Monday, September 22, 2014

The Center of Gravity

The Lane County Farmers' Market bustles on a sunny Saturday afternoon in downtown Eugene (my photo)
If we’re fortunate, we may look back years from now at the current burst of development activity in Eugene and realize how propitious it was. This is a defining moment in our city’s history, one which we must capitalize upon. At stake is nothing less than downtown Eugene’s future identity, vitality, and livability. The decisions we make at this juncture will seal the district’s fate for years to come and impact its standing as the acknowledged heart of the city. It’s important we ensure our downtown withstands the pull of the ambitious plans outside of its orbit and remain Eugene’s center of gravity.

These farsighted plans include the EWEB Riverfront Master Plan. I find the vision shared by EWEB and the City of Eugene of a sustainable, urban “people place” along the banks of the Willamette River very promising. The strong framework developed by the team led by Rowell Brokaw Architects clearly articulates future riverfront development consistent with the community’s vision for the site. Everyone agrees with the notion of connecting the river to the city and the city to the river.

The vision presumes repurposing of the former EWEB operations center site as “Eugene’s Downtown Riverfront.”  My concern is if this is truly the goal, we must be careful to accomplish it without detracting from recent downtown achievements.

Eugene Riverfront Master Plan image by Rowell Brokaw Architects
The ongoing revival of downtown Eugene has been remarkable. Thanks to public leadership and private initiative, our downtown is more vibrant today than it has been in many years. The intersection of Broadway and Willamette Street is thriving once again and increasingly resembles the commercial and cultural crossroads it was long ago. The notorious “pits” have been filled. An assortment of unique retailers, restaurateurs, and artists is reopening long vacant storefronts. An increasingly diverse downtown population is helping to activate the sidewalks. Those of us who work or live downtown are thrilled by its renaissance. 

In view of this success, is pursuing the goal of connecting downtown with the EWEB riverfront development the right thing to do? Is there a risk we might spread downtown too thin? Would a vibrant and shiny new riverfront district remove the luster from the revival of Eugene’s historic downtown?

I believe Eugene’s downtown is already spread across too large an area. I recall Paul Farmer—who once served as the City of Eugene’s planning and development director (1998-2001) and recently stepped down as CEO of the American Planning Association (APA)—drawing a noteworthy comparison between Eugene’s downtown and that of a city with a metro population many times greater than our own. He said the area most Eugeneans regard as our downtown is equal in size to that of Pittsburgh, PA (where Paul also once worked). Granted, Pittsburgh’s “Golden Triangle” is largely constrained by the Allegheny River, Monongahela River, and Ohio River, so there’s basically no way for it to grow other than by building up. Eugene’s downtown is not so severely limited by geography. With the exception of Skinner Butte to the north, its edges are much fuzzier: our perception of its limits is shaped by legislated boundaries (i.e. the borders defined by the Downtown Urban Renewal District or the Eugene Downtown Plan) as much as it is by experiential cues.

Despite its recent success, the bottom line is downtown Eugene still lacks the critical mass necessary to assure its future.  It’s too diffuse because it’s too large. Too many still fail to find reasons to visit downtown. Without a sufficiently dense concentration of people, it cannot consistently generate the exuberant diversity on its sidewalks urbanites crave.
"Downtown Eugene with cars lined up at a stop, circa 1955" by OSU Special Collections & Archives: Uploaded by russavia. Via Wikimedia Commons

What downtown Eugene should stake claim to is being the region’s historic center for business, governmental, and cultural activities. Presently, more office space does exist there than in any other single section of town. Many of the community’s art galleries and principal performing arts venues—including the Hult Center, WOW Hall, McDonald Theater, and the Shedd—are also found downtown. The Lane County Farmers’ Market has always been located in the city center. Ditto for the Saturday Market, the First Friday Art Walk, and the Eugene Celebration. Lane Community College’s new campus across from the Eugene Public Library is evidence of that institution’s commitment to the city core. Downtown is also an important transportation center, home to Lane Transit District’s primary hub, the Amtrak rail station, and the Greyhound bus terminus.

Downtown’s center of gravity should stay where it is now. I think its general outline and “bones” should also remain generally as they are. Its boundaries shouldn’t expand. Its geographic center should not shift toward the river. We need to retain and reinforce downtown Eugene’s historical legacy and the distinct features that impart its genius loci (spirit of place). These features include the Park Blocks, the concentration of government buildings, the Willamette Street axis between Skinner Butte and Spencer Butte, and Skinner Butte itself.

In his seminal book, The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch stressed the importance of structure and identity, the vividness of elements, and a sense of the whole to how we perceive our urban environments. He spoke of the “contrast and specialization of individual character.” Achieving contrast and specialization entails the generation of well-defined edges, paths, nodes, landmarks, and districts. Ideally, we recognize a district by its singular qualities, which may include contrasting and unique features that “vivify the scene.”

Accordingly, one means to help secure downtown Eugene’s future is to avoid hitching its wagon to the proposed riverfront development. What many regard as a significant challenge for whomever EWEB and the City select to develop the riverfront property— that is the site’s relative inaccessibility—may ironically prove to be a blessing. This is because its isolation may bolster the contrast necessary to preserve downtown Eugene’s present structure and identity. Downtown’s greatest asset is being a unique place with its own underlying organizational structure. 

"Old Mill District Bend" by  Jenny Furniss. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons

Many may point to the Pearl district in Portland as a relevant precedent insofar as it is a significant and flourishing reclamation of a once moribund area immediately adjacent to a CBD. Perhaps a closer analog to what we’ll see happen in Eugene is the Old Mill District in Bend. Like the Eugene Riverfront project will be, the Old Mill District was assembled under the control of a single developer. Also like the Eugene Riverfront plan, it features mixed uses at relatively high densities arrayed in a pedestrian-friendly and scenic environment. Notably, the new development does not border Bend’s downtown. I happen to think both the Old Mill District and downtown Bend are thriving because they are separated from one another.

Older downtowns tend to be resilient in a way an altogether new development district may not be. They’ve grown over a span of time, more organically than if they sprouted overnight. Their incremental patterns of development are inherently forgiving and permit course corrections over time; however, further expanding downtown's reach may excessively tax that resiliency.  

Downtown Eugene is just finding its stride again and reestablishing its identity. We do need to be careful as we move forward with such ambitious and welcome projects as the development of the EWEB riverfront site. This is a time to take stock of these plans and to carefully consider how we can ensure they complement our still emergent accomplishments downtown. 

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