Capstone or Cornerstone?

When David Mandelblatt retired after decades of teaching south Eugene middle schoolers, he and his wife Darnell set off on a quest to stay young as long as possible. Their plan is looking prescient now. We would all do well to embrace it.

They sold their house and yard in south Eugene and traded it for a condo on the edge of downtown. Walking became a bona fide hobby, as did watching the area’s goings on. David got involved in the Downtown Neighborhood Association before downtown could rightly be called a neighborhood.

But now that’s a real possibility, thanks to a veritable invasion of students being housed in his neighborhood. A student housing complex proposed by Capstone Development would bring 1200 students to the city’s core. Lane Community College is already building room for 250 students as part of their ambitious downtown campus project.

Taken together, these projects will change Eugene for the better.

Mandelblatt voiced concerns he’s heard that over a thousand students in one large project will represent a monoculture. “I’m not picking on students here,” Mandelblatt told R-G reporter Edward Russo. “It doesn’t matter if they are 1,200 students, or 1,200 millionaires, or 1,200 acrobats, or 1,200 people with dogs. That’s a lot of people with the same interests and same general culture.”

I called him to ask what he has against acrobats, but he turned the topic back to the Capstone project.

I suggested that his monoculture concern is well-founded, but too late. Olive Plaza, Ya-Po-Ah Terrace, Parkview Terrace, Eugene Hotel, and many residents of The Tate and Lincoln Street Condominiums have already created a monoculture — of retirees. If anything, a flood of students will undo the current monoculture of downtown residents.

Certain seniors are opposing the student complex, fearful that they won’t make suitable neighbors. But an urban environment is designed to put different sorts of people in close proximity to one another. It’s our collective front yard as much as anyone’s back yard — a place to meet casually, set civic expectations, make a good first impression.

You give up the right to take a NIMBY “Not In My Back Yard” position when you’re no longer maintaining a Back Yard. I’m not picking on seniors here. I’ll argue against the students, if they propose outlawing wine during First Friday gallery walks because they prefer beer. The urban center belongs to all of us, not just the residents who currently live there.

But I will continue to fight for acrobat rights. They don’t always stand up for themselves, because they’re so darn flexible.

Unlike seniors, students move around a lot, so we can be sure they’ll use public transportation, making the system stronger. A constant flow of people moving from downtown to campus finally will join these two hubs, making both more vibrant and resilient.

We’re a college town. So why would we now worry that we’ll have a college downtown? Our two centers will begin becoming one.

Looking back, the Capstone project will look misnamed. It will be seen as a cornerstone, the foundation of a whole new era for our community. All sorts of people will come downtown — for an evening, for a weekend, for four years, for their golden years. And they’ll come for all the reasons the Mandelblatts had. Eternal youth may be a dream, but a vibrant downtown is within reach.

Lane Community College and the University of Oregon will collaborate more naturally than ever, with EmX shuttling every ten minutes between the two campuses. Students will breath life into the center — the soul — of our community.

The population boost will attract a new downtown movie theater. New restaurants will multiply. Sidewalks will teem. A promenade between the university and downtown will carve itself into our center. New uses for the Lane County fairgrounds will emerge. Energy and engagement will continue coursing through our community’s veins, but flowing — as it should — from our center.

Let’s be the attractive and inviting community we want to become. We should work to get the best project possible from Capstone, without making them bend over backwards. Because, remember, their plan includes no acrobats.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.