Eugene Street Planning Has Many Twists and Turns

When the Eugene City Council met on Monday, April 14, 2008, they took two notable actions. First, they welcomed their new city manager, Jon Ruiz, who had started earlier that day. They also approved the Crest Drive area street design as recommended by the Crest Drive Community Team, despite testimony from several citizens who were unhappy with it.

Those two actions intersected and collided this past Monday night, when the Eugene City Council voted to kill the proposed South Willamette Special Area Zone plan. Ruiz is still Eugene’s city manager, but his detractors — including at least one city councilor — have been emboldened by the plan’s failures.

One of this year’s crop of mayoral candidates wants to dismantle Eugene’s city manager form of government altogether. Scott Landfield believes full-time elected officials will make city staff more attuned to the citizenry.

The city manager’s duties haven’t changed in the last eight years, but the streets around Crest Drive sure have. The plan approved that evening is now fully built. I contacted a few people who had a hand in the crafting of that plan.

A former city employee recalled only how difficult the work was. Another confessed she remembered little, though she participated in the process, citing that it was “many moons ago.” Each asked that I not use their name. Acrimony lasts longer than planning debate details, which is why I’m steering us down Memory Lane today.

Memory Lane has fewer twists and turns than Crest Drive does today. It’s not hard to see why bicyclists avoid it and firefighters hope they can. Another longtime observer of south Eugene politics put it this way: “Crest Drive is no longer a street; it is a semi-private driveway for the immediate neighborhood.”

If you’re out walking your dog, it’s lovely and bucolic. But if you have to get anywhere in a hurry — or fear somebody else who might — it’s best to just stay away.

In the neighborhood’s defense, they toiled countless hours to design and compromise, and they agreed to be assessed to pay for some of the improvements they requested. Nevertheless, the streets in that neighborhood are now optimized for those who live on them, and less so for anyone who only uses those public streets regularly.

Behind the design was a process, and behind that process was a set of values. One of the highest values in play there was “preserving neighborhood character.” The term they used back in 2008 was “context-sensitive solution process,” but it meant the same thing: “protect what is,” and let others worry about what will be.

Like it or not, Crest Drive is our poster child for citizen-centered planning.

Planners are in this way similar to generals, always fighting the last war. Whatever mistakes were made last time, those are the ones they’re determined not to repeat. And so, the South Willamette Special Area Zone gave city professionals the heavy lifting. Citizen feedback would be an essential element, but balanced against the greater good for the entire city.

Everyone now agrees they overlearned that lesson. All the more reason that we reacquaint ourselves with where that lesson was learned — especially since it’s just a few blocks away, in the same part of town. We must learn lessons from both of these recent planning projects — the one that now won’t happen and the one that did.

Envision Eugene’s work product has been seven overarching community values, shared by all. They are intended to guide all our planning efforts. But those abstract platitudes won’t satisfy any homeowner who feels threatened by four stories of new apartment-dwellers blocking the sun for the backyard tomato patch.

It’s only natural that the homeowner will insist that the city find another solution or use that solution somewhere else. When one side has a tomato patch and the other has a spreadsheet, communication will almost always fail.

Who will mediate these inevitable conflicts between platitude and practice, abstract and tangible, whole and part? For that important piece of this essential community endeavor, we should rely on those who have knocked on our doors to gather our votes.

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