Downtown Development Needs Intensive Care

Published Friday, Jan. 18, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

McKenzie-Willamette Hospital hoped that “speed to market” would give them an advantage. They believed funding and expertise from their corporate parent would enable them to open their doors at a new Eugene facility before Sacred Heart Medical Center accepted its first RiverBend patient. Now, with RiverBend’s opening only six months away, McKenzie-Willamette finds itself standing on its starter block instead of the award podium. Why?

Businesses want speed and certainty from local government. Eugene gives them neither. But it’s not that we don’t want to. It’s that we can’t. Our form of government and the culture that has grown around it is not built for the velocity that developing a small city requires.

We’ve talked for the past decade about density, focusing on its land use and lifestyle opportunities. But we have overlooked the intensity of competition that comes with dense urban living — for parking places, for corner tables at fancy restaurants, for talent, for funding. City life rewards the fast lane. Those who adapt quickest survive longest.

Our citizens prefer and expect government to be slow. Everybody gets their say. The pieces of a solution are assembled slowly and in full view. Whether it’s what we intend or not, we reward patience and inaction. The business activity that our system rewards most directly is speculation. If somebody is smart enough to anticipate which decisions government will make quickly and which ones will take forever, they will succeed in ways their competitors won’t.

Some roadblocks against speed and certainty are structural, built into the city manager form of government. Others are cultural. They may be the more difficult parts to change. City-paid attorneys have advised Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy that any site-specific statement she makes for McKenzie-Willamette Hospital could invite a reversal if opponents appeal the matter to the Land Use Board of Appeals.

Eugene’s city charter is clear, even if voters’ expectations of its mayor are not. The City Council (and the mayor) set policy for the city. Those policies are then implemented by city staff, under the direction of the city manager. But elected officials also play a quasi-judicial role for the city, ruling on zoning changes and conditional use permits. This would almost certainly include McKenzie-Willamette, so Mayor Piercy has been hesitant to champion any site-specific solution.

Whether it’s the charter that forbids our mayor from championing a site-specific location, or the interpretation of the charter by the staff, or the delicate line we draw between policy and implementation, the end result is that we have no prominent voice speaking loudly for a specific solution to McKenzie-Willamette’s dilemma.

That voice could be coming from city staff, but they’ve learned to keep their head down. When they have taken a stand, city councilors have accused them of meddling or grandstanding. Distrust has grown in the past decade. Now, wherever there’s an element of public input, staff hires consultants to facilitate a process, lest they be caught in some council crossfire.

Contrast that with McKenzie-Willamette. They have a “One Voice Policy,” referring all press inquiries to a single person. If you don’t think this is still a small town, consider this. Rosie Pryor was that “one voice” for seven years. She’s married to Chris Pryor, Eugene City Councilor for Ward 8. Last year, Debi Farr took her place. Her husband, former Eugene city councilor Pat Farr, may challenge Piercy’s reelection this spring.

If staff doesn’t trust council, and council doesn’t trust staff, the public doesn’t trust any of them. So what can be done?

Asking eight city councilors and a mayor to guide development may be asking too much. Now may be the opportune moment to bring back the Eugene Development Commission. To gain broad appeal across the political spectrum, I’ll suggest we add a Eugene-only twist on this page next week.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is a regular contributor to this page. He also writes for the Chamber of Commerce magazine, works for American Institute of Architects, edits the newsletter for City Club of Eugene. But he speaks with One Voice only for himself. Readers can voice their views on past and future columns, right here.