East Eugene’s Better, Wetter Downtown Vision

Published Friday, Feb. 29, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

Urban planning makes a great hobby, I’ve been told, for those with a hundred years to spare. Few of us have the patience (or the talent) to craft such a grand unifying vision. But we can all do our part and sometimes those parts can be rearranged into a more satisfying whole. Here’s one attempt, just to get you started.

We’re thinking hard about how we welcome visitors, as we prepare for the Eugene ‘08 Olympic Trials this summer. But when was the last time you drove into downtown and saw the city as a newcomer would? We’ve done so little for so long to announce ourselves to newcomers that City Councilor Alan Zelenka has wondered aloud whether the venerable wooden sign that welcomes visitors from the east along Franklin Boulevard might have to be categorized as “old-growth signage.”

Roundabouts have captured the imagination of traffic engineers because they reduce automobile idling, handle surprisingly large volumes of traffic, and become placemaking opportunities on both the center and surrounding lands. Springfield officials have proposed roundabouts at both ends of Glenwood, marking transitions. Given adequate land and design, a roundabout can function as both a destination and a gateway, inviting attention toward the center and then dispersing it around the circle.

The overlooked solution to an intractable problem sometimes involves subtraction, not addition. For a generation, Eugene has been in a collective quandary about how to “return to the river” from downtown. Growing downtown eastward seems to offer the best opportunity, especially since Agripac closed, the Wayne Morse Federal Courthouse was built, and EWEB began making preparations to vacate some of its riverfront acreage. But the Ferry Street viaduct stands between downtown and the riverfront as a huge barrier. Four lanes of traffic obstruct access and even a visual connection. What if we removed it? Traffic is currently routed over the railroad line, but taking the traffic beneath the railroad could be done instead, adding four city blocks of developable land stock, where elevated exit ramps now stand. But don’t tear out these tons of concrete and stop at ground level; keep going down and expose our historic mill race at the same time.

A well-designed mill race, drawing from our past but also pointing forward, will give Eugene something it desperately needs: waterfront development opportunities that won’t rankle environmentalists. Since any mill race is by definition part of the built environment, the habitat of humans needn’t be compromised. People love to do things near water. They love to shop, stroll, dine, jog, wander, and fall in love with moonlight rippling across gentle waves of water. The better we develop a new-and-improved mill race for the masses, the easier it will be to preserve riparian riverfront habitats for the non-human species among us.

Plans for a new Eugene City Hall continue apace, but they have failed to capture the imagination of regular citizens. Do we want a conversation focused on cold-hearted calculations about seismic improvements that protect first responders and economic efficiencies that come from modern design and consolidation? Or do we want to romanticize about a city hall we can be proud of, a paradigm of green construction and a testament to open government and collaborative leadership? We want both.

Now let’s mash these problems all together, hoping to discover a singular unifying solution. A mill race extension from campus along Franklin Boulevard crosses into downtown near Broadway and Ferry Street, beside a roundabout and beneath a new city hall that doubles as a gateway to downtown. The waterway then pivots north toward EWEB headquarters, anchoring a linear park. The newly discovered open space provides a magnet for development, erasing memories of the viaduct that separated downtown from the riverfront, before emptying itself at a riverfront park. There we proclaim that every habitat deserves enough water in this better, wetter downtown design.

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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 only his own. Readers can join the conversation at his blog, right here.