EWEB Riverfront Park Plan Answers What, But Not Why

The Portland-based landscape architecture firm Walker Macy has all the skill and experience necessary to design a wonderful riverfront park for Eugene, but they haven’t been given that opportunity. Only if they exceed the scope of work delineated by the city of Eugene will they ensure the project’s success.

Everyone should agree that the planning work for the park is not complete. Given the prominence and proximity of the project, the firm may agree to continue their work for no additional fees. Eugene is in their neighborhood, after all, and the EWEB riverfront park will not be the last large project of its kind contemplated in our area.

Walker Macy was paid approximately $650,000 for their work so far. The firm developed three different assemblages of park features and presented them for the public’s consideration. Would the public prefer winding paths, an urban amphitheater, or river terraces?

In what should have surprised no one, the conceptual design announced this week includes features from all three alternatives. It’s one thing to produce a laundry list. It’s another thing to do the laundry. Most would agree it’s best to just get it done, all of it — a list is never anything more than a delay.

Will everything that the public wants fit onto the four-acre parcel that has been set aside? The answer is no. Will anyone take responsibility for the mess that may result from a something-for-everyone cacophony? Unfortunately, the answer is again probably “no.”

Those who have not been trained in the discipline confuse design with decoration. Decoration is fundamentally additive. What can be added to make something look and seem better? Lipstick may momentarily distract us, but it won’t change the animal’s swinish essence.

Design, on the other hand, reaches beauty not by exertion but discernment. Beauty is not created; it is uncovered. Architect Louis Kahn put it this way: “Design is not making beauty, beauty emerges from selection, affinities, integration, love.” Michelangelo employed subtractive carving to form his sculptures, removing everything that was not essential, allowing his subject’s universal essence to emerge.

We know plenty about what may constitute’s these acres’ essence, what could make it a place. So far, we have only another assemblage, another list of laundry — some of it less than clean. Eugene Skinner ran his ferry from here. The village’s first African Americans lived in the vicinity. We generated our power here. It sits between downtown and the university. It also sits atop some of our less enlightened practices for habitats beside our own. The river’s majesty may have been bent here, but never bowed.

Much more can be said, and some of it must be said. The land will speak if the people do not. The landscape architects will not be our leaders, but they can point us toward a direction we all will recognize as forward. It may be too late to ask Walker Macy to do that work, but it’s not too late for them to offer.

Even if Walker Macy steps up, more local leadership must emerge if the final design has any hope of enduring beyond our memory. Isn’t that the point? The mayor or city administrators may have to gather some local expertise to bring the project over the finish line.

Walker Macy was contracted to ask the wrong question. What will we love in our newest downtown park? That question shouldn’t be asked — much less answered — before the community wrestles with a more fundamental question: Why?

Why should Eugene have a park in this spot? How will this place offer more affinities, deeper integration, and a more enduring love? What selections must be made to coax its beauty to emerge?

Answering these fundamental questions will redound to the nourishment of future generations. Skipping those questions because they are too hard or too vague will risk our grandchildren’s harsh apathy. If the place we sculpt there does not tell a cogent story, others won’t remember it. Or us.

We must do the work now so that this park can outlast us. We will not have another chance to get this right.

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