City Hall: the Way Forward is Up

Eugene City Council met for the last time this week in their iconic round chamber. City Hall will be emptied in the next few weeks, as EWEB prepares to shut off the steam heat system that has served this and many other downtown buildings. City services will be strewn across central Eugene for the next several years, while a vision for a new City Hall takes shape.

The city enlisted two local architecture firms to craft two different visions for what will replace the current City Hall. One vision scrapes the site and starts over. The other retains some of the current structure in what’s being called “selective demolition.”

I hope our next City Hall honors the last one and perpetuates at least one aspect of the 1960 design — its audacity.

Eugene hosted a design competition in 1960, and then awarded the contract to local architect John Stafford. It received national attention and numerous design awards. But understanding the building requires understanding who we were back then.

Fortunately, there’s a time capsule. In 1954, an ad hoc group of architects partnered with other civic leaders to produce a four-page insert in The Register-Guard, where they set forth a vision for the community with civic service at its center.

Here are a few quotes taken directly from that 1954 newspaper insert:

  • “Fifty years ago, the automobile was a gadget. … Fifty years from now, the automobile may be obsolete. But it’s not safe to go on that assumption.”
    “The plan is an opportunity for governments to work together in establishing a compact, unified center to better serve the people of Lane County.”“There is some difference of opinion as to the condition of [the current] City Hall [at 11th & Willamette], which is 51 years old. Yet, again and again, the city hall comes up when lists of local ‘firetraps’ are compiled. Builders shudder as they examine it and point out that its old pillars rest on the ground.”
  • We may or may not know better today whether Stafford’s design 50 years ago deserved the national accolades it received. But we can agree on this. It set a marker for our community, and the community followed.

We look at it now and we’re chagrined at its squat, centripetal design. It moves energy toward its center, and shields that energy from the street. Today we say it “turns its back” on the public realm, while gratuitously consuming a full city block. All of that was intentional, and celebrated at the time.

Eugene was ready to spread out. Our civic center declared it.

Today, we see the world differently. We certainly view government differently. We expect transparency from our leaders now, but we still want them to mark the way to our shared future. City Hall can declare our future before it’s been achieved. It did and it will.

We’ve had the conversation about what direction we’re headed as a community for the next 50 years. Our new City Hall should move us in that direction.

Up.

We know we must use our land more efficiently. Compact urban growth requires a new model for downtown buildings that will be taller. We’re learning to save space on the ground, leaving more room for public use. A taller City Hall will allow plenty of space on that block for midday picnics, casual commerce, or public protests.

Downtown parcels are not yet so expensive that height is an economic necessity, but soon they will be. A new City Hall design should point the way. The city should host a new design competition, putting a premium on transparency, openness, and especially height.

Start with the council chambers, where we gather to discuss — sometimes endlessly — the issues of the day. Let’s keep round and add tall. Raze the structures to the south, so the space is less protected from the public and captures the sunlight.

Transform it into a beacon of glass and light for downtown Eugene. Gather its round footprint to a tall point. I think of it as a Cone of No Silence. That would honor the site’s roots in the 1960s and point our way forward to the 2060s.

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