City Hall as Conversation Starter

What belongs in a city’s downtown? The question has many different answers, so it’s just the sort of topic you’ll need this weekend as you wandering around the Eugene Celebration.

You already know this, but here’s what will happen. You’ll bump into somebody you haven’t seen for months. The last time you saw them was probably at last year’s Eugene Celebration. You’ll catch up on what the kids are doing, which body parts have been recently repaired, and what sights you saw when you were last sightseeing.

Then you’ll recite to each other what you heard this week on the radio about national politics. One of you will go fetch another beer and you’ll remember why the two of you haven’t bothered to get together recently. There’s just not that much for you to say to each other.

I’m here to help.

Downtown Eugene is reshaping itself and quickly. If you haven’t walked around downtown lately, you’ll be amazed. Anywhere you go, you’ll be able to point to buildings at various stages of construction.

For the first time in decades, downtown exudes optimism. Local families are taking chances. Rob Bennett, Brian Obie, and Steve Master are putting their money where our mouths are. (Each would like to sign a lease with just one more good restaurant.)

Gratitude is great, and optimism feels good, but those alone won’t help you and your once-a-year buddy drain that second beer. What you need is something specific and tangible, yet controversial. Nothing chews the conversation scenery better than a topic with plenty of “yes but” twists and turns.

So bring up the Eugene City Hall. Should Eugene’s next City Hall leave the downtown core? Let’s get even more specific. Would the current EWEB headquarters make a good City Hall?

To each question, I answer no. Plenty of smart people disagree with me. Pick an angle and defend it. That second beer will practically evaporate.

There are technical difficulties with consolidating city services in the EWEB building, but these are problems that can be solved. The EWEB headquarters isn’t quite large enough. EWEB wouldn’t want to sell the building for so little that rate-payers are forced to pay its relocation expenses. Relocating the call and data center on the building’s fourth floor would incur massive upgrade expenses. The time capsule behind the building’s commemorative plaque, preserving artifacts specific to power and water, would someday seem out of place.

The problem that cannot be solved has to do with the location itself — both where it is and where it’s not.

It’s not downtown. For the rest of our lifetimes, the railroad tracks will continue to separate EWEB from downtown. Our Eugene Public Library staked the southwest corner for downtown that Lane Community College now has affirmed. The 5th Street Public Market, now buttressed with the Inn at the 5th, marks the northeast corner. Our population cannot support a larger expanse for its downtown core.

Since our river stopped being industrial, it has been recreational. Nobody goes to City Hall for fun.

Putting City Hall on the river would be good for a few people and bad for everybody else. The people who would like it are the people who spend a lot of time in City Hall. For all the rest of us, City Hall is like the high school principal’s office. We consider it was a good day if we didn’t have to go there.

EWEB built a beautiful building, but I hope its years blocking our view and access to our river soon will end. The site deserves a museum or a welcoming civic or commercial use. For most of us on most (good) days, City Hall is just an office building.

Yes, the EWEB building’s lobby is warm and inviting. I can hear a well-trained city employee calling to an entrant, “How can we help you today?” But the question must be answered. I hear the cheer drain when the response includes “restraining order,” “rabies shot,” or “permission to remodel my bathroom.”

City Hall should be easy to find, but also easy to avoid — not unlike those acquaintances we bump into only once a year. Cheers!

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