AIA-Southwestern Oregon’s Committee on Local Affairs (CoLA), of which I’m a member, penned the following letter to the mayor, city council, and city manager regarding the future of the South Willamette Area in advance of next Monday's council work session on the topic. Our stance is that the process by which planning moves forward must be as inclusive as possible and retain a big-picture, city-wide perspective. We hope our suggestions will be heeded. Read on:
October 5, 2016
Eugene Mayor, City Council, and City Manager
℅ City Manager’s Office
125 East 8th Avenue
Eugene, OR 97401
Re: South Willamette Area Planning
Dear Mayor, City Councilors and City Manager:
The 2016 election cycle serves as a parable for much of what passes for public discourse today. Perhaps more so than any other time in recent history, our society has gravitated toward divisiveness and a polarization of its views. We see this not only in the political arena, but also in the discussion around any controversial topic. There are clearly lessons to be learned and gulfs to be bridged.
Here locally, few recent issues have been as contentious as the City of Eugene’s effort to implement the South Willamette Special Area Zone (SW-SAZ). It’s easy for people to characterize the SW-SAZ controversy as a chasm between opposing viewpoints: those of the urbanists who favor well-intentioned (but often resented) “top-down” planning on the one hand, and the grassroots (albeit self-interested) neighborhood preservationists on the other. Not unlike those at each end of the political spectrum, the players on both sides of the SW-SAZ debate hold steadfastly to their beliefs. Each side cloaks their statements about moving forward in mostly agreeable rhetoric, but ultimately they remain suspicious of the other group’s motivations.
The Walkable Eugene Citizens Advisory Network (WE CAN) stands firmly within the “urbanists” camp. WE CAN is promoting a plan entitled Collaborative Community Objective Setting. The group characterizes its plan as complementary to possible neighbor-driven planning efforts, but if it is, how would the results of its goal-setting process be reconciled in a non-contentious manner with a refinement plan authored by those neighbors? Working separately and in parallel with other efforts does not sound like a recipe for success.
The well-organized South Willamette Neighbors occupy the “preservationists” side. The organization strongly favors putting residents and property owners in charge of developing a neighborhood refinement plan. This approach is supported by city councilors George Brown and Mike Clark, who together have drafted a neighbors-supported South Willamette Street Initiative.
A shortcoming of the Brown/Clark proposal is its recommendation to remove from consideration the possibility of reevaluating the current R-1 zoning of existing single-family residential areas. This would effectively preclude the creative and compatible infill development necessary in single-family neighborhoods to help achieve citywide goals for compact growth.
The fact is the current proportion of single-family residential zoning is unsustainable. Valuable urban land is in short supply, so single-family homes on large lots are ever more expensive. Our better nature recognizes the need to expand and diversify our housing stock by developing a variety of options—apartments, duplexes, accessory dwelling units, townhouses, and other types—but our resistance and fear of change perpetuates exclusionary zoning and de facto segregation.(1) Doing nothing will progressively exacerbate economic disparities between the haves and have nots, and increasingly work at odds against efforts to ensure Eugene is an equitable and affordable city. Doing something is what compelled the City of Eugene to embark upon creating the SW-SAZ in the first place.
The suspicion, lack of trust, and polarization of the discussion inevitably led to the failure of the SW-SAZ process.(2) To everyone's credit, you've acknowledged this failure and hit the reset button. Nevertheless, there still appears to be an absence of clear consensus on how to proceed. A neighborhood refinement plan process led by area residents and business owners may indeed be the best means to engender the support of the people who most actively opposed the initial SW-SAZ plan. Then again, the affected neighbors’ understandable resistance to the uncertainties of change may bar the possibility they’ll embrace the compact infill development and densification necessary to address the growing need to house everyone who wishes to live, work, and raise a family in our city.
A significant problem with the processes used to date is that they have excluded some important stakeholders. Among those most in need of representation at the various public meetings and forums are many who, due to personal circumstances, simply do not have the time or resources to become engaged in a substantive way. These are individuals who by necessity may have multiple jobs, lack convenient transportation, are not fluent English-speakers, or cannot afford to pay for child care—factors discouraging or precluding their participation. We wish it wasn’t so but “all-comers” forums seldom truly are.
The stakes involved are too high to not develop an effective South Willamette Area Plan, one that can serve as a model for planning along other key transit corridors in Eugene. The challenge now is to bridge between Envision Eugene’s broad goals and the specific strategies needed to realize those goals, while also ensuring the planning is truly inclusive of those who are too often disenfranchised by circumstances or lack of social standing. Entrusting the plan exclusively to a socioeconomically homogenous group of homeowners would lead to a predictable outcome. Eugene is comprised of unique neighborhoods, but each neighborhood has an obligation to work in the best interests of the entire community.
Ideally, the eventual plan and others that follow would be realized in as incremental a manner as possible, in small chunks, so that development is easier to absorb, richer, and more likely to be the result of local investment, design, and ownership. Incremental development would allow adjustments on the fly, encourage greater diversity, and result in a finer-grained, more human scale.
We’ve met with individuals representing the opposing factions. We’ve attended the public forums and neighborhood association meetings during which SW-SAZ occupied the agenda. We want to be part of the solution and have a seat at the table. We’re neighbors and stakeholders in the community too and we bear a responsibility to be active participants in its future, particularly when it comes to the physical character of the urban environment. We also understand a process involving too many voices will be cumbersome and most likely ineffective.
Accordingly, we support a variation of the South Willamette Street Initiative, one which involves a small and nimble planning team as advocated by the Brown/Clark proposal but also includes a minimum of two “at-large” members entrusted with upholding citywide goals first and foremost. Ideally, these individuals would represent a diversity of interests and be highly conversant about the myriad issues at hand.
Additionally, we’re advocates for compatible infill development on and adjacent to properties presently designated as R-1, so long as it preserves the stability, quality, character, and livability of the encompassed residential areas. A new South Willamette Area Plan will need to provide a variety of options for households of diverse incomes and compositions as one strategy toward accommodating Eugene’s population growth.
In the wake of this political season, we see the SW-SAZ issue as a referendum as much about the kind of people we want to be as it is about what Eugene should become. As architects, we pledge to work assiduously toward finding common ground to build upon. We know our fellow citizens want the best for our community. We want the same. Let’s move forward together to develop consensus about a future that is full of inclusive and affordable housing options, all while retaining the livability and qualities we have come to love about Eugene.
Austin Bailey, Scott Clarke, Eric Gunderson, Randy Nishimura, and Travis Sheridan
Members, American Institute of Architects – Southwestern Oregon Chapter Committee on Local Affairs. (The opinions expressed above are solely those of the members of CoLA, though we do believe our perspective is shared by a preponderance of AIA-SWO members).
(1) The current single-family residential zoning and restrictive covenants of certain neighborhoods have their roots in racially motivated and class-centric exclusion. Times have changed, in most ways for the better; however, the restrictive zoning remains a pervasive barrier, limiting the production of new affordable housing and pricing many prospective homeowners out of the market.
(2) City planners did not help their cause by leaping opaquely from a widely supported set of goals (Envision Eugene) to a wholesale plan for up-zoning a large tract of south Eugene. Conversely, the vitriol circulated by the plan’s opponents served its purpose by stopping SW-SAZ, but it also sullied the prospect of achieving respectful agreement with the plan's champions.