Downtown’s Invisible Subsidy

Eugene has two pressing needs for its built environment. One is private; one is public. The goals for each are so simple, you can write them on your hands.

Downtown needs a major shot in the arm. It needs a big-time fix. (If that sounds like drug slang, you’ve probably heard worse walking downtown.) But we’re picky about what sort of development we want bringing people downtown. Our requirements can be ticked off as quickly as a struggling downtown retailer. Write them down, the way high schoolers remind themselves of homework assignments.

1. No cookie-cutter projects. They seldom work in Eugene for one simple reason: we don’t want them to. The tried-and-true may work everywhere else, but we prefer a “who’d-a-thunk-it” attempt to any off-the-shelf success.

2. Public subsidies — whether for parking structures or tax credits or expedited plan review — must return immediate and direct public benefit.

3. Private developers must understand the city’s coffers are not exactly full-to-overflowing. Every day our leaders pray an earthquake doesn’t create one of those preventable-but-expensive Katrina disasters, with the police stuck in the basement of a creaky City Hall. Replacing City Hall won’t be cheap.

This brings us to the public project that’s on its own rocky road to consensus: a new City Hall. This project’s values were specifically approved by the Eugene City Council in November, 2005. You can write these on your other hand.

1. Exercise fiscal responsibility.
2. Produce government efficiency.
3. Be user-friendly.
4. Embody environmental stewardship.
5. Enhance downtown.
6. Inspire civic pride.
7. Maximize use of City Hall public spaces by the public and access to government and its representatives.
8. Strive for simplicity.
9. Plan for the future.

That’s the entire list of what councilors said they wanted from the new City Hall, wherever and however and whenever it’s built. When the price tag came in at about $100 million, the project was put on the back burner.

Do you have both lists written on your hands, private on the left, public on the right? OK, now put the two lists together. Again. Harder. Faster. Louder. One hand clapping may be the sound of wisdom, but when you hear two hands clapping, something’s just plain good.

Combine the two projects into one. Bring back the concept of a retail-entertainment-housing project on the south side of Broadway between Willamette and Olive Streets, but add a layer of commercial space in between. Give the developer a guaranteed office tenant filling the entire second floor: our new City Hall.

Not only will this bring daytime customers to the retail and restaurants beneath them, but it will provide a buffer of commercial space for the residential spaces above. And it will give an ambitious downtown development guaranteed cash flow from the git-go.

Our City Hall’s ground-floor presence could be nothing but a lobby and an escalator. Review the lists on your hands. What marble-and-glass civic structure could be as simple, as efficient, as forward-looking, and as user-friendly? Citizens catch a romantic movie and pick up a marriage certificate without moving their car. Dog tags upstairs, dog grooming downstairs. Death certificates above florists. Most importantly, people could believe that government doesn’t exist at all if that suited them best.

Our city government would move beyond transparency to invisibility.

Years ago, the Department of Motor Vehicles, in a fit of common sense, rented a small space at Valley River Center, allowing people to do motor vehicle transactions along with their regular shopping. Isn’t that what government represents to most of us — one more errand to be run?
Imagine being able to stroll from the Centre Court Building to the Atrium Building, handling all your city business without ever going outside.

Any public subsidies requested by the developers would now have immediate, direct and dramatic payback for the public. The old City Hall can be preserved for a higher use that befits its heritage: offices for nonprofit organizations all around and a public theater space in the center, specializing in comedy and melodrama.

Can the public and private help each other? Can we afford the right hand not caring what the left hand is doing? What other choice is there? Wash our hands of both needs?

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is executive director for the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, but these views are entirely his own. He writes for The Register-Guard each Friday. A previous (unpublished) version of this essay can be found elsewhere on this blog.