Downtown Eugene: Up, Up, or Away

The Eugene City Council exempted Brian Obie’s planned Gordon Hotel from current building height and signage limitations, two days before taking their summer recess. Something very similar happened almost exactly 50 years ago. Eugene’s profile for the next 50 years is being determined right now.

Eugene City Councilor Dick Eymann missed a summer council meeting in the mid-1960s. His vote would have prevented Ya Po Ah Terrace from being built in its current location. I’ve heard it said that later in life, he thought of that absence as the vote he most regretted not making.

Eugene’s building height restrictions citywide were a response to that vote, with special attention being given to the viewshed of Skinner Butte. The height restriction hasn’t been consequential for decades, because the economics for building tall only kick in when land prices become exorbitant.

In a coincidence of timing, Ya Po Ah Terrace announced this summer a $58 million renovation plan. This was announced while Eugene City Council was contemplating whether to allow another downtown project that will end up being almost as tall. Maybe it’s only during Eugene’s rainless summer months that its leaders dare to look up.

Whatever you think about Ya Po Ah Terrace’s design and location, it’s not going away. Downtown Eugene has made peace with it, and its Christmastime roofline has become surprisingly beloved. Notably, the University of Oregon’s only remarkably tall building, Prince Lucien Campbell Hall, was built the same year. Both buildings opened in 1968.

Looking back 50 years should motivate us to also look ahead the same distance. The year 2068 feels a long way off, but in Eugene’s history of building “very high places,” we’re halfway there. How can we embrace that future today? It’s a tall order.

Councilors wrestled with granting Obie, a former Eugene mayor, an exemption from height restrictions that have been in place for decades — before voting unanimously to approve. Political favoritism is not a good look for Eugene.

Any concern about giving special treatment to a well connected town leader can be assuaged. Council could and should simply raise the height limits for future projects, or remove most of the restrictions altogether — while still protecting views of Skinner Butte. The Gordon Hotel will then have received special treatment only for a few months.

As land prices rise, buildings grow taller. If it helps, think of the relevant economics as organic. Like it or not, Eugene will have to grow up in the decades ahead — literally, up — if we hope to preserve the forests and farmland just beyond our borders. Compact urban growth eventually requires height.

Height is the dimension of ambition. (Who among us hasn’t at one time or another wished we were taller?) Girth, on the other hand, signifies satisfaction. Ponder that.

Eugene has been peculiarly self-satisfied for 50 years. Curmudgeon architect Otto Poticha claims that Eugene’s unofficial motto is, “It’s good enough.” But that was before Williams/Dame came to town to build up our riverfront, before Phil Knight and the university began investing a billion dollars into applied science acceleration, before Vin Lananna and Nike landed the 2021 Track World Championships. And before Obie began designing his 100-year legacy project along 6th Avenue.

Height is inspiring. There’s a reason it’s called “being looked up to.” As Eugene finds its place at the center of eastern Lane County, standing tall benefits others. Surrounding towns look up to us. The region’s economic fortunes rely on Eugene’s visibility. Exploring vacationers or expanding employers will always have many choices — we want to stand out. If we’re tall, others will be able to pick us out of a crowd.

We can stop regretting decisions made in 1968. Maybe they weren’t good or bad — just too soon. It’s taken us 50 years to grow into our taller skin, but now we have. We can feel good about that.

We’ve been proclaiming for ourselves something well beyond self-satisfaction every winter for decades. People smiled at what was undoubtedly our most ambitious aspiration. Ambition — like height — can be captivating when it seems unlimited. Let’s aim high. Let’s have “Peace On Earth.”

==

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