Sunday, May 31, 2015

Eugene’s Little Free Libraries

Little Free Library - 2580 Augusta Street, Eugene (all photos by me)

You may have seen them along the sidewalks of your neighborhood: Curious little boxes on posts, stocked with eclectic collections of books to peruse and select from. Invariably cheery, colorfully decorated, and lovingly handcrafted, they’re as individual as their creators and stewards. They’re Eugene’s little free libraries (LFL), and there are more of them around town than you might have imagined.

The concept of the little free library is a simple one. Each little free library is the handiwork of someone who loves reading, recycling, sharing, and building community. The books it contains are for anyone to borrow, with signs inviting users to donate their own. The library’s steward curates the collection, selecting titles likely to be of interest to passersby. Fundamentally, LFLs are “take a book, return a book” gathering places where neighbors share books and get to know one another.

Acorn Park Little Free Library - 1595 Buck Street, Eugene

The Little Free Library movement is a grassroots triumph. It is also a surprisingly recent cultural phenomenon: Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, unwittingly started the movement in 2009 when he honored the memory of his mother (a former schoolteacher and bibliophile) by erecting the first little free library. Since then, they’ve sprouted like so many wild mushrooms, now numbering more than 25,000 worldwide and counting. I’m aware of at least 36 LFLs in Eugene; it’s fair to say Eugene is fertile ground for these diminutive temples of literacy.

Little Free Library - 1592 Lawrence Street, Eugene

Bol and other dedicated volunteers established Little Free Library as a nonprofit corporation in 2012. The organization’s website is a treasure trove of information about LFLs, from how-to-information to an extensive gallery of installations everywhere. A part of the nonprofit’s mission is to provide little free libraries to neighborhoods in need at no cost.

Little Free Library - 3410 Grant Street, Eugene

Homeowners who build the little free libraries and install them in their front yards find they promote much more than just reading. People pick up books they otherwise might not have discovered and talk about them with others. The libraries bring neighbors together, make them smile, and cultivate interactions in a way that harkens back to a less harried time when social isolation was rare. They appeal to all generations.

Margret Aldrich, an LFL steward and author, summed up this appeal in her recently published The Little Free Library Book:

“When people pause to flip through the hardcovers and paperbacks, they are just as likely to strike up a conversation with their neighbor as they are to find their next great read. Little Free Libraries help make blocks friendlier and more connected, and the best of them become the neighborhood water cooler—an informal meeting spot that acts as a small social anchor in the community.”

Little Free Library - 2521 Moon Mountain Road, Eugene
As an architect, I especially find the place-making potential of little free libraries attractive. They do strengthen connections between people and the places they share. As vehicles of self-expression, they differentiate and humanize otherwise nondescript streetscapes. They’re works of art in the public realm; civic architecture writ small. 

155 East 34th Avenue, Eugene
Here’s the list of Eugene’s little free libraries (organized by postal zip code): 




  • 155 E. 34th Avenue
  • 2036 Willamette Street
  • 245 E. 37th Avenue
  • 2770 Olive Street
  • 2930 Garfield Street
  • 3205 Portland Street
  • 3205 Van Buren Street
  • 3410 Grant Street
  • 3987 Brae Burn Drive
  • 657 E. 39th Avenue
  • 880 W. 27th Avenue
  • 960 W. 24th Avenue
  • Building 24, Lane Community College, 4000 E. 30th Avenue
  • Corner of Monroe Street and W. 23rd Avenue
  • 285 W. 31st Avenue
  • Whitty Storeys Neighborhood Library Box: 3405 Storey Boulevard
  • Friendly Park Little Free Library #4202: Corner of Monroe Street and W. 27th Avenue
  • Friendly Street near the junction with W. 22nd Avenue
  • Loma Linda Drive (near intersection with Loma Linda Lane)

  • 2910 Tulip Street
Little Free Library - 3205 Portland Street, Eugene
Little Free Library - Corner of Monroe Street and W. 23rd Avenue, Eugene  

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Making Great Cities: The Dollars and $ense of Downtown Development

A large and diverse audience packed the Downtown Athletic Club’s Conference Center last Thursday evening for the third of the Making Great Cities series of community-wide forums about design excellence at the building, urban, and metro scales. Like the others in attendance, I was there to hear what proved to be a provocative and persuasive presentation by Joe Minicozzi, AICP about the simple math of smart urban growth. 
Joe is the principal of Urban3, a consulting company created by Asheville, North Carolina real estate developer, Public Interest Projects. Joe was born and raised in Rome, New York. During his youth, he witnessed the “sacking of Rome,” the systematic destruction of what was the coherent urban fabric of his hometown in favor of the kind of block-busting, car-oriented development characteristic of the time. Partly in response, he chose to study architecture at the University of Miami, where he was greatly influenced by the pioneering New Urbanists Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Joe later attended Harvard’s Graduate School of Design before settling in Asheville, North Carolina, where his wife is from. Prior to creating Urban3, he served as the Executive Director for the Asheville Downtown Association. 
Joe described how Asheville, a city smaller and more impoverished than Eugene at the time, largely escaped the ravages of post-WWII urban renewal. For this reason, it retained a significant stock of older buildings downtown that had fallen into disuse and lay fallow for many years. Public Interest Projects (founded in 1990 by the late Julian Price) took a pioneering approach by renovating numerous properties, guided by the belief that downtown development could be both the greenest form of growth and good business. The success of PIP’s projects is a testament to the validity of the developer’s core principles, ones shaped and guided in recent years by Joe and his colleagues at Urban3. In no small part due to PIP’s efforts, the city now enjoys such accolades as being named as one of the “10 Most Beautiful Places in America” and one of the “Top Seven Places to Live in the U.S.” 
So, what is the key to Asheville’s success? Certainly, favorable historic circumstances and Asheville’s inherent charms played a part. It was Urban3’s analysis, however, that provided concrete evidence dense downtown development is more productive and returns a greater investment to the community than sprawl. There are many advocates for fostering smart, sustainable urban centers; what sets Urban3 apart is its use of geo-spatial tools to represent economic productivity and the economic potency of urbanism. 
Joe argued during his talk that per acre, dense, highly valued downtowns generate much more public wealth than low-density subdivisions or massive malls by the highway. He pointed out how low-density development isn’t just a poor way to generate property tax revenue, it’s also extremely expensive to maintain. By comparison, dense downtowns cost considerably less to maintain in public services and infrastructure. 
Cities can generate wealth not by raising taxes, but by better exploiting the economics of land use. Joe offered a simple analogy: When shopping for a new vehicle, we often evaluate its fuel economy. We look at miles-per-gallon, not miles-per-tank, because tanks come in all different sizes. Joe says we should look at buildings in exactly the same way. An illustrative comparison is the tax revenue per acre generated by a sprawling Walmart Supercenter versus that of even a modest multistory downtown mixed-use development: the downtown project returns a much higher level of tax revenue per unit area in return for the services it draws upon. 
The larger a tract of land, the more expensive it becomes to provide services to it, especially when those large parcels sit on the periphery of the community. Our current tax structure rewards buildings that fall apart and results in too much of our land being over-serviced and under-developed. We need to cultivate wealth in our communities, which the present and prevailing models for development largely work against. Simply put, density delivers more bang for the buck. 
Drawing upon another analogy, Joe cited Moneyball, the analytical, evidence-based approach employed by baseball’s Oakland Athletics. The team utilized rigorous statistical analysis to determine that on-base and slugging percentage were better indicators of offensive success than batting average, runs-batted-in, or stolen bases. Similarly, Urban3 evaluates a potential development from the perspective of its per unit productivity as opposed to its overall cost. There’s a greater return to cities if landowners are required to pay in proportion to the value of public goods and services they receive (like a public services user fee) rather than in proportion to their own investment. This is evidence-based thinking. Examples such as Asheville prove such a perspective encourages more construction, improvement, and maintenance of buildings. A welcome dividend is greater employment and economic vitality. 
Joe Minicozzi, AICP
Joe’s presentation was chock-full of information, engaging, brisk, and entertaining throughout. He quoted such luminaries as Jane Jacobs, Ian McHarg, Michael Bloomberg, and Charles Montgomery to convincingly drive home his point. In rapid-fire fashion and coupled with illustrative charts and graphics, he explained the value of using geo-spatial tools to represent economic productivity and the economic potency of urbanism. I struggled to keep up, reflexively oscillating between affirmative nodding and furious scribbling on my notepad. Forty-five short minutes elapsed and his riveting message was over. I thought his speech was brilliant.
And yet here I am, mere days removed from Joe’s presentation, scratching my head. His basic premise—that dense downtown development is the golden goose of urban economics—is so logical it appears self-evident. So too is his point that “form follows finance.” The numbers don’t lie. Regardless, I can’t recall if he actually described how cities are supposed to implement his ideas and methodology. Given how coherent and commonsense his ideas are, why haven’t they already taken root everywhere? How do we overcome the intransigence of those who favor and/or profit from the status quo? What is the blueprint? 
I’m sure I’m simply na├»ve. This isn’t baseball. The problem has many more layers of complexity and cannot be modeled after a game (even if Elizabeth J. Magie Phillips modeled the board game that would become Monopoly upon the Georgist principle that economic value derived from common opportunities and resources should belong equally to all residents of a community, but that people own the value they create). The controversy surrounding Eugene’s Multiple-Unit Property Tax Exemption (MUPTE) is a case in point. The MUPTE program offers a property tax exemption on the new structure or incremental change in the property value of the building that comprises the project for a maximum of 10 years. Advocates argue MUPTE encourages dense development that otherwise would not occur (ultimately resulting in enhanced property tax revenue once the exemption expires). Opponents claim developers do not require the subsidies. Using tax policy to shape urban form is obviously fraught with political challenges. 
What’s obvious to Joe and those of us who understand the desirability of vibrant, dense urban centers may not be so clear to those who adhere to a different set of values. Development patterns that evolved over much of the past century will be difficult to undo. The suburban lifestyle, fostered by decades of pleasant imagery and appeals to independent American sensibilities, remains desirable to many but is also sustained by the current economics of real estate. The fact it is also ultimately unsustainable (in both the environmental and fiscal senses) is what many civic leaders fail to understand. 
Perhaps the key is to reveal to everyone the clarity of what is hiding in plain sight. Money is a measure everyone understands. If governments overhaul their tax codes such that the inherent value of the land and commonly shared infrastructure is taxed rather the buildings that take advantage of them, the disparity between the value of the land and the tax revenue it generates per acre will be ameliorated. Maybe Joe was simply driving home the point that data is our guide, that all we need to do is the math, trust the numbers, and thereby understand the physical form of cash flow. Who knew tax-literacy could be a key to achieving design excellence? 
*    *    *    *    *   
Kudos to the members of AIA-SWO’s Design Excellence Committee for bringing in Joe Minicozzi as the 2015 Making Great Cities speaker. The committee definitely “hit it out of the ballpark” with Joe (there’s another baseball idiom). And big thanks to the sponsors for this year’s program—The Barn Light, the City of Eugene, Downtown Eugene Inc., Dustrud Architecture, the Eugene Association of Realtors, Mindbox, PIVOT Architecture, and Rowell Brokaw Architects—for supporting this excellent installment of the Making Great Cities series. The bar has been set very high for all future presentations. I’m looking forward to them.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

A Framework of Considerations

Cloister of Eberbach Abbey, Germany
(This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)
The following passage from Bill Kleinsasser’s self-published textbook Synthesis outlined his belief in the need for an inclusive, always-to-be considered structure of true architectural principles: a coherent theory base (and value base) to help architects make genuinely good places for people. 
Throughout his teaching career, Bill’s faith in his hypothesis never wavered. He was convinced of the need for an emphasis upon commonly understood frames of reference. In particular, he impressed upon his students the essential importance of developing physical conditions that are experientially supportive for people. 
Bill often expressed a disdain for others who dismissed the notion of such a structured approach to design. He zealously preached the need for a comprehensive yet concise framework of considerations that could be adjusted or changed when necessary, and that could be used again and again in design. He rejected the view that the use of such a framework would reduce intuitive effort or otherwise impair creativity. 
Looking back, I am convinced of the rightness of Bill’s approach to design education. Many designers flounder outside the safe harbor of time-tested design principles. Synthesis provided Bill's students with an easy-to-understand and fundamental way to approach design. It was his singular contribution to architectural theory, one which remains as applicable today as it was when he was with us. 
Experiential Support
In the design of man’s surroundings, it is not enough to respond exclusively to technological theory, constructional expediency, economics, dimensional requirements, academic organizational principles, and other relatively measurable guidelines. This kind of design leads at best to impersonal surroundings and at worst to surroundings that are inhumane. 
The most essential objective of environmental design is the development of physical conditions that are experientially supportive for people; that is, the development of conditions that will provide opportunities and meanings that people will need daily through time and continuously through space—conditions that will explain themselves to people, evoking physical, sensual, and intellectual response. Experiential supportiveness in the man-made environment is aimed at helping people develop to their full potentialities as human beings. 
An environment which is experientially unsupportive is an environment where there is little variety and choice (people are forced into this or that), where too much is fixed (people can effect little and will feel ineffective), where isolation (instead of community) is the rule, where experience is fragmented and connections are difficult (connections to nature, to other people, to activities and events), where there is too little of the richness and eventfulness that encourages people to discover new patterns and to renew themselves. An experientially unsupportive environment leaves out much and is limiting. It does not add to the meaning of life. It is apt to contribute to depression and hostility. 
For many people today, the man-made environment is experientially unsupportive. Many facilities and options that should be there are missing or inaccessible. Many spatial characteristics are restrictive and constraining. Misfits are caused constantly by change, inflexible rules, poor definition of requirements, failure to recognize opportunities, and sameness. 
This deficiency exists because we lack a well developed, universally accepted, humane value-base for environmental design. People are unaware of what is missing and what the man-made environment could be like. Designers do not have the theory base to know what to do. Supportive design is more the result of good luck than informed intention. 
Without a humane value-base, environmental design is vulnerable to practices that are self-defeating. For example: 

  • The man-made environment is usually developed in large chunks and discontinuously, both in time and space, as if each piece had to be auspicious and autonomous, or as if each had to be done all at once and once and for all. This practice has caused much negative contextual impact. It has also spawned the habit of not developing spaces with the richest experiential potential: those between buildings. 
  • Economic and technological considerations often dominate and distort humane development instead of facilitating it.
  • Experiential character is determined by land-value formulae, technical convenience, codes, and arbitrary budgets, instead of by careful, thoughtful consideration of the supports and opportunities that will be needed by people as time passes and circumstances change.
  • Often the users of the environment are not consulted about their own places, causing immediate misfits and alienation.
  • Often the environment is designed to suit first purposes and first users only, causing rapid obsolescence.
  • Often users who wish to stay in new places (or must stay in them) have no way of adjusting or changing them, which causes them to seem impersonal and out of control.
  • Often models and lessons which explain the success or failure of similar places are not used, causing repeated mistakes, frustration, and loss of trust.
To establish the value-base for environmental design that we do not now have, we must demonstrate environments that embody experiential response. We must find ones that exist and we must make new ones. To be able to do this, we must develop criteria for analysis and design that are experientially specific, detailed, and comprehensive.
To aid in the generation and organization of such criteria, a framework of considerations about human environmental needs over time is required. While imperfect at any moment and ever-changing, the framework will allow designers to consider many aspects of man’s relationship to the environment and to form many related ideas for design. The quantity and quality of the ideas will depend upon the experience, knowledge, time, and heart of those who do the considering, but the framework—because of its comprehensiveness and its many sub-frames—will expand substantially the design base of all who use it.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The 2015 Making Great Cities Program

Joe Minicozzi
The AIA-SWO Design Excellence invites everyone with an interest in fostering vibrant downtown development to this year’s installment of the Making Great Cities lecture series. Entitled The Dollars and $ense of Downtown Development, the lecture will be delivered on Thursday, May 21 by noted advocate for smart and sustainable urban centers, Joe Minicozzi
Joe Minicozzi is the principal of Urban3, a consulting company created by Asheville, North Carolina real estate developer, Public Interest Projects. Urban3's work in pioneering geo-spatial representation of economic productivity has prompted a paradigm shift in understanding the economic potency of urbanism and the value of well designed cities. Their studies of cities in the US and Canada have prompted the reevaluation of public policy and a broader understanding of market dynamics created by tax policy. 
Joe is a sought-after lecturer on city planning issues. Numerous industry journals and international conferences have featured his work. He is a founding member of the Western North Carolina-based, non-profit Asheville Design Center. Joe holds a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Miami and a Master of Architecture and Urban Design from Harvard University. 
Sponsors for this year’s event include the City of Eugene, Dustrud Architecture, Downtown Eugene Incorporated, the Eugene Association of Realtors, Mindbox, and The Barn Light
If the previous Making Great Cities lectures are any indication, we can expect nothing less than an inspiring and thought-provoking evening from a true leader in the field of design excellence on the urban stage. I plan to attend Joe Minicozzi’s presentation and I hope to see all of you there as well! 
What:  The 2015 Making Great Cities program: Joe Minnicozzi 
When:  May 21, 2015 – 5:30 PM 
Where:  Downtown Athletic Club, Eugene 
Cost:  Free 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Change in Leadership at the University of Oregon

Frances Bronet
For those of you who are not aware, Frances Bronet, acting Senior Vice President and Provost for the University of Oregon, will soon be leaving Eugene to fulfill the same role on a permanent basis at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Oregon’s loss will certainly be IIT’s gain, as Frances did a tremendous job during her tenure as dean sustaining and growing the School of Architecture & Allied Arts through a challenging period for higher education in Oregon. She leaves knowing AAA is thriving, more diverse, and better equipped to prepare future leaders in the design of the built environment. We’ll all miss her dynamic personality and vision, and wish her the best in her new position. 
Frances recently notified members of the AAA faculty of her decision; here is her message: 
Dearest Colleagues, 
I will be leaving in July to take on the role of Provost and Senior Vice President at Illinois Institute of Technology. It really is with a heavy heart that I leave now. AAA is on a strong trajectory; I am so proud to have been part of its history. Brook Muller, who has been our great acting dean in the School of Architecture and Allied Arts—about to become INTERIM dean—will remain in his role until a national search is conducted. The new President, Michael Schill, is inspiring, and the University will thrive with Scott and Mike as your leadership team. 
AAA as been a remarkable place for me, a gift of brilliant, committed colleagues with immense ambition. The faculty, staff, students, friends, volunteers and alumni have been dedicated stewards and powerful visionaries. We built on incredible programs from Eugene to Portland; led on a legacy of making a difference in the world; and hired amazing world-class talent. What can I say? You have given me so much. It has been an honor to be a part of AAA and UO for this last decade; I am humbled by the intellectual generosity and enveloping community. 
Many of you know that I never relinquish friendships. Anticipate hearing from me, and know that you have an open invitation to visit me in Chicago. 
With my sincerest gratitude, 
Frances Bronet
Acting Senior Vice President and Provost
University of Oregon