Saturday, January 27, 2018

Rebuilding Eugene’s Civic Center

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 CafĂ© 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).

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Homes for Good

The Housing and Community Services Agency of Lane County has renamed and rebranded itself as Homes for Good. The old name was bureaucratic and difficult for people to remember. Likewise, the acronym HACSA wasn’t particularly helpful (“Hacksaw? Why is the housing agency named after a hand tool?”). After meeting with and surveying community members, HACSA worked to develop a new identity that better embodies who it is and what it does. Mission accomplished: The new name immediately sets the stage for the organization and what people can expect from it.

Despite being burdened by the cumbersome and less than memorable old moniker, Lane County’s housing authority has successfully provided housing and community-related services for the residents of Eugene, Springfield, and rural Lane County since 1949. It has worked to connect tens of thousands of low-income individuals and families with homes they can afford, helping these people succeed by achieving stability in their living arrangements.

Homes for Good is the second largest housing authority in Oregon, presently providing housing to more than 5,000 Lane County families who otherwise would be homeless or at risk of homelessness. It owns and manages a broad portfolio of public and assisted housing units throughout the county—single-family homes, duplexes, and apartment buildings—and additionally partners with private property owners and local service providers for hundreds of others. The agency also provides Section 8, Veterans Affairs, and Shelter Plus Care rental assistance vouchers. It works with governmental, non-profit, and private partners to maximize its impact and effectiveness. It actively develops new housing to meet our community’s continuing and growing need. Underlying the work is its commitment to providing services and programs for people of all ages, ethnicities, religions, gender, and status. Homes for Good truly does good work.

Lower income families find it increasingly difficult to find affordable housing. The demand far outstrips the supply. According to the Washington Post, the number of apartments low-income families can afford fell by more than 60 percent between 2010 and 2016. Here in Lane County, a shortage of land and market forces are pushing housing beyond the reach of far too many. Costs are rising rapidly, while incomes for low-income families are staying level or falling behind. Worse yet, the recently passed overhaul of the federal tax code is likely to exacerbate the problem because the lower tax rates make Low-Income Housing Tax Credits less valuable and consequently less attractive. The bottom line is funding for affordable housing is at its lowest point ever. A challenge of Sisyphean proportions confronts us.

The solutions to the problem are elusive. Where will new sources of funding to subsidize inexpensive housing come from? Can local communities summon the will (and open their pocketbooks) to support programs that reduce the cost of renting or buying for lower-income households? Increasing the diversity of the housing stock by removing restrictions on the construction of underrepresented types (such as accessory dwelling units and “missing middle” housing) may be one answer. More inclusionary zoning and policies providing incentives for the creation of affordable housing when new development occurs are another. So too is considering expansion of the urban growth boundaries to include areas not suitable for farming and restricting their use to affordable and subsidized housing.(1)

My wife and I are fortunate because we can afford the four walls around us and the roof over our heads. We enjoy a comfortable home (now mortgage-free), food on our plates, and much more. While we don’t take this good fortune for granted, it’s been all too easy for us to overlook the plight of others who struggle every day to locate and pay for warm, clean, and safe housing. This shouldn’t happen.

Homes for Good is doing its part to connect everyone with all the good that comes with a home. The old name didn’t roll of the tongue and didn’t have a soul. Because the agency’s work is more important than ever, to succeed Homes for Good needed to be super clear about why they are here. With the transition to its new name, it’s clear now they’re here for people, for homes, and for the good of our entire community.  

(1)    A problem with expanding the UGB to make room for low-income housing is doing so would likely relegate individuals and families who can least afford the expense of driving automobiles all over town to locations lacking in convenient access to goods and services.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Cottage Code Amendments

"Cottage cluster" photo from WE CAN website

The stated mission of the AIA-Southwestern Oregon Committee on Local Affairs (CoLA) is to take positions on issues that affect the practice of architecture and the design and planning of the Eugene-Springfield community. CoLA promotes policies and positions that inform positive actions on or around issues it becomes involved with.

Along with other like-minded advocates, CoLA recently co-signed a letter drafted by The Walkable Eugene Citizens Advisory Network (WE CAN) asking Eugene City Council to take action on Cottage Code Amendments. The goal of these amendments is to make it easier and less expensive to build smaller housing types in Eugene—including making changes to the City’s zoning bylaws to fully comply with Oregon SB 1051, which addresses affordability criteria, density, accessory dwelling units, the review period for development applications, and the standards municipalities use when considering housing development.

Here’s the letter:

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

Eugene Mayor, City Council and City Manager City Manager’s Office
125 East 8th Avenue
Eugene, OR 97401

Re:  Cottage Code Amendments

Dear Mayor, City Councilors and City Manager:

We, the undersigned organizations, respectfully request that the Eugene City Council instruct the City Planning Department to prepare a package of zoning code amendments, for review and approval by the Eugene Planning Commission and City Council, with the following aims:
  • Remove restrictions on Secondary Dwelling Units that inhibit or complicate their legal development in residential zones in Eugene
  • Create “Cottage Clusters” as a by-right housing type in Eugene residential zones
Housing Need in Eugene
Eugene is facing a multi-faceted housing crisis. Part of the problem is supply--there simply are not enough homes available for our growing population. Related to the short supply is a second problem: affordability. Some residents are homeless, while many more are having to spend much more than they can reasonably afford simply to keep a roof over their heads. A third aspect of our housing problem is limited choices. A growing number of local households consist of one to two people, and many of these would prefer “Missing Middle” housing options that are currently very uncommon in Eugene. A final aspect of the housing crisis is limited resources--especially land, but also public infrastructure, clean air and water, and time. An over-reliance on single-family homes exacerbates the challenge of living within our economic, environmental and equity limits.

In a sincere attempt to prevent incompatible infill development, over the past decade Eugene has adopted zoning code provisions that also inhibit needed construction of infill development that could comfortably blend into existing neighborhoods.

The issue of housing is complex, and a few code revisions will not solve the whole problem. But the first step towards encouraging local builders and homeowners to offer more and better housing choices is to make it legal for them to do so.

The Second Pillar of Envision Eugene is to “Provide Housing Affordable to All Income Levels.”  These recommended code revisions would help improve housing affordability within the Urban Growth Boundary in a manner that also supports the other pillars--namely, they would respect the character of existing neighborhoods, take advantage of existing infrastructure, support low-carbon travel options, and promote smaller, more environmentally sensitive construction.

Secondary Dwelling Units
Secondary Dwelling Units (SDUs, also known as Accessory Dwelling Units, backyard cottages, granny flats, or garage apartments) are single housing units that share the lot with a primary detached single-family home. They can take the form of a smaller, independent structure, or they can be attached to or incorporated within an existing structure (e.g. the basement or second-story of the main home, the second story of a detached garage).

SDU’s can provide additional housing that is compatible with the surrounding neighborhoods, and benefits both homeowners and renters. Since they are small and are built on already owned land, their cost is generally lower than for other new construction. They provide housing for renters, and income for homeowners. These are some of the reasons that many cities, including Springfield, are working to reduce obstacles to building SDU’s.

SDU’s currently face a variety of restrictions under Eugene’s zoning code. For instance:
  • SDU’s are allowed only on property zoned R-1
  • They are prohibited on lots smaller than 6,100 square feet
  • They are subject to more restrictive height and design standards than other structures in R-1
  • They require the owner to sign a deed restriction guaranteeing that the owner will continue to reside on the property
These restrictions add time, cost and complexity to the construction of an SDU, and help explain why the number of applications to build SDU’s have decreased since new code restrictions on them were put in place.

In the most recent legislative session, SB 1051 included language stating: “A city with a population greater than 2,500 or a county with a population greater than 15,000 shall allow in areas zoned for detached single-family dwellings the development of at least one accessory dwelling unit for each detached single-family dwelling, subject to reasonable local regulations relating to siting and design.”

Eugene is not currently in compliance with this new directive from the state. Reviewing our zoning code to remove restrictions that are not “reasonable design and siting standards” will both bring us into compliance with the state law, and provide more Eugene homeowners with the ability to provide housing for their family and neighbors.

A cottage cluster ("pocket neighborhood") development in Washington state designed by Ross Chapin Architects.

Cottage Clusters
Just as SDU’s provide low-impact housing for renters, Cottage Clusters can offer similar opportunities for potential homeowners.

A Cottage Cluster is a group of small, detached homes clustered around a central outdoor common space. Typically, some of the homes face the common space, while others might face the street. The cottages in the cluster are small—typically less than 1000 square feet. Each cottage frequently has its own small yard and covered porch, and they share a central outdoor common space. Cottages are ideal for individuals and couples who don't want a big house, but would still enjoy some private outdoor space, a small garden or a patio. They can make ideal “starter homes,” good options for busy working families who are able to live with less space and are short of time for maintaining a large home, or an option for retired adults to downsize in community.

Cottage Clusters can be developed under our current zoning code. Two examples, with differing purposes and scale, are the Amazon Cottages and Emerald Village. But both these developments faced expensive and time-consuming land use processes as they struggled to “fit” into existing code. Emerald Village applied as a multi-family dwelling, and then had to seek numerous exemptions from provisions that were intended for apartment or condo buildings.   Amazon Cottages applied as a “Cluster Subdivision” process--but this too involved such costly and time-consuming exceptions and modifications that the developer indicated he would never take on a similar project again.

The City could simplify the creation of Cottage Clusters, and avoid lengthy processes that add time and cost to their construction, through a few simple changes in the zoning code:
  • Include “Cottage Cluster” in the definition of housing types
  • Explicitly identify Cottage Clusters as a permitted type of housing in residential zones (just as single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes and multi-family dwellings are)
  • Include defining language, such as open space and form requirements.
These simple changes would help increase the supply and reduce the cost of small cottages, so people can invest in a home and be invested in their neighborhood.

We need more housing now. These two forms of housing provide compatible options that can be targeted at multiple income levels and meet many needs—from subsidized, affordable housing to “starter homes” or “downsizing” units.

Therefore, we respectfully ask that Council instruct City Staff to determine what code adjustments will be needed to remove roadblocks to these two housing types in Eugene’s code, and move forward with implementing these adjustments.

1000 Friends of Oregon Eugene
AARP Oregon
• American Institute of Architects Southwest Oregon, Committee on Local Affairs
Democratic Party of Lane County
Home Builders Association of Lane County 
• Board of Directors of the Rental Owners Association of Lane County
SquareOne Villages
Sponsors, Inc.
Tiny House/Tiny Villages Eugene
Walkable Eugene Citizen’s Advisory Network  

Saturday, January 6, 2018

New This Year: CCPR Study Group!

As the chair of the CSI-Willamette Valley Certification Committee, I receive regular notifications about developments from the Construction Specifications Institute that are helpful to me and my fellow certification class instructors. The latest from the Institute is the great news that CSI’s Great Lakes Region is hosting a virtual study group for those interested in pursuing Certified Construction Product Representation (CCPR) certification.

A Certified Construction Product Representative is a valued resource called upon by the design team again and again. Becoming a CCPR means:
  • Making sales calls, presentations, construction meetings, and product shows more effective
  • Knowing the key parts of product binders and other marketing collateral
  • Understanding roles and responsibilities of everyone involved in the project, and how and when to communicate with them
  • Understanding all phases of the construction documentation, and the product representative’s role in each phase
  • Speaking the same language as the design and contractor teams

Candidates who succeed in passing the CCPR exam can use the letters "CCPR" after their name, on their business cards, and on their resumes. Being a CCPR means being a member of a very exclusive club as there presently are only 168 individuals among CSI’s active membership of 8,000 who have achieved this level of certified expertise.

The Willamette Valley Chapter offers in-person Construction Contract Document and Construction Contract Administration classes but not for Construction Product Representation. The availability of an online course produced by the Great Lakes Region for CCPR candidates fills this conspicuous void. A virtual CCPR course/study group also addresses the reality most construction product representatives deal with, which is that their busy travel schedules often preclude the possibility of consistent attendance in classroom programs.

After hearing about the online CCPR study group, I visited the Institute’s member-only online discussion forum CSI-Connect to see if anyone had posted additional relevant information. Sure enough, Thad Goodman, FCSI, CCPR of the Great Lakes Region did post details about the study group, and in particular information regarding an introductory, informational webinar. Here are the details:

CCPR Study Group Informational Webinar:   Friday, February 9, 2018 12:00 PM - 1:00 PM EST

Join the meeting from your computer, tablet or smartphone.

Or, dial in using your phone:
United States: +1 (646) 749-3131 Access Code: 302-129-365

Pre-registration not required; just log in or call at the scheduled time.

The regular classes will begin Friday, February 16 and will run seven consecutive weeks through Friday, March 30. The organizers will determine the times for each of the sessions following the February 9 informational webinar.

Big thanks to Thad and the Great Lakes Region for setting up the CCPR study group and offering the online courses for the benefit of certification candidates across the country!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

And Now for Something Completely Different

The heyday of Monty Python’s surrealist comedy coincided with my teen years, without a doubt a formative time for me but likewise for 1970s arts and culture. The free-flowing absurdity of the Pythons’ Flying Circus TV show spared no one from its madness, least of all those who took themselves seriously. The members of the troupe—Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin—overturned the conventions of traditional sketch comedy during each 30-minute episode by offering an irreverent and always completely different take on wildly disparate topics. My high school friends and I were such fans we could freely recite our favorite skits verbatim.

Nudge, nudge, know what I mean? Say no more … Know what I mean?

It’s not pining. It’s passed on. This parrot is no more . . . THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

The profession of architecture, with its air of self-importance and the arrogance of many of its most notable practitioners, proved a worthy target for Monty Python’s silly brand of satire. First seen in Episode 17 of the TV show, “The Architects Sketch” is classic Python; watch the video above. Wikipedia describes the sketch as follows:

The sketch proper begins with Mr. Tid (Chapman) in an office with two City gents (Palin and Jones). On a table near the window stand two architectural models of tower blocks. Mr. Tid informs the City gents that he has invited the architects responsible to explain the advantages of their respective designs.

First to arrive is Mr. Wiggin (Cleese), who describes his architectural design and modern construction, and then explains his killing technique starting with a conveyor belt and 'rotating knives'. It turns out that Mr. Wiggin mainly designs slaughterhouses and has misunderstood the owners' attitude to their tenants. When Mr. Wiggin fails to persuade them to accept his 'real beaut' of a design, he launches into an impassioned tirade against 'you non-creative garbage' and blackballing Freemasons. When they still reject his design, however, he begs the increasingly uncomfortable City gents to accept him into the Freemasons.

Once Wiggin has been persuaded to leave, the second architect, Mr. Leavey (Idle), arrives. As Mr. Leavey describes the strong construction and safety features of his design, his model collapses and catches fire in the manner of the (then) recent Ronan Point disaster, accompanied by a large on-screen caption reading 'SATIRE'. The City gents assure Mr. Leavey that provided the tenants are 'of light build and relatively sedentary' there should be no need to make expensive changes to the design. After his design is accepted, the model explodes. The City gents exchange bizarre Masonic handshakes with Leavey. Wiggin reappears at the doorway, breaking the fourth wall to tell the audience 'It opens doors, I'm telling you.'

Apart from the now unfortunate correspondence between Mr. Leavey’s fire-prone design with last year’s Grenfell Tower conflagration, the incisive humor of The Architects Sketch is undeniable.

At the risk of grossly over-generalizing, most architects are nothing if not insecure. We all crave approbation from our clients (and especially from our peers). Many architects longingly seek acceptance and admittance within the rarefied circles of a cultural and political elite (represented in the skit by the Freemasons). The bottom line is sometimes who you know is more important than what you bring to the table. Such is the lot of architects in life.

Additionally, The Architects Sketch mocks our profession’s proclivity toward insufferable, artistic posturing. Mr. Wiggin’s plaintive rant falls on the deaf ears of the clients, who clearly understand their own needs more than he cares to. A takeaway:  The architect’s duty first and foremost resides in the client’s functional brief and not to the architect’s personal agenda, whatever that might be. The irony contained within the sketch is that the clients choose to look past the conspicuous failings of Mr. Leavey’s design, their affiliation as Freemasons trumping all.

Some architects might say Monty Python’s skewering of architects was misguided, the “sort of blinkered, philistine pig ignorance [they've] come to expect from . . . non-creative garbage,” to which I say they meant it all in good fun, even if the grain of truth is there. It’s a good thing if The Architects Sketch prompts a twinge of discomfort and recognition upon viewing. Its timelessness is a testament to both the Pythons’ genius and the frailties of our profession.