Image from Placemaking in Eugene: Findings, by Project for Public Spaces
The following is a draft of a piece regarding the future of downtown Eugene’s Park Blocks, primarily authored by Eric Gunderson. The AIA-SWO Committee on Local Affairs (of which Eric and I are both members) intends the letter as an opinion piece for publication in The Eugene Weekly or The Register-Guard. It remains subject to further editing by CoLA; I’ll update this post once the committee has finalized it.
We’re excited by the unprecedented opportunity to transform four downtown city blocks with a new City Hall, Lane County Courthouse, and updated Park Blocks. How the City of Eugene chooses to enhance the Park Blocks and create a possible new City Hall-Market Plaza is especially intriguing. Should the City enhance the existing Park Blocks or start over?
The Eugene Park Blocks are central to downtown Eugene’s identity. Known to most as the home of Saturday Market and Lane County Farmers Market, they draw 10,000 people to downtown on a good day. The stone walls, fish fountain, arched roofs, and tall trees are all familiar. Together, the Park Blocks comprise our town square and are "Eugene Modern." But they feel forlorn on most weekdays. Can we do better?
The City recently commissioned New York-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS) to produce a study entitled Downtown Placemaking Initiative—Places for People. This effort focused on the need to make our urban open spaces more active, and notoriously described downtown as “dirty, homeless and unsafe.” The winter lights display and holiday music performances, improvements to crosswalks, and the creation of spaces for food carts are welcome experiments using the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach championed by PPS. The report also recommended longer-term improvements, but what improvements and what of the place itself? What about architectural design excellence or the value of the existing Park Blocks as an artful place of history and meaning in our community?
Both the PPS effort and the Eugene Park Blocks Master Plan from 2006 recommend a major new building and new plaza on the block currently occupied by the “Butterfly” parking lot. The 2006 master plan additionally recommended improved security, better lighting, an enhanced shelter for performances, improvements for both market days and non-market days, additional water features, redesigning the Park Streets and sidewalks, and more. A proposed New City Hall and year-round Lane County Farmers Market will add vitality, but more is needed.
We believe the lack of active uses surrounding the Park Blocks is the key issue. Downtown has changed greatly since the park’s construction. A 1956 downtown land use map shows fifty ground-floor businesses including retail stores, restaurants, and hotels fronting on the Park Blocks. Today, we have only the back door of Full City Coffee and Park Street Café as active uses facing the park. Unless this changes, the lack of “eyes on the street” and pedestrian activity will continue to be an issue, regardless of what occurs with the Park Blocks.
We can capitalize on a mix of old and new for our downtown public spaces. Successful cities consist of diverse buildings and places. In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs states that “in real life only diverse surroundings have the practical power of inducing a natural, continuing flow of life and use.” Historically, Eugene hasn’t valued “diverse surroundings.” 1960’s urban renewal resulted in the wanton demolition of downtown’s older buildings. Today, our community struggles to recognize the merits of noteworthy mid-century buildings (the debate about the old City Hall being a case in point). Other cities do value mid-century design highly—imagine Seattle without the Space Needle.
The southwest park block during a weekday evening last summer (my photo).
The Eugene Park Blocks were built in 1958, designed by Wilmsen Endicott Architects and Lloyd Bond Landscape Architect. It is one of the few midcentury-modern public squares in Oregon. The plan drew its inspiration from modern art of the early 20th century, including that of painter Piet Mondrian (think Broadway Boogie Woogie). The plan contrasts with traditional civic spaces that follow the designs of Olmstead and his followers. Public art in the park includes sculptures by Jan Zach and Tom Hardy, both well-known mid-century modern northwest artists. There were once two fountains in the east park block, now gone. The plantings are much changed from the original plan. Continuing to chip away at the Park Blocks will result in the loss of their original, truly unique character.
What would a set of all new Park Blocks look like? There’s no doubt a talented team could produce an outstanding design. Starting over would allow the design to fully address today’s needs without compromise. The PPS plan seems to favor this route and offers suggestions for the types of activities that might occur in different areas. On the other hand, why not restore and rejuvenate the spirit of the original 1958 design? As we said, the success of the Park Blocks depends as much or more upon the active use of the properties that define the edges.
We hope this piece prompts others to comment and that we as a community openly discuss the merits of differing directions. We should fully commit to achieving design excellence in our most important civic open space regardless of which path we follow.
Eric Gunderson, Scott Clarke, Stan Honn, Travis Sheridan, Katie Hall, Austin Bailey, Randy Nishimura
Members, American Institute of Architects Southwestern Oregon Chapter Eugene-Springfield Committee on Local Affairs (CoLA).