Sunday, March 31, 2024

The Need for Visionary Thinking

The City of Eugene mailed a multi-page brochure regarding the Franklin Boulevard Transformation project to neighbors this past February. While the brochure did a good job of providing a basic project overview, a description of its funding, and the anticipated construction timeline, it was what it did not address that concerns Otto Poticha, FAIA. The elephant in the room (or perhaps rather, not in the room) is what he perceives as another example of the City’s failure to prioritize visionary thinking in its planning processes.
Otto sent the following missive to Eugene’s city councilors and the city’s Public Works Department director (Matt Rodriguez) a few weeks ago following publication of the project update:
“This is a very important project for our city. The presented scheme is typical public works engineering and is not DESIGN; it is engineering. Have any of the special nature or special experiences within this corridor been included? One’s experience and the special qualities of being in this major urban space, even in a vehicle, have not been explored nor presented. This public works engineered solution could be dropped into any city and probably has. Engineering is an essential ingredient in any design but tends to be quantitative or measurable. A design must pair the experiences of being and using the space to be a ‘design.’
The presented design narrative has a paragraph called ‘placemaking,’ but this important criterion is not evident nor discussed. History says that these important elements are used to sell the plan and never considered or included. 
  • Where are the principles or processes to incorporate these elements?
  • How does this design recognize and provide for ‘placemaking?’
  • How Is this a major introduction, statement, and entrance to our city?
  • How can Judkins Point and other adjacent elements play a role as a part of this entrance?
  • Should this corridor still use the term ‘boulevard’ understanding the definition of that term? (It takes more than landscaping or plant masking to be a boulevard). Boulevards are like parks or park-like corridors and should be a special place. A place one wants to occupy and use differently than a street with landscaping.
  • How does this ‘design’ accommodate and promote or engage the pedestrian or bicycle users? How does this design provide a way for them to interact with the adjacent commercial uses? Do they get more than an elevated crosswalk and a painted line to designate their space?
  • How does this become a real connection with the adjacent neighborhoods and downtown providing experiences and support for pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and vehicle users during their journey?
  • What and where is the ‘street furniture’ (lighting, benches, graphics, signals, signage, and utilities) being incorporated into this design?
  • Does this design recognize or support that there is the entrance to a major university along this corridor?
  • What materials and textures provide the community’s statement and define the scale and nature of this functional space?
There are more questions to be asked, many more than ‘how do we move vehicular traffic safely’ that must be expressed in this design.

I encourage the Council to delay approval until a comprehensive design is presented with a set of principles and a process developed. This project is much more than a public works street project and might even set an example of how our city could design most of our city’s public spaces and streets.”
Not eliciting the response he hoped for, Otto subsequently reached out to me to express his frustration, once again lamenting what he regards as the apparent inability of city leaders to understand what fully considered design solutions and real placemaking entail.
To a point, I do share Otto’s disillusionment. That said, if there is a fundamental problem with how the City plans and implements major public works projects, it is not due to the earnest efforts of the city administration and staff. Instead, the problem(s) may be one inherent in the structure of local governments everywhere, specifically their traditional segregation of functions into discrete silos of responsibilities. In the case of the Franklin Boulevard Transformation project, this may be an instance wherein the well-intentioned priorities of the Public Works Transportation Planning team are taking precedence over other imperatives.
By no means am I fully informed about the extent to which the City has addressed the complete range of considerations associated with the Franklin Boulevard Transformation project. Nonetheless, I do wonder whether the design concept the City is advancing does mesh with the S-SW Walnut Station Special Area Zone development standards (which incorporate a form-based code) and the expressed goals of the Walnut Station Specific Area Plan, which focuses on the shaping of the public realm.
Specifically, the images included with the Franklin Boulevard Transformation project update do not appear to depict the multiway boulevard configuration described by the Walnut Station Specific Area Plan. The multiway boulevard concept would separate through-traffic along Franklin from the adjacent land uses through the construction of planted medians, local access lanes, and on-street parking serving those uses. The concept supports the full range of transportation options and users of the street system.
While the Franklin Boulevard Transformation project update touts improving safety, encouraging density and development, and fully supporting multimodal transportation options, like Otto I don’t find detailed evidence in the design now moving forward about how these goals will be achieved. Notably, the 2024 project update and web page fail to refer to the Walnut Station Specific Area Plan. This telling omission speaks to my overarching concern regarding compartmentalized thinking in the City’s planning processes, and possibly reflects partial abandonment of some of the Walnut Station Specific Area Plan's guidelines. I welcome correction of any of my assumptions that are in error. 
Rendering of the proposed Walnut Station roundabout from last year's (2023) project report.

Rendering of a multiway boulevard per the 2010 Walnut Station Special Area Plan. Note the separated local access lane and on-street parking, which are not evident in the Walnut Station roundabout rendering above.

It’s important that we heed Otto’s plea for the fundamental consideration of placemaking principles in the future design of the Franklin Boulevard corridor.  The project certainly should address its role as a major entrance to the city, acknowledge landmark elements (such as Judkins Point, Matthew Knight Arena, and the Romania Building), emphasize the incorporation of vibrant, pedestrian-oriented elements, all while promoting engagement with adjacent commercial uses. Whether it will or not deserves our attention.
Otto will be an advocate for bold thinking until the day he dies. He has always wanted Eugene to be the best it can be, but he is growing weary of being a lone voice holding the community accountable for ambitious plans that enhance its livability and aesthetic appeal. The least we can do is to support his advocacy for visionary and holistic design approaches that transcend the limitations of narrowly focused and discipline-constrained problem solving.

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