Sunday, January 22, 2023


The former EWEB headquarters (my photo).

This past week was an eventful one on the Eugene scene, at least from my perspective as someone interested in matters related to architecture and urbanism. The week was equally busy and eventful for me on both the work and home fronts, so I’ll keep things brief and breezy with today’s blog post. I simply feel compelled to acknowledge these developments and offer my thoughts on each.

City Hall = The Former EWEB Headquarters
I’ve chronicled the interminable and almost comically tragic saga of a new, yet-to-be-realized Eugene City Hall for more than a decade now on this blog. City of Eugene administrators first signaled their wish to abandon the former award-winning City Hall back in the 1990s, barely halfway through the building’s too-short existence, before unceremoniously razing it in 2014. The City did so with the intent of building a new city hall but ultimately lacked sufficient funding or public support to accomplish such a project. An early (circa 2005), overly ambitious design by Thomas Hacker Architects totaling 300,000 gsf in program area was clearly unaffordable and never progressed beyond the conceptual stage. The 2014 plans for a replacement city hall on the former building’s site also failed to materialize due to rapidly escalating construction cost estimates. Without a place to call home, the City leased space to conduct city council meetings and house its administration, first from Lane County in the County’s Public Service Building and later (and currently) from Lane Community College at its Mary Spilde Center across the street from the Eugene Public Library. Throughout this period, the City explored its options, which included a long-term lease or purchase of the Mary Spilde Center, siting a totally new city hall on the NW Park Block along 7th Avenue, and leasing or buying the former EWEB headquarters.
As reported by several outlets, the EWEB board announced last Wednesday that it will enter negotiations with the City of Eugene to sell its riverfront property. The news of the pending purchase came as a surprise because it was only the previous week that Eugene School District 4J announced it planned to buy the property. What happened?  
I found this news additionally surprising because the City previously passed on the EWEB headquarters option. The City commissioned a 2016 study of the building to determine its suitability for use as the new city hall. The study—conducted by a team led by my firm, Robertson/Sherwood/Architects—evaluated the building in accordance with a comprehensive set of criteria. We assessed the condition of the building and its systems, identified opportunities and constraints to converting it to city hall use, considered its potential for possible expansion, and estimated the potential costs. The price tag, which reflected the suite of improvements necessary to entirely satisfy the City’s strict criteria, was steep. With that information in hand, the City decided not to proceed with further consideration of a purchase, instead choosing to build a new city hall at the Park Blocks (Eugene’s “Town Square”); this ultimately also proved cost prohibitive.
Given my familiarity with our evaluation of the EWEB headquarters, I assume the city leadership relaxed its criteria and is now prepared to occupy the building without implementing extensive, costly improvements.  
Back in 2012, I expressed my belief that the EWEB headquarters was the best choice for a new Eugene City Hall. I said that by virtue of its physical prominence, visibility, and architectural quality, the dominant reading of the EWEB headquarters is of an important public facility. The Downtown Riverfront master plan effectively guarantees its distinction as the only major building near downtown to be located so close to the Willamette River, its future within a parklike setting along the river’s edge assured. I stated the headquarters is one of the few buildings in the city that overtly acknowledges the river and its importance to Eugene, and that we should embrace connecting downtown with the Willamette River and restoring ties between the city and the waterway it was founded upon. Moreover, I wrote that by converting the EWEB headquarters into Eugene’s new city hall, the city leadership would demonstrate its commitment to sustainability by highly valuing the energy embodied in its original construction and thereby partially atone for its hasty decision to demolish the old city hall building. Rather than expending increasingly scarce resources and funds on a new city hall, the City can walk the talk and lead by example.
I won’t hold my breath until it actually happens, but I believe citizens of Eugene may soon be able to point with pride toward a building that is their City Hall, while also closing a lengthy chapter in Eugene's municipal history.  
Skinner Butte Height Limitation Area
The Eugene city council met in a work session last Tuesday to discuss a proposed amendment to the Eugene Code regarding the Skinner Butte Height Limitation Area. The council will vote on the amendment during a meeting on February 13 that, if passed, would allow taller buildings to be constructed on six parcels along Fifth Avenue between Willamette and Pearl Streets. The Skinner Butte Height Limitation Area encompasses the subject parcels. The Obie Companies requested the change so that it can add two mixed-use buildings to its Market District portfolio that would exceed the current allowable heights. 
An "artist's rendering" of the development proposed by the Obie Companies for its property on the north side of Fifth Avenue between the Oregon Electric Station and Station Square.

The requested land use change prompted comment from both proponents and critics. The arguments on both sides are familiar. Those supporting the amendment cite the benefits of increased density near the downtown core, including the construction of more residential units, increased vibrancy, and a concomitant boost to the property tax rolls (notwithstanding any tax exemptions necessary to help the development pencil out). Opponents argue that tall buildings will block sightlines toward Skinner Butte and the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House. The most histrionic contend that an increase in the height limit will lead to a “Manhattan-like canyon of concrete and steel.”
I am originally from Vancouver, British Columbia. Vancouver’s notorious “view cone” policy aims to preserve iconic vistas of the city, primarily from south of False Creek toward the downtown skyline and the North Shore mountains beyond. Like Eugene’s Height Limitation Areas policy, Vancouver’s view cones are defined by certain geographical landmarks possessing scenic attributes that are of value to the “community as a whole.” Criticism of the Vancouver policy largely stems from the fact that those who most enjoy its benefits are the wealthy homeowners whose views (and thus property values) are protected by it, rather than the average community member. Another con of the view cone policy is that it limits the development potential of certain properties, especially on the downtown peninsula where dense, tall buildings otherwise make the most sense.

View looking north on Oak Street toward Skinner Butte (my photo).

Protecting views toward Skinner Butte and the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House is important. That said, will increasing the height limits as requested by the Obie Companies eliminate some currently available vistas toward these landmarks? The reality is any new buildings on the vacant parcels they own along Fifth Avenue will obstruct views, whether they are two stories or seven stories in height. These parcels are now mostly surface parking lots, contributing nothing beyond acres of asphalt and far from being scenic. The proposed developments will include street-level retail, which will enliven the pedestrian experience, not to mention welcome density and eyes on the street, while relegating off-street parking to concealed garages. The key will be to ensure the most crucial views do remain. I contend the most important vista is the one looking northward along Willamette Street toward Skinner Butte. It’s arguable that a narrow view corridor along the Oak Street axis north to the Butte should be maintained but restricting taller construction on either side of that corridor would provide no discernable benefit from the standpoint of access to desired views.

Arcimoto Woes
Perhaps the most surprising news I learned of was word that Arcimoto shut down production at its west Eugene factory and is facing bankruptcy. I wasn’t aware of the depth of the company’s troubles, including the fact that it had cut jobs and furloughed workers as early as last September as the value of its stock plunged. It was only seven months before in February of 2022 that Arcimoto opened its new 250,000 sf manufacturing facility. Apparently, supply chain bottlenecks were part of the problem, but also dwindling cash reserves and poor sales (Arcimoto only sold 41 of its vehicles during the second quarter of 2022).  

FUV promotional photo, from the Arcimoto website.
I had high hopes for Arcimoto and its everyday electric transport, the FUV (Fun Utility Vehicle). Yes, its price is on the high side (in the $20k range), especially when compared to those of conventional automobiles at the lower end of the market spectrum; however, cost was never Arcimoto’s principal selling point. Instead, the promise of the lightweight, high-performing, three-wheeled, tandem-seat FUV rests in its potential as a truly sensible means for getting from Point A to Point B. We need to transition away from our reliance upon oversized cars and trucks and the demands they make upon the urban landscape. The all-too common instance of a lone driver slogging about on short hops in a massive, gas-guzzling, 7-passenger SUV reflects misplaced priorities in a world beset by environmental crises and social inequity.   
I really thought Arcimoto was on the cusp of something great, and that the potential market worldwide for its FUV would be immense. I still believe the infrastructure of American transportation and energy systems must be radically altered to accommodate new, healthier types of transportation and vehicle use. We still need to reassess what it is we truly need for personal transportation. If the Arcimoto experiment is destined to failure, the loss will not only be Eugene’s but also that of advocates for change everywhere.

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So, a busy and consequential week in Eugene with respect to topics of interest to me. I welcome any comments you may have about them, so please let me know what you think. 

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