Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Our Changing Downtown: What’s Going to Happen?

The West Park Block on a recent sunny afternoon (my photo)

In addition to the proclamation of 2017-2018 as Paul Edlund Year and the presentation of the annual chapter awards, last month’s meeting of the Willamette Valley Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute featured a presentation on the City of Eugene’s efforts to make its downtown safer, cleaner, and more welcoming to all.

City Planner Will Dowdy and Facilities Director Jeff Perry began by enumerating the reasons why downtown is important. Too many people, they said, do not understand why a vibrant downtown should be an imperative and fail to recognize its importance to the overall vitality of the community. The bottom line is downtown Eugene is the civic heart of the region: the city’s economic engine, cultural center, and living room. In the reality of today’s economy, a vital downtown is critical to attracting the talent and capital that in turn bring well-paying jobs, economic prosperity, and the positive feedback that accelerates further investment.

Will and Jeff described how the City of Eugene commissioned New York-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a nonprofit planning, design, and educational organization renowned for its work around the globe helping communities bring about catalytic changes through the creation and implementation of specific placemaking strategies. PPS founder and president Fred Kent brought to the task the detached perspective of an outsider, immediately recognizing how Eugene should seize upon a “wonderfully transformative time” by boldly implementing a suite of short-term interventions with the goal of spurring long-term changes.

PPS canvassed citizens regarding what they perceived to be downtown’s strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side of the ledger, they saw downtown as ripe with potential, a “great destination,” very walkable, and attractive to creative and engaging people. On the flip side, the seeming lack of public safety, and the absence of opportunities for family and child-friendly activities were noted as shortcomings. Prompted by the feedback it gathered, PPS generated a series of recommendations for effecting immediate improvements intended to transform the public’s perception of downtown.

The proposed improvements are of the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” variety often espoused by PPS as highly effective means to inject life and energy into a community’s public space. The core principle is that simple, short-term, and low-cost solutions can have remarkable impacts on the shaping of neighborhoods and cities. The most successful of these interventions have resulted in lasting and profound changes that bring life and amenities to previously lifeless and forlorn public spaces, foster civic pride, and generate enthusiasm for further investment (both public and private).

PPS focused upon four of downtown’s key public spaces:

They envision the Park Blocks, in conjunction with the new City Hall, an expanded Farmers Market, and the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza, reemerging as the “Heart of Eugene” in the manner of its historical incarnation as the city’s public green. The West Park Block would become the civic plaza, providing a daily home for food & beverage vendors and games, while the East Park Block would offer activities for families with children and a versatile performance space.

Will and Jeff described the city’s plan to build a new dining deck (quickly and inexpensively) at the south edge of the West Park Block. The goal is to have the deck in place within the next month. Their hope is it will serve as a measure of what the Park Blocks might become, perhaps presaging more substantial and permanent improvements as public support builds and funds become available.

The City of Eugene's proposed dining deck, to be installed this summer at the south end of the West Park Block.

PPS imagines Broadway Plaza (Kesey Square), as the center of the shopping and entertainment district—the commercial focal point of the downtown. It would include an outdoor café to activate the space from morning until night.

The City’s initial proposed intervention is a cable-suspended fabric awning that would cover the space, providing shelter from the hot summer sun and rain during inclement months. I’m enthusiastic about how positive an impact upon the life of Kesey Square the awning might prove to be, perhaps more so than for the proposed dining deck at the Park Blocks. I simply believe this similarly inexpensive action will have an outsized impact upon the character of the space for the better. With luck, the awning may prove to be an act of “tactical urbanism” at its finest, albeit perhaps a fleeting one. Like the dining deck, the City hopes to have the awning in place later this summer.

The proposed cable-suspended fabric awning over Kesey Square.

PPS pictures the Library Plaza as consisting of all four corners at the intersection of 10th Avenue and Olive Street. Visible, positive activity would welcome people to Eugene, creating the sense of a “gateway to the downtown.”

The role PPS sees for the Hult Plaza would be to continue its role as the outdoor presence of Eugene’s premier cultural magnet; however, the propose rebuilding it to be more visible and flexible, so that uses will expand to include convention-related activities.

Already established, ongoing projects the City has implemented include pressure-washing of the sidewalks and maintenance (using eco-friendly means) of the hanging flower baskets that adorn lamp posts throughout downtown. The City provides an attended, mobile restroom by the Park Blocks, and friendly park ambassadors who oversees maintenance and programming of the activities there.

The key to the success of all the proposed projects is to attract a critical mass of people downtown through programming and activation. PPS has found that programming and activation of public spaces, whether through special events or everyday activities, can go a long way toward attracting a broader population downtown, improving safety, and supporting local businesses.

The corollary to programming and activation is the need for robust management. The most successful parks and public spaces in the country are remarkable not only in terms of sheer popularity, but also because they have developed successful organizational structures that are able to bring together a vast array of stakeholders under one umbrella. Will and Jeff say the City of Eugene acknowledges the need to work with partner organizations (such as the County, the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Eugene, Inc., and the Downtown Eugene Merchants) to establish the necessary management structure to ensure the success of their efforts.

I’m cautiously optimistic the various projects will build momentum toward lasting changes that will finally help us achieve the downtown we’ve always wanted. The remedies need to be holistic. For example, we can’t simply view what ails downtown solely through the lens of law enforcement; the issues are much, much broader in scope. Approaching the problems from a wide-ranging perspective that encompasses place-making, business development, the role of public agencies, the issue of homelessness, and crime deterrence is necessary if we’re to be successful.

Thanks to Will and Jeff for a timely update on what we can look forward to soon in downtown Eugene!

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As I mentioned above, the June chapter meeting featured the announcement of the annual CSI-WVC awards. Congratulations and thanks to award recipients David Jones, Marina Wrensch, Kate Miller, Rhonda Tiger, and Linn West for their outstanding service. The June meeting also marked the changing of the guard as outgoing president Jim Chaney handed over the ceremonial gavel to Tom Jordan and the reins of the chapter to Tom’s incoming board of directors. Let Tom know if you’re interested in volunteering for a chapter committee. I have no doubt great things are in store for the next chapter year!

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