Downtown Solutions Disappoint; Here’s What Will Work

The 90-page report prepared by Project for Public Spaces was expertly presented to the Eugene City Council last week. The takeaway was that Eugene’s downtown is in crisis. At least that’s the news picked up by Oregon Public Broadcasting, Bend Bulletin, Seattle Times, Washington Times, and U.S. News & World Report.

The report’s suggested solutions have garnered much less attention. That’s for good reason, because they are wholly unoriginal. What the New York City consultants gave to our city council last week amounted to a paint-by-numbers picture of a bright and cheery downtown in Anyplace, USA.

Dedicate one place for amphitheater-style entertainment with lawn seating! Line another area with food trucks and a sidewalk cafe! Make a third area attractive for children and young families! Use a fourth area for yoga classes — bright and cheery people love yoga! Etcetera.

They didn’t suggest how to make it stop raining for most of the year, but they effused that these concepts have worked well in other places. On that latter point, I have no doubt. It would be worth a search to see how often the same solutions have been presented to other cities by this same group.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the part of their report that has been repeated by others, and by ourselves, was the part that sounded like this: “We’ve been all around the country and we’ve never seen anything like this.” So why then would the solutions that have worked elsewhere be considered sufficient?

We love to consider ourselves unique, but we’re not often forced to detail exactly how. I try to do that on a regular basis here, on your behalf. My starting point is usually the four-way stop at Kesey Square. It’s my favorite emblem of our unique blend of big-city choices, built around small-town friendliness.

Stop signs don’t work well when people are in a hurry or don’t often make eye contact. But we’re not and we do. We not only exchange glances at intersections, we habitually nod and smile at one another.

Unfortunately, that’s part of our problem with downtown. We’re not used to avoiding eye contact, so we resent the urge to avert our gaze to avoid an unpleasant confrontation. If we can’t be friendly for a two-block stroll, that seems wrong to us. And that’s what right about us.

I’ve written about how our friendliness contributes to our problem. You can read it here: http://www.dksez.com/travelers-prompt-eugene-to-dig-deeper/

Most of the consultant’s findings were based on two thousand people taking a 10-question survey. None of the questions asked what should be done. Or, more to the point, what would the interviewees be willing to do? Had they asked, the consultants might have said, “We’ve never heard anything like this.” It’s almost as if Project for Public Spaces knew what remedies they would be suggesting before they asked us to describe our problem.

We need a solution that’s out of the box, but not off the shelf.

So here’s a very low-cost plan that ripples friendliness from that four-way stop. For the cost of a quick trip to the corner copy shop, Eugene could put troublemakers on notice. It would be our uniquely Eugene version of “If you see something, say something.”

Mount on each street light and waste can a laminated sign, urging anyone to use their phone to share downtown Eugene’s best and worst behaviors, using hashtags for each. Police could monitor or reference photos, videos or texts that include #DTEBad. Merchants and supporters could follow #DTEGood and give prizes each week for the best.

Crimes between strangers have declined nationwide for the last decade. Experts can’t explain why crime didn’t increase during economic hardship, as it always did before. Cell-phone cameras have made the difference, because “being caught” has a new meaning. Is that lady’s pocketbook worth becoming a Facebook sensation, thanks to what’s inside somebody’s bag or pocket across the street?

Being watched is not what some people want. It’s time we give it to them.

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