chapter recently convened to tackle the subject of city hall. Otto challenged us to exercise our know-how and take a stand. He wanted us to be participants and not merely spectators.

The committee wrestled with finding a common message about city hall to share publicly. The fact is we’re a diverse group. You can’t paint architects with the same brush. Not all of our views are commonly held, as our divergent opinions about city hall will attest. Speaking out on controversial issues doesn’t always come naturally to us. We struggled to arrive at an accord, ultimately settling upon acknowledging our respect for history and the pain of removing a building that shaped our civic life.

What we could agree upon is that we want city hall to again thrive as Eugene’s civic heart. We want the new building to be an expression of what matters to our community. We hope the design by Rowell Brokaw Architects (with Miller Hull) will become something every Eugenean will point to proudly as “our city hall.” We want it to reflect our aspirations for downtown. We also expect our new seat of civic government to be nothing less than a model of sustainability, “radically accessible,” and welcoming. We want to love our city hall again.

New City Hall rendering by Rowell Brokaw Architects (view from Eighth & Pearl)

This essay is the committee’s contribution to the conversation. We’ve concluded consensus—speaking with one voice—is neither necessary nor always desirable. More important is publicly discussing issues and presenting the considered views of AIA members who have lived and worked for many years here in Eugene and Springfield. Our pledge is to continue to bring our expertise to bear upon contentious topics associated with the built environment. If our ongoing dialogue contributes positively to enlightened policy-making and greater public appreciation for the value of good design, we’ll have done our job well.


Bill Seider said...

Thanks for this complete summary of our Friday morning discussion on the issues of the old and new Eugene City Hall building Randy. You were truly the right person among us to prepare this message.

Last year at the AIA Convention, Cameron Sinclair (then director of Habitat for Humanity) told us that "The most sustainable building is one that is loved". But we also know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Somewhere in the middle for many of us lies our existing city hall building. For me the big question is why tear down so much building that could be re-purposed for either a new city hall or another use - either public or private.

I am currently sitting in the Broadway Commerce Center at the corner of Broadway and Willamette, a building that could have been tested to the same standards as city hall is now. Yet rather than tear it down and build a spanking new multi-story modern office building on this primary site at least one developer saw the economic benefits to "rebuild" it, and that helped to kick off the downtown rejuvenation we are all so proud of these days.

The Amtrak train station was once destined for the wrecking ball. The Smeed Hotel and Tiffany Building were re-purposed for new uses. The Taco Time building was recently "rebuilt" and is soon to be full of new tenants. There are certainly lots of local examples of creative ways we have all found to save an existing building. In my mind saving City Hall for whatever use - again, public or private - is just a design problem. One that I have no doubt that Rowell Brokaw Architects and their associates at Miller|Hull Architects couldn't solve with style and grace, if only given the proper direction from their clients at the city.

Eric Hall said...

Randy: i hardly think it fair to cast those of us that think that the city hall has some merit as dogs with a bone.... Yes, we believe that it is never good to throw away the public former investment, and yes we have been vocal about the waste, but then again, shouldn't we all be as architects within this community. Mr. Reynolds comments, while true, are equally true for all building constructed of this era. As design professionals, do we throw on the junk heap all buildings that don't meet current codes or current notions about energy use?

But there are many of us, that while we might not choose to support the aesthetics at the time that this design was selected by a group of our peers, are we really in such possession of buildings of this note, that we can simply toss them aside, while they still have good life left in them.

And finally, I know that AIA PP asked you to summarize the contents of this meeting, but I can't help feel a hint of bias in your writing, which is exactly what I want from your blog, but it isn't what i would want from a PP position piece. Perhaps that is why you added the caveats at the beginning.

Still, at the end of the day, the question that should be being asked and I feel really isn't, is that it is clear that some in our community want a bright, new car smelling city hall. And clearly, that ship seems to have sailed. But, I think few of us, would simply throw away all the equity that we have in our homes, our cars, and even our relationships. Instead, we remodel or sell our houses, we sell or repurpose our cars to our kids, and well, we hopefully don't go shoot our ex-spouses. So, why should we be complacent with our city staff and council, who seem completely willing to do all of those things.

Why not advocate for at least an opportunity for your citizenry to rally around a redevelopment option as we have just seen for the Civic Stadium. The EM's didn't have to be any good for us still to think about broader uses for that site. And in a similar fashion, the poor energy, and poor connection to the street are all things that a new user could address. Perhaps your next blog entry can address the bigger issue of what we should do with the things in our life that we no longer find useful, or perhaps one on the fiduciary responsibilities that all those who hold public office should have to guarding the public's treasure.

Don Bishoff said...

As someone who -- in 38+ years as a Register-Guard reporter and columnist -- spent probably s much time in the building as any City Council member of City Manager, I can't conceive of tearing it down,

So I disagree with Randy, with Otto and with John Reynolds. I favor a rehabbed, slightly remodeled existing City Hall -- used as City Hall -- on the present site.

The original building is an important piece of our civic heritage that should be preserved, as much as possible. I don't favor tearing it down (as Reynolds and Randy support) nor do I favor repurposing it and building a new City Hall across the street (as Otto supports). It completely loses its historic value if it's repurposed. I'd like to see it ultimately restored as -- and used for -- a City Hall. Tearing down the iconic Council Chambers with its wonderful mural would be criminal. Even the moat/fountain around it can be restored and made workable.

Second best -- but less desirable --would be Jerry Diethelm's idea of a new City Hall on the north end of the butterfly block, with the existing Council Chambers moved intact to become part of that new building. At least we'd save something.

Don Driscoll said...

We have a choice between building a New City Hall or Rehabilitation of our Existing City Hall.

The Proposed New City Hall proposal has entered into a Serial Cost Escalation Phase.

First, it was proposed that a Phase I start-up City Hall with 20-25,000 square feet would cost $15,000,000.Then it was proposed that a 4th Floor could be added for an additional $3,000,000. And finally a 100,000 square foot Phase 2 building could be added for approximately $44,000,000 based on the existing Phase I cost of $440 dollars per square foot. That means that we are talking about a $62,000,000 New City Hall!

While at the same time we will continue to lease 71,944 square feet of private space for $1,197,963 a year.

Now even saving the existing City Council Chamber that was approved by the City Council has been discarded because, “It would be too expensive to move.”

The final tragedy is we are giving away three quarters of our City Block.

Rehabilitation of the Existing City Hall needs to be given serious reconsideration as an effective alternative to a $62,000,000 New City Hall. The Existing City Hall contains 82,215 square feet of interior space capable of rehabilitation. There is an additional 89,401 square feet of parking area that could be converted to useable office space for a total area of 171,616 square feet. That is 46,616 square feet more than the proposed $62,000,000 New City Hall space of 125,000 square feet. There is also an option to retain a portion of the existing parking area.

Some do not like the appearance of the existing City Hall. Also comparisons are being made between the proposed New City Hall and the Existing City Hall. That is a misdirection ploy. The comparison should be made between a New City Hall and a Rehabilitated City Hall. A Rehabilitated City Hall can be a significant and beautiful building that is highly functional at a lower price than the $15 million dollar New City Hall start-up, and substantially less than the proposed completed New City Hall at $62 million dollars. Rehabilitation would focus on spatial reorganization and dramatically increasing the energy efficiency of the existing City Hall. A "Net Zero" energy goal could be achieved through energy saving construction and photovoltaics. With a complete city block of roof area containing south facing solar panels and north facing skylights over an entire city block would be spectacular and exceptionally energy efficient.

The Existing City Hall and Site are not disposable assets!

Donald B. Driscoll, AIA

Hugh Prichard said...

Hi Randy,
Very nice job of presenting "both sides", regardless of what advocates of one side or the other will say.

If City Hall were to be saved to be a museum of 1950's culture and worldview, I'd be all for it. It is
so spectacularly demonstrative of a point in time when we were all going to live in the suburbs and drive
everywhere and have surface parking and inefficient buildings and unlimited electricity and petroleum.
Yippee. It demonstrates all of that. Which is precisely why it would be such a poor choice for restoring
as other than a museum. I mean, none of it makes any sense for this century.

Restoring city hall will cost at least as much as new construction. There is always the fantasy that "simple restoration" will be inexpensive. And it never is. My experience with both Lincoln School and other projects is that all true
historic rehab plans will cost more than an new construction. Sometimes money well spent; sometimes not.

City Hall is inefficient both energywise and space wise. It "turns its back on the street" unless you like viewing
automobiles down there in the gloom. It is widely thought to be ugly, despite attempts to educate the public
about its inherent beauty. The idea that it invites the public in to its inner courtyard is laughable.
There is no invitation, just a very steep ramp or staircase. It does not work as an agora nor public
gathering place nor inviting place to picnic. It is uninviting from start to finish.

Inside it is dated, both in materials and function. To make it workable for modern office needs would require
extensive remodeling and abandoning much of the historic fabric of corridors, depths and office layouts.
The "true cost" energy argument is interesting but certainly controversial and debatable. I notice that Otto
asserted the "value" of the building to be $40million. I don't know what this means, but the market value of
the building as it sits is under $4million by any analysis of land value and cost to renovate. Only when one resorts
to creative off balance sheet "sunk costs" or embedded energy costs can the imputed value go up. Our markets
don't work this way, so the exercise is lost on me.

I understand that some people would like to save this building, particularly in light of all the ones we foolishly
destroyed in the late sixties. So be it. While I have the same regrets about what we have lost, this building
is so dysfunctional that I believe we would be far better off starting over. Unless we want to save it as an interesting
museum piece of a long-departed 1950's worldview. That would be fun and the place could be filled with things from
Edsels to jetpacks to Camel cigarettes to show how we used to roll.