City Hall Dilemma: Standing For vs. Standing In The Way

Eugene’s City Hall has become a victim of its own successes. The city’s design competition in the late 1950s wanted a city hall that fit the community and fit the times. The winning design did both splendidly, bending the rules along the way.

As thoroughly modern as the building was in the early 1960s, that’s how out of step it has become with today’s design and culture zeitgeists. It’s a paisley-printed Nehru jacket of a building. Perfect for then; not so good for now.

Eugene’s proposed new City Hall will be radically more accessible to the public. Instead of red cedar slats surrounding the perimeter, the current design calls for as much glass as you would expect from an Apple Store. The new building will not be where secrets are kept. We now prefer the people’s work to be done in full view of the people.

Fifty years ago, we thought nothing of navigating a few stairs to gain entrance into a space. It was the age of sunken living rooms and split-level ranch houses. We were a young and ambitious people. We were going to the moon! A few stairs weren’t going to keep us back.

But something changed. (It always does.) We got older, slower, more sensitive.

Those few steps at the entrance of City Hall began to mean something different to us. We saw them as unfriendly, and then insensitive. We see them now as a barrier, akin to the posts standing sentry around City Hall’s perimeter. We prefer buildings that not only meet us at the street, but that purposely spill their energy onto the sidewalks around it.

John Stafford and his partners designed a building two generations ago that gave the city more than it asked for. It was celebrated for its inventiveness and authenticity, and deservedly so. The competition’s criteria called for a single story building at grade with the street. No one else seemed to notice that the terrain slopes downward as the block stretches south.

The competition did not require that the single story building be “at grade with the street” at every point — only at some point. Stafford bent the rules of the competition and provided nearly a full block of sunken parking beneath the building. It was deemed a brilliant bending of the rules.

Daylighting along the edges allowed light into the garage. That also looks different to us now. Architecture professor John Reynolds recently likened it to a moat surrounding the building. Perceptions have changed and the building has not adapted.

If you wonder why downtown and campus have suddenly boomed, the removal of steam heat has been the hidden force. Almost-free heating kept many older buildings economical for decades. A couple of years ago, that hidden subsidy for the status quo ended. Single-pane windows are less tenable when heat must be purchased at market rate.

Finally, City Hall’s location has become its largest liability. As buildings around it are popping up at four or five stories, its squat presence now seems a precocious waste of a full city block. It stands in the way of where we’re developing and how we’re developing.

Around and through it all, we prefer now what we call “complete streets,” with activity that encourages walking and biking. Our love affair with the automobile continues, but our fidelity to it does not.

A building with no viable street presence has become a barrier to our “return to the river.” Unfortunately for this building, that return is impeded by this relic of Kennedy-era romanticism. We don’t dislike what this building stood for — only what it’s standing in the way of.

The building itself has a charm worth preserving, like the one room in our house that still has shag carpeting. It reminds us of our youth. But it cannot stay where it is.

In this way, it’s the Skinner Butte cross controversy all over again. And we know how that controversy was finally resolved. If New Hope Christian College would like to move this wonderful building to its southwest hills campus, our problem would be solved.

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