Economic Development is Catching up to Malsin’s Vision

I was wrong.

Four years ago, the blight that had been downtown Eugene began to attract interest from developers. Some insisted that nothing be done, because everything was really just fine. A tango center and our “bar-muda triangle” provided enough downtown activity.

Others, including me, supported an ambitious project by Portland-based KWG Partnership, an offshoot of Opus Northwest. Tom Kemper and his partners promised a “lifestyle center” with some large national retailers and a movie theater. A middle choice emerged — renovate the Centre Court Building and hope momentum brings other projects forward.

The city of Eugene helped Beam Development purchase the Centre Court Building and crews started restoring it to a grandeur that peaked more than half a century ago. It progressed slowly, but it has proved to be the right choice.

Since then, Lane Community College has begun to realize its most ambitious vision for a downtown campus, filling the Sears pit and then some. Rob Bennett is building offices on Willamette Street, filling downtown’s other notorious pit. Steve Master plans to build loft apartments above what once was a Taco Time.

Bit by bit, the pieces are falling into place. Slow and steady carried the day.

I called Beam CEO Brad Malsin to admit that I was wrong. He chuckled, “Well, you weren’t 100 percent wrong. We were always going to renovate the Centre Court Building, even if the Opus Northwest people had gotten their project approved.”

The tortoise mused on the fate of the hare, as Malsin continued. “Our integers are smaller. But we’re always focused on the long-term. We don’t develop lifestyle centers. We’re in the business of community development. That’s the heart and soul of what we do.”

He paused for a moment, as if allowing history to catch up to his vision. “Americans are waking up, realizing that they’ve been looking to large corporations. But that’s not where they’ll find what they really want: authenticity, ownership, dedication. I’ll be 60 years old in January. I’m not piling up money. I want to leave a legacy. I want my kids to know what I stand for.”

Last weekend, two dozen architects and their support staff settled into the third floor of Centre Court, renamed the Broadway Commerce Center. Like hamsters rearranging their shavings, a small army of “young creatives” are nestling into downtown’s new centerpiece.

Scott Clarke, an associate at PIVOT Architecture, managed the project on behalf of his bosses and cohorts. The space has been designed to optimize the work they do, while also exhibiting the firm’s values. Work stations are open, naturally lit, collaborative. Edges are clearly defined but supple.

The place where they are is not hidden, but highlighted. Clarke pulled his iPhone to show me pictures. Saturday night’s jack-o-lantern festivities illuminated the public square below. Clarke marveled at the glow of candlelight and crowds: “It could have been Paris!”

Well, that might be a bit of an overstatement, but you have to love the enthusiasm. Somehow, I don’t think a downtown outlet for Linens ‘n Things would have evoked that sort of sparkle.

Beam is busy trying to fill the rest of the building now. The work is far from done, but momentum is undeniable. And we didn’t have to scrape another block of downtown to make it happen. Sometimes I’m glad to be wrong.

Beam does most of its work in Portland, but Malsin loves Eugene: “I’ve heard people say that Eugene is more Portland than Portland. I agree.”

The Portland Development Commission this week gave Beam a project Malsin’s wanted for six years. Burnside Bridgehead will incorporate the area’s gritty past and provide an “attainable” live-work environment for young creatives who are just starting out.

Attainable is the new sustainable.

Economic development has shifted its focus from attracting merchants to cultivating employers and entrepreneurs. If Beam’s project brings jobs, PDC loans may be forgiven.

PDC is making up for lost time on the Burnside Bridgehead project. In 2005, they passed over Beam’s plan for a live-work business incubator in favor of a “lifestyle center” to be built by Opus Northwest. Opus Northwest’s fortunes stalled when the recession hit in 2008. Last year they went out of business.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs. He’s also the executive director for the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.